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Friday, January 21, 2022

Lawyer: Qatari poet sentenced to life in prison is ‘Gulf’s Mandela’



Despite being sentenced to life in prison in absentia last week, Qatari poet Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami remains upbeat and will fight the ruling, his lawyer has told Doha News.

Today was Najeeb al-Nuaimi’s first meeting with Al-Ajami since he was given the life sentence on Thursday for “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime” with his poetry.

Al-Nuaimi, who is only allowed to visit his client on Mondays, said he confirmed the sentence to Al-Ajami, who was not permitted in court and learned of the verdict from other prison inmates.

After visiting al-Ajami at the Qatar Central Prison, his lawyer said:

“He’s not defeated by this wrong miscarriage of justice by the court.  He said ‘I’m not feeling down at all, I’m OK.’

This sentence has made Mohammad an international figure… he’s going to be the Gulf’s Mandela. He’s a poet, he can publish a lot of things about living on the inside.”

Al-Ajami, who uses the name Ibn Al-Dheeb for his poetry, was arrested in November 2011 after his “Jasmine Poem” was shared on YouTube. He recited the poem at private gathering in Cairo and says it was recorded and published without his knowledge or consent.

In the poem, about Tunisia’s revolution, he criticizes Arab rulers, saying “we are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elite.” Al-Ajami was eventually charged with “insulting the Emir” and “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime.”

His lawyer Al-Nuaimi, who once served as Qatar’s justice minister, said an application for appeal will be filed tomorrow outlining numerous irregularities in al-Ajami’s case, including:

  1. Not charging al-Ajami within the first six months of his arrest;
  2. Moving al-Ajami from detention to the Central Prison after eight days without possibility of bail, and keeping him in extended solitary confinement;
  3. Appointing the investigating judge to oversee court hearings, despite clear animosity between the judge and the defendant and against Qatar’s judicial laws;
  4. Holding court hearings in secret, without Al-Nuami and Al-Ajami being permitted to attend, and disallowing a verbal defense; and
  5. Tampering with court transcripts to make it appear that Ibn Al-Dheeb admitted to reciting his poem in public.

Lex Paulson, an international observer involved in Al-Ajami’s case who was present at the courthouse on Thursday, told Doha News that Qatar’s prosecutor denied most of the irregularities when confronted with them.

He added that during the trial, two poetry experts from the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage offered identical testimony, confirming that in their interpretation, Al-Ajami’s poems called for the overthrow of the regime.

International reaction

Al-Ajami’s sentencing has drawn fire from international human rights groups, who had over the past few months stepped up calls for the poet’s release.

“It is deplorable that Qatar, which likes to paint itself internationally as a country that promotes freedom of expression, is indulging in what appears to be such a flagrant abuse of that right,” Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director, said in a statement.

UPDATE | Dec. 4, 12:21pm

Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), offers a comparable condemnation today:

“Qatar, after all its posturing as a supporter of freedom, turns out to be determined to keep its citizens quiet.

“Ibn al-Dheeb’s alleged mockery of Qatar’s rulers can hardly compare to the mockery this judgment makes of the country’s posture as a regional center for media freedom.”

The statement by HRW adds that Al-Ajami engaged in poetic “duels” with fellow Qatari poet Khalil al-Shabrami multiple times in 2010, and is alleged to have insulted the Emir and other members of the ruling family during these sessions. 

In Qatar, reaction from the local community has been fairly muted, with no apparent mention of it in local newspapers. Doha-headquartered Al Jazeera English reported the sentencing on its website two days after it happened, and the Doha Centre for Media Freedom has thus far abstained from comment.

Lawyer Al-Nuaimi says Al Jazeera and Qatari society in general are afraid to talk about Al-Ajami’s case now, thinking they could be next. He adds that al-Ajami is being lauded for his bravery:

“Human rights groups are now going to submit his name for the Nobel Prize. He is the first free man who said a poem for the Arab uprising and has been arrested for life.”


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