Several of the United Nations’ top human rights experts have publicly urged Qatar to release a local poet convicted of inciting the overthrow of the government.
The call comes two years after Qatar’s highest court upheld a 15-year prison sentence against Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami.
On the eve of the Court of Cassation’s verdict anniversary, three UN special rapporteurs issued a statement that called his trial flawed and incompatible with international human rights norms that protect freedom of expression.
“The penalty imposed on Mr. al-Ajami is disproportionate and amounts to political censorship to art and expression,” stated Farida Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on cultural rights.
Despite the arrest of several foreign journalists and ongoing censorship of imported books and magazines, there have been few known detentions in Qatar similar to al-Ajami’s case, in which individuals charged for publishing material are deemed a threat by authorities.
But since al-Ajami’s trial ended, the government has passed a vaguely worded cybercrime law that makes it illegal to violate Qatar’s “social values or principles” online.
Despite the new legislation and al-Ajami’s ongoing incarceration, Qatar Culture Minister Hamad Bin Abdulaziz Al Kuwari said earlier this year that critics are welcome in the country and that the only off-limit topics are those that offend Islamic values.
‘He did not do anything wrong’
The case against al-Ajami – who goes by the name Mohammed Ibn Al-Dheeb in his poetry – stems from a 2010 incident in Cairo, when he was studying Arabic literature with a group of friends.
Al-Ajami was allegedly approached by another Qatari poet named Khalil al-Shabrami, who provoked him into presenting a poem indirectly critical of this country’s ruling family.
That exchange was recorded and subsequently posted on YouTube.
Qatar authorities arrested al-Ajami in November 2011 and charged him with “inciting to overthrow the regime” and “insulting the Emir.”
He was initially sentenced to life in prison, but had his term reduced to 15 years in February 2013 by Qatar’s Court of Appeals.
Al-Ajami’s lawyer, former justice minister Najeeb al-Nauimi, has repeatedly said there is no evidence to support the charges.
“He did not insult anyone,” he told Doha News today. “He did not do anything wrong.”
Al-Nauimi said he’s not optimistic that al-Ajami will be pardoned and that the poet’s family told him al-Ajami went on a hunger strike earlier this year. He said he did not know what prompted the protest or how long it lasted, but said the issue has since been resolved.
In 2013, al-Nauimi said there were several problems with the prosecution’s case, namely the suggestion that al-Ajami read his poem in public. That distinction is important because it’s required to support a charge of inciting the overthrow of the government.
Al-Ajami’s supporters have argued said the poet’s remarks were made during a private gathering and posted on YouTube without his knowledge.
At the time of the Court of Cassation hearing, al-Nauimi said there was no evidence that the poem was presented in public other than an uncorroborated confession al-Ajami signed following two hours of interrogations without the presence of a lawyer.
While the UN special rapporteurs said there are signs al-Ajami did not receive a fair trial, they also argued that he should have never been arrested in the first place.
“The simple fact that a poem was considered to be insulting is insufficient to justify the imposition of penalties,” stated David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression. “Laws restricting the right to freedom of expression must never be used as tools for silencing the criticism of authorities and promoting political censorship.”
This is the second time the UN has raised al-Ajami’s case with Qatar and follows a December 2012 letter, sent after the initial life sentence was issued, that asked government officials to justify their actions.
In its response, Khalid bin Jassim Al-Thani – the human rights bureau director at Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – defended the government’s handling of the case:
“His trial was conducted in accordance with international standards,” Al-Thani wrote, adding the conviction was based on the court’s “free conviction and the legitimate evidence presented before it.”
A UN spokesperson said the Qatar government had not responded to the international organization’s most recent letter, which was sent to the Gulf state several days before it was publicly released.