Human rights groups call on Qatar to release poet held for ‘insulting the Emir’

Two international human rights groups have recently called for the release of a Qatari poet who has allegedly been held in solitary confinement for nearly a year after criticizing the Emir and Qatar’s government.

According to Amnesty International, Mohammed al-Ajami, also known as Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb, was arrested in Doha last November and charged with “inciting to overthrow the regime” and “insulting the Emir.” The first charge carries the death penalty and the second, a five-year jail term, Amnesty states.

Human Rights Watch, which wrote an open letter to Qatar’s Attorney General last month calling for al-Ajami’s release, said the man was exercising his right to free speech during a “poetic duel” with another Qatari poet.

Amnesty adds that the Qatari government may have zeroed in on al-Ajami’s widely circulated “Jasmine Poem,” which criticized governments across the Gulf, asserting that “we are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elite.”

HRW continues:

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.

Amnesty adds that the poet’s trial in Doha’s Criminal Court “has been marred by irregularities, with court sessions held in secret. His lawyer reportedly had to provide a written defence of his client after being barred from attending one of the court sessions.”

As the one-year anniversary of al-Ajami’s detention approaches, both groups are pushing for due process to be followed with a speedy and public trial or that charges against the poet be dropped immediately.

“Qatar must relax restrictions on freedom of expression and ensure poets, bloggers, journalists and everyone else are allowed to speak their minds without fear of facing incommunicado detention, secret trials and other harsh repercussions,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director.

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Credit: Photo by David Locke

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