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Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami

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Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami

A Qatari poet who was jailed for nearly five years will leave the country now that he has been pardoned by the Emir, his lawyer said.

Speaking to Doha News, former justice minister Najeeb Al Nauimi said he had a conversation with Mohammed Rashid Al-Ajami this week, who confirmed he has been given an unconditional pardon.

“It’s finished, it’s over,” Al Nauimi said.

Mohammed Al-Ajami

EnglishPEN

Mohammed Al-Ajami

Al-Ajami, who also goes by Ibn Al-Dheeb, was jailed for “inciting to overthrow the regime” and “insulting the Emir,” and convicted in 2012.

He initially faced a life sentence that was reduced to 15 years in jail.

According to Al Nauimi, Al-Ajami is now in Saudi Arabia to meet with supporters, including members of his tribe.

When news broke of his release last week, many said the pardon had come about due to intercession from the chief of the poet’s Al-Ajman tribe, Khalid bin Rakan Al-Ajami.

After visiting people in Saudi Arabia, the poet will settle in Dubai with his family, his lawyer said.

His wife and children had lived in the UAE during his imprisonment and will return there with him, Al Nauimi said. He added:

“I told him, there was a big campaign (for you). And he said to thank everyone for their support.”

International reaction

Qatar officials have not commented publicly on Al-Ajami’s release.

However, news of the poet’s pardon has been welcomed by many human rights groups, including Amnesty International, which called the incident a “blight on Qatar’s reputation.”

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Popicinio/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

The United Nations has also weighed in.

In a statement, UN Special Rapporteurs on cultural rights Karima Bennoune; on freedom of expression, David Kaye; and on the independence of the judiciary, Mónica Pinto said reparations should be made to Al Ajami for his suffering.

They added:

“We are glad Mr. Al-Ajami could be released and reunited with his family, but the royal pardon does not amount to an acknowledgement of wrong doing and is no guarantee that the rights and freedoms of citizens will be better respected in the future…

Mr. Al-Ajami is not the only person behind bars in Qatar for simply exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

Thoughts?

Mohammed Al-Ajami

EnglishPEN

Mohammed Al-Ajami

Updated at 2:45pm on March 16 with statement from Amnesty

A hashtag has erupted on Twitter tonight, congratulating Qatari poet Mohammed Rashid Al-Ajami for gaining his freedom after being jailed for nearly five years.

Thousands of tweets are pouring in on #خروج_محمد_بن_الذيب (Mohammed Ibn Al Dheeb’s release), reporting that Qatar’s Emir has pardoned him.

The man, who also goes by Ibn Al-Dheeb, was jailed for “inciting to overthrow the regime” and convicted in 2012, sending “shockwaves across the Gulf.”

According to Abdullah Al Athbah, editor-in-chief of Al Arab, Al-Ajami is being released on Sheikh Tamim’s orders through the intercession of the chief of the poet’s Al-Ajman tribe, Khalid bin Rakan al-Ajami.

However, Al-Ajami’s lawyer, former justice minister Najeeb Al Nauimi, told Doha News that he could not confirm the pardon until he hears it from the poet himself, or one of his family members.

News of the pardon comes just weeks after the third anniversary of Qatar’s Court of Appeal decision to reduce the sentence of Mohammed Rashid Al-Ajami from life imprisonment to 15 years behind bars.

YouTube video

The Qatari poet was arrested in 2011 over a YouTube video in which he recited a poem that was indirectly critical of his country’s ruling family.

For years, Al Nauimi has argued that there is no evidence to support the charges against the poet, which also included “insulting the Emir.”

The case has garnered international attention and protests, with the poet’s supporters calling Al-Ajami’s detention “an open wound.”

And previously, Farida Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on cultural rights, criticized the sentence, saying it “ is disproportionate and amounts to political censorship to art and expression.”

Translation: Incarcerating a poet made beautiful, civilized Qatar a medieval country. This step, although very late, is better than depriving this man of his freedom forever.

However, here in Qatar, many nationals had expressed support for the poet’s detention.

And while several tweets tonight involved well wishes for Al-Ajami, some were not pleased about the news of the pardon:

Translation: I didn’t want to make this prayer (that he would not be pardoned) only because he has an old mother who is not to blame for her son’s recklessness and insolence. As for him, he’s a foul being on and under earth.

On Wednesday, Amnesty International released a statement hailing Al-Ajami’s release, saying the group had spoken to relatives who confirmed the pardon.

It also said it viewed a video of his apparently release, which has been circulating on social media:

In the statement, James Lynch, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program, called the detention “absurd.”

“We hope that the authorities will take the opportunity of this release to review Qatar’s criminal justice system and ensure that such flagrant violations of the right to freedom of expression are not repeated. This case has been a blight on Qatar’s international reputation.”

The group added that the terms of Al Ajami’s release remain unclear, saying “It is essential that the authorities do not impose conditions on (the) peaceful exercise of his rights, including his right to freedom of expression. Prisoners of conscience should be released immediately and unconditionally.”

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Note: This article has been corrected to reflect that Abdullah Al-Athbah is editor-in-chief of Al Arab newspaper, not Al Sharq.

Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami

Video Still / via YouTube

Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami

Free speech advocates in London and Washington, DC are planning small demonstrations today outside Qatar’s embassies in the UK and US, calling for the release of poet Mohammed Rashid Al-Ajami from prison.

The protests, which will take place at 1pm local time in both cities (4pm and 9pm in Qatar), come on the third anniversary of Qatar’s Court of Appeal decision to reduce the sentence of Al-Ajami from life imprisonment to 15 years behind bars.

“We don’t want to let this case disappear,” Amnesty International researcher Drewery Dyke told Doha News today. “He is still in jail, unjustly. It’s incumbent on us … (to) keep talking about this issue.”

The case against Al-Ajami – who goes by the name Mohammed Ibn Al-Dheeb in his poetry – stems from a 2010 incident in Cairo.

The Qatari was studying Arabic literature with a group of friends when he was allegedly approached by a fellow Qatari poet, Khalil al-Shabrami, who challenged him to read a poem that was indirectly critical of the Gulf state’s ruling family.

Mohammed Al-Ajami

EnglishPEN

Mohammed Al-Ajami

The incident was recorded and posted on YouTube, which is believed to have led to Qatari authorities arresting Al-Ajami in November 2011 and charging him with “inciting to overthrow the regime” and “insulting the Emir.”

Al-Ajami’s lawyer, former justice minister Najeeb Al Nauimi, has consistently argued that there is no evidence to support the charges.

He previously told Doha News that Al-Ajami did not insult anyone or do anything wrong.

Furthermore, Al Nauimi has argued his client did not give consent for the video to be shared online or recite his poem publicly – a requirement to support a charge of inciting the overthrow of the government.

‘Open wound’

Organizers of today’s protest – which includes freedom of expression advocates English PEN and other groups – said they hope to deliver a petition with several thousand signatures calling for Al-Ajami’s release.

Dyke said Qatar has been expanding its ranks of foreign service officers in recent years.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Popicinio/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Today’s protest, he said, is an opportunity to raise awareness of the specific case, and human rights generally, among Qatar’s younger generation of diplomats.

“This is an open wound that is recognized internationally, even if it is rejected locally,” Dyke said.

Last year, three of the United Nations’ top human rights experts issued a joint call for al-Ajami’s release, calling his trial flawed and incompatible with international human rights norms.

His sentence “is disproportionate and amounts to political censorship to art and expression,” stated Farida Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on cultural rights.

Dyke said neither the Qatar government or the country’s National Human Rights Committee have replied to Amnesty’s previous attempts to raise the case.

He said he’s hoping 20 to 30 people will turn out for today’s demonstration in London.

Thoughts?