By Ali Al-Bassam
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East
DOHA, Qatar — Last Monday the Qatari Court of Appeals ruled to reduce the life sentence of poet Muhammed Rashid al-Ajami, who goes by the name ibn al-Dheeb in his poetry, to fifteen years.
Originally, al-Ajami was sentenced to life last November for composing and reading out a poem which allegedly incited “the overthrow of the ruling system.” The poem, written in 2010, allegedly criticized the Emir, Sheikh Hamad al-Thani.
Human rights activists however claim that the actual poem that angered authorities was written in 2011, in which al-Ajami wrote about authoritarian rule in the region. His poem, titled “Tunisian Jasmine,” which al-Ajami recited and later uploaded to the internet in January 2011, expressed support for the uprising that occurred in Tunisia, saying: “We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elite.” In the poem, he also denounced “all Arab governments” as “indiscriminate thieves.” In a clear reference to Qatar, a home to a major U.S. base, al-Ajami wrote “I hope that change would come in countries whose ignorant leaders believe that glory belies in U.S. Forces.”
Dr. Nejib al-Naimi, al-Ajami’s lawyer, said that the five judges were unanimous in their decision, but he plans to take the case to the Court of Cassation, Qatar’s highest court, where a final hearing will be held on al-Ajami’s sentence. During the case, al-Naimi asserted that “there was no evidence al-Ajami had recited the poem he is being tried for in public,” which was the central claim that the prosecution raised, and that he only read it “at his apartment in Cairo.”
Al-Ajami was said to have been visibly disappointed with the court’s ruling and looked agitated while he was escorted out of the courtroom. Reuters reported that al-Ajami shouted out “there is no law for this,” as he was led out. Al-Naimi said that “the appeals court was apparently politicized and does not differ much from the court of first instance.”
Dr. Ali bin Fetais al-Marri, Qatar’s Attorney General, said that he was also “not happy” with the judgment. “As a chief prosecutor, I look forward to restoring the sentence to a life term.”
Human rights officials, who attended al-Ajami’s appeal, criticized the conviction, saying that “his trial was marred by irregularities, with court sessions held in secret.”
Qatar, whose human rights record has been criticized in the past, insists that the sentence was not an abuse of freedom of speech but is punishable because it is an “illegal call to overthrow political regimes.” Under Article 130 of the Qatari Penal Code, the charge for inciting to overthrow ruling systems is punishable by death. Naimi, a former Qatari Justice Minister who also was a member of Saddam Hussein’s defense team, said that according to the charges, his client should have faced a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
The Court of Cassation will make its final ruling on Al-Ajami in 30 days.
For further information, please see:
Al Arabiya — Qatar Cuts Jail Term for Maverick Poet to 15 Years: Lawyer — 25 February 2013
BBC News — Qatari Poet Life Sentence Reduced to 15 Years — 25 February 2013
Gulf News — Qatar Slashes Life Term Against Poet to 15 Years — 25 February 2013
Al Jazeera — Qatari Poet’s Sentence Reduced to 15 Years — 25 February 2013