Free speech advocates in London and Washington, DC are planning small demonstrations today outside Qatar’s embassies in the UK and US, calling for the release of poet Mohammed Rashid Al-Ajami from prison.
The protests, which will take place at 1pm local time in both cities (4pm and 9pm in Qatar), come on the third anniversary of Qatar’s Court of Appeal decision to reduce the sentence of Al-Ajami from life imprisonment to 15 years behind bars.
“We don’t want to let this case disappear,” Amnesty International researcher Drewery Dyke told Doha News today. “He is still in jail, unjustly. It’s incumbent on us … (to) keep talking about this issue.”
The case against Al-Ajami – who goes by the name Mohammed Ibn Al-Dheeb in his poetry – stems from a 2010 incident in Cairo.
The Qatari was studying Arabic literature with a group of friends when he was allegedly approached by a fellow Qatari poet, Khalil al-Shabrami, who challenged him to read a poem that was indirectly critical of the Gulf state’s ruling family.
The incident was recorded and posted on YouTube, which is believed to have led to Qatari authorities arresting Al-Ajami in November 2011 and charging him with “inciting to overthrow the regime” and “insulting the Emir.”
Al-Ajami’s lawyer, former justice minister Najeeb Al Nauimi, has consistently argued that there is no evidence to support the charges.
He previously told Doha News that Al-Ajami did not insult anyone or do anything wrong.
Furthermore, Al Nauimi has argued his client did not give consent for the video to be shared online or recite his poem publicly – a requirement to support a charge of inciting the overthrow of the government.
Organizers of today’s protest – which includes freedom of expression advocates English PEN and other groups – said they hope to deliver a petition with several thousand signatures calling for Al-Ajami’s release.
Dyke said Qatar has been expanding its ranks of foreign service officers in recent years.
Today’s protest, he said, is an opportunity to raise awareness of the specific case, and human rights generally, among Qatar’s younger generation of diplomats.
“This is an open wound that is recognized internationally, even if it is rejected locally,” Dyke said.
Last year, three of the United Nations’ top human rights experts issued a joint call for al-Ajami’s release, calling his trial flawed and incompatible with international human rights norms.
His sentence “is disproportionate and amounts to political censorship to art and expression,” stated Farida Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on cultural rights.
Dyke said neither the Qatar government or the country’s National Human Rights Committee have replied to Amnesty’s previous attempts to raise the case.
He said he’s hoping 20 to 30 people will turn out for today’s demonstration in London.