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Free Speech in Qatar: "You Can't Talk Everythings"

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(Article changed on December 12, 2012 at 09:42)


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   By William Boardman Email address removed"> Email address removed  


Qatari poet Mohammed ai-Ajami
(Image by middle east online)
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Life in prison may seem a harsh sentence for reciting a poem out loud, but it's apparently what state security demands in Doha, Qatar, where a secret court delivered this sentence at the end of a short, secret trial in a state security case tried there in November. 

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Muhammed ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, 37, a Qatari poet with a wife and child, was studying literature at Cairo University when the Tunisian revolution broke out in December 2010.  Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, al-Ajami wrote a short poem, "Tunisian Jasmine" [see below], celebrating the overthrow of repressive elites.  He recited the poem to private audiences and the audio of at least one such  performance appeared on YouTube, but al-Ajami says he didn't post it, and doesn't know who did.  

Qatari authorities took notice of the performance and, some months later, in November 2011, they arrested al-Ajami and held him in solitary confinement for most of a year before bringing him to trial.  There is no allegation that he was otherwise tortured.  The state charged the poet with "insulting" Qatar's ruling emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, as well as  "inciting to overthrow the ruling system," an offense that carries the death penalty. 

Al Ajami's 2011 poem "Tunisian Jasmine" mentions no other country and does not name the Qatari emir or any other ruler.  There is a report that the secret charges against al-Ajami also include a poem he wrote in 2010 that does criticize the emir. 

   Hereditary Monarch Seeks Progressive Veneer 

Sheikh Al Thani, 60, came to power as emir in 1995 when, as Minister of Defense, he led a bloodless military coup that deposed his father who was then in Switzerland, and who lived in exile until 2004 (when he returned at 72). Despite his dictatorial powers, Sheikh Al Thani is "considered to be progressive among leaders of  Muslim countries . In a break with the traditional role, his second wife Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned  [53] has been a visible advocate for education and children's causes."  She has two daughters and five sons, one of whom is friends with the poet al-Ajami.   

According to al-Ajami's lawyer, Najeeb al-Nuaimi, state security called the poet in the fall of 2011 and asked him to report to the police.  When he asked why, he was told just to report.  Then he called his friend, the emir's son, who assured him the police just wanted him for routine registration.  So he went, and they questioned him about his poetry, and arrested him.    

Contacted immediately to represent al-Ajami, the lawyer al-Nuaimi was baffled by the behavior of the state:

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"I thought, "How come?'  We never had in the history of our judicial system, or even the Arab system, somebody will be arrested because he said a poem. How many poets in our Arab history attacked the ruler, attacked everybody? I mean, even in ancient Islamic time, "  nobody hanged them. They gave them money to shut their mouth. That's the way".  But why him? They said, "I don't know.'  So I felt something unique in this case, something unbelievable, to have somebody to be arrested for a poem. 

During the trial, al-Nuaimi was barred from taking part in person, but was allowed to submit arguments in writing.  On November 29, the court sentenced al-Ajami to life in prison.   He was not present.  His lawyer expressed outrage: 

"Our system gives people freedom to express themselves".  Everybody is equal and has to have their rights. This sentence blows out our constitution and infringes on our legal system."

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