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Qatar poet gets life for inciting revolt

Al Ajami convicted of criticising Emir

Gulf News

Doha: A court in Qatar jailed a poet for life on Thursday for criticising the Emir and inciting revolt.

In his verses, Mohammad Bin Al Dheeb Al Ajami praised the Arab Spring revolts that toppled four dictators.

But he also criticised Qatar Emir.

“This is a tremendous miscarriage of justice,” said defence lawyer Nagib Al Nuaimi, who conveyed the sentence and verdict to Reuters outside the closed-door courtroom in Doha.

At the prison where he has been held without family visits for almost a year, Al Ajami, 36, later told Reuters he believed the Emir, Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, to be “a good man”.

Lawyer Al Nuaimi said the defence would appeal. A royal pardon may also be a possibility.

Al Ajami was not himself allowed in court and Al Nuaimi said the defence was barred from making oral arguments, although he contested the prosecution case that Al Ajami called for revolution in Qatar — an offence which carries the death penalty.

Amnesty International described Al Ajami’s arrest in November 2011 as coming after he published a poem called “Jasmine” — the symbol of the Tunisian uprising of January last year which launched the Arab Spring. In a broad criticism, he had written: “We are all Tunisia, in the face of the repressive elite.”

Al Ajami “did not encourage the overthrow of any specific regime”, Al Nuaimi said, describing the charges as having been “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime”, a capital offence, and criticising the ruler, which is punishable by up to five years imprisonment under the Qatari penal code.

Al Nuaimi, who has been largely in solitary confinement, spoke to Reuters in the presence of prison guards and others: “The Emir is a good man,” he said. “I think he doesn’t know that they have me here for a year, that they have put me in a single room.

“If he knew, I would be freed,” he said, noting the Qatari rulers past promotion of a more open society, including his hosting of the groundbreaking television channel Al Jazeera.

“This is wrong,” he said. “You can’t have Al Jazeera in this country and put me in jail for being a poet.”

Qatar is a major oil and gas producer with a large American military base. The Emir has taken a high-profile role at times in calling for human rights — for example, when he went to Gaza last month, the first foreign leader there in years.

Al Jazeera has assiduously covered the Arab revolts.

The Qatari government has backed the armed revolt in Syria, the successful Nato-backed uprising in Libya and street protests that ousted rulers in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. Qatar’s flag has been a common sight at pro-democracy rallies.

In October, Human Rights Watch had urged Qatar not to approve a draft media law penalising criticism of the emirate and its neighbours.

“We are shocked by the verdict,” said a human rights activist in Saudi Arabia, Ali Al Hattab.

“Qatar has tried to help other countries like Libya and Syria become more democratic, but they won’t accept it at home.”