The U.S. government has used Qatar to support “democracy promotion” in the Middle East, including as a logistical base for the invasion of Iraq. But Qatar’s rulers don’t like threats to their own tyrannical powers, even jailing a poet for life for implicitly criticizing the ruling sheikh, William Boardman reports.
By William Boardman
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.
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 sayshe 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. 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 or Progressive?
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 fall 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: “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 Nov. 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.”
Persecuted Poet’s Coverage
Coverage of the sentencing of al-Ajami was uneven. Associated Press and CNN distributed timely short reports and DemocracyNOW! did a long segment on the case a week later. The most detailed early reporting came from DohaNews* which is Qatar’s first digital news organization, started in 2009 with a small staff that included professional veterans from the BBC, Wall Street Journal and Al Jazeera English.
The poet’s lawyer is allowed to visit him only on Mondays, and on Dec. 3, al-Nuaimi talked to DohaNews* after his visit at Qatar Central Prison, reporting on al-Ajami’s condition: “He’s not defeated by this wrong miscarriage of justice by the court. He said ‘I’m not feeling down at all, I’m OK.’ This sentence has made Mohammad an international figure he’s going to be the Gulf’s Mandela. He’s a poet, he can publish a lot of things about living on the inside.”
Al-Nuaimi, who once served as Qatar’s justice minister, has filed an appeal in the case. His previous clients have included Saddam Hussein and prisoners at Guantanamo. The first hearing on the appeal is scheduled for Dec. 30, when al-Nuaimi will argue irregularities in the process, including:
1. Not charging al-Ajami within the first six months of his arrest;
2. Moving al-Ajami from detention to the Central Prison after eight days without possibility of bail, and keeping him in extended solitary confinement;
3. Appointing the investigating judge to oversee court hearings, despite clear animosity between the judge and the defendant and against Qatar’s judicial laws;
4. Holding court hearings in secret, without Al-Nuami and Al-Ajami being permitted to attend, and disallowing a verbal defense; and
5. Tampering with court transcripts to make it appear that Ibn Al-Dheeb admitted to reciting his poem in public.
According to DohaNews*, the prosecutor denied the irregularities and went on to argue that “two poetry experts from the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage offered identical testimony, confirming that in their interpretation, Al-Ajami’s poems called for the overthrow of the regime.”
Amnesty, Human Rights Watch
For months now, at least two international organizations have been calling on Qatar to release the poet. In October, Amnesty International initiated a letter-writing campaign on al-Ajami’s behalf, while issuing a statement that, based on what was known, Qatar had no right to hold him:
“Mohammed al-Ajami has now spent almost a year behind bars in solitary confinement apparently solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression. If that is the case, he would be considered a prisoner of conscience and should be released immediately and conditionally.”
Amnesty has condemned the life sentence for al-Ajami as “an outrageous betrayal of free speech.” Earlier in November, Amnesty issued a public statement calling on Qatar to end its use of torture and other ill treatment of prisoners and detainees, and in particular to stop its practice of issuing flogging sentences of 40 to 100 lashes. Also according to Amnesty: “Freedom of expression including press freedoms is strictly controlled in Qatar, in addition to which the press often exercises self-censorship.”
In September, Human Rights Watch wrote to Qatar’s Attorney General Al-Marri, asking him to drop the charges against the poet: “We are writing to you to express our concerns over the continued detention of Qatari poet Muhammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, and the inconsistency of this action with Qatar’s international obligations and its burgeoning global reputation as a center for media freedom.”
Expanding its argument, the Human Rights Watch letter stated: “While we understand that the poem recited by Ibn al-Dheeb included passages which could be construed as insulting to the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, there is no evidence to indicate that he has gone beyond the legitimate exercise of his right to free expression.
“International law is unequivocal on the importance of public officials being required to tolerate a greater degree of criticism than ordinary citizens. The UN Human Rights Committee has made it clear that insulting a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties and affirmed that all public figures, ‘including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government’ are legitimately subject to criticism.
“Qatar’s laws are not only out of step with the international law on freedom of opinion and expression, they are at odds with Qatar’s aspirations to serve as a center for media freedom in the region [as exemplified by] Al Jazeera, the news channel that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani set up in 1996.”
Emir al-Thani was instrumental in establishing Al Jazeera, after an earlier Arabic language television venture fell apart due largely to Saudi demands for censorship. In the years since, Al Jazeera has fought its own battles with censorship, winning generally high praise for its efforts. But it’s also a captive of its geography and subject to self-censorship, so it’s unsurprising that, as of Dec. 11, Al Jazeera had yet to do an independent story on Mohammed al-Ajami.
Emir’s Wife, a Progressive Image
Like her husband the Emir, Sheikha Al Missned has cultivated a benign, liberal image, not only through her work on behalf of children, but also as chair of the Board of Trustees of the Arab Democracy Foundation, which she helped establish in 2007. In its mission statement, the foundation says it “is an independent international Arab civil society organization advocating democracy as a culture, as a way of life, and as the best system for good governance.”
The Foundation says it also “seeks to disseminate the culture of human rights and to increase the citizens’ awareness of, and commitment to, their legitimate rights.”
Sheikha Al Missned is the daughter of Nasser bin Abdullah Al Missned (died in 2007), who was an opponent of Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad bin Abdallah Al Thani, father of the current Emir. The family lived in exile in Egypt and Kuwait, but returned to Qatar for the Sheikha’s marriage. She married the Emir (at the time Heir Apparent) in 1977 at the age of 18, while she was attending Qatar University. She received her BA degree in Sociology from there in 1986.
At Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee, the emir chose Mohamed bin Saif al Kurawi as his spokesman to talk to reporter Amy Goodman of DemocracyNOW! on Dec. 7. The spokesman began by explaining that he couldn’t discuss the al-Ajami poetry case “because this is in the court. I mean, this is his case in the court, his case and the judge. I can’t answer this and quickly without to see the file, without to see the cases in details,well, I mean, in deep details.
“I cannot answer this is OK this is in prison or not. But for human rights in Qatar, always to see this is,this people or this persons will get his rights fully,total rights for him, even in the prisons or in the courts, about the procedure. This is very important with us, is the procedure is according to the international conventions, international laws, also something in human rights.”
He also noted that Al Jazeera and other Qatari news organizations hadn’t covered the story, that he’d seen it only on the BBC. Referring to Qatari law under which media and poet all function, he explained that the law allowed freedom of opinion and expression, but “You can’t talk everythings.”
On Dec. 10, which was International Human Rights Day 2012, in Qatar the Doha Centre for Media Freedom broke its silence on the al-Ajami case. Speaking at an event sponsored by Al Jazeera English, the center’s director ducked specific comment on the case, but went on to say:
“Prominent international human rights organizations and the international media reported extensively on this case but the Qatari media remained silent. Including until now, I must admit, the Doha Centre for Media Freedom. But today is the day, I feel, to speak out and to break the barriers of fear.
“We still don’t know all the details about this particular case, but we feel local media failed their mission and should be able to inform the general public in this country. To inform and be informed: it is simply a question of basic human rights.”
U.S. Commemorates Human Rights Day with Inaction
Also on Dec. 10, the United States joined in commemorating the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations in 1948. Discussing human rights in a recent speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that free societies have two responsibilities toward peoples in nations with repressive governments: “First, to remain vigilant in ensuring that we honor and implement our own commitment to human rights at home, and second, to help others gain what we have, the chance to live in dignity.”
When the media-dubbed Arab Spring began two years ago in Tunisia, Western media called the uprising the “Jasmine Revolution,” after the Tunisian national flower, but Tunisians referred to it as the Dignity Revolution. The poem that led to such trouble for al-Ajami, as translated on DemocracyNOW!, is variously called “Tunisian Jasmine” or “Jasmine Poem.” It reads”
Knowing that those that satisfy themselves and upset their people
tomorrow will have someone else sitting in their seat,
knowing that those that satisfy themselves and upset their people
tomorrow will have someone else sitting in their seat,
for those that think the country is in your and your kids’ names,
the country is for the people, and its glories are theirs.
Repeat with one voice, for one faith:
We are all Tunisia in the face of repressive elites.
We are all Tunisia in the face of repressive elites.
The Arab governments and who rules them are, without exception, thieves.
The question that frames the thoughts of those who wonder
will not find an answer in any official channels.
As long as it imports everything it has from the West,
why can’t it import laws and freedoms?
Why can’t it import laws and freedoms?
In Tunisia, two years after the Dignity Revolution, Tunisians have political freedom and an elected Islamist government, the BBC has reported, but they are frustrated by that government’s failure to provide jobs and dignity.
William Boardman lives in Vermont, where he has produced political satire for public radio and served as a lay judge.