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Sheikh Tamim at UN General Assembly

The ongoing blockade against Qatar is “an assault against a sovereign state” and a form of terrorism, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani said during his address to the United Nations General Assembly today.

His remarks come as Qatar faces a months-long blockade from its neighbors that has cost the government billions of dollars.

The Emir said the boycott of “neighboring countries” puts pressure on Qatar’s population “through foodstuffs, medicine and ripping of family relations.”

The Qatar Insider

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He added that the goal is “to force (people) to change their political affiliation and destabilize a sovereign country. Isn’t this one of the definitions of terrorism?”

At least twice during the speech, the Emir also called for a constructive dialogue between the Gulf countries and Iran to resolve the crisis.

The conditions he put forth included “the principle of good neighborliness, respect for the sovereignty of states and non-interference in their internal affairs.”

Responding to neighbors’ allegations that Qatar harbors terrorists, Sheikh Tamim also reiterated the country’s desire to combat extremism, calling it the “highest priority.”

He added however that the international community must be “careful not to make the fight against terrorism an umbrella for reprisals or shelling of civilians.”

Safe haven

This is the Emir’s fourth address in front of the assembly.

His first was shortly after he became leader of Qatar at 33 years old in 2013. The speech included talk of the Arab Spring and Qatar’s role in it.

Omar Chatriwala / Doha News

February 2012 protest against Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

At the time, Sheikh Tamim said the nation served as a “hub for dialogue and discussion for different parties and conflicts” during a transitional phase for the region.

The Emir reiterated that goal – which Qatar has been criticized for by its neighbors  – once again during today’s address. He said:

“Qatar will remain, as always, a safe haven for the oppressed, and will continue its mediation efforts to find just solutions in conflict zones. “

In addition to the Gulf crisis, the Emir mentioned the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

“Lately there is a growing sense that people under repression are facing their fate alone,” he said.

He also urged the international community to help struggling Palestinians, Yemenis and Syrians, as well as Iraqis and Libyans.

Here’s the full unofficial translation of the Emir’s remarks, as posted by the UN.

Thoughts?

Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami

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Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami

Several of the United Nations’ top human rights experts have publicly urged Qatar to release a local poet convicted of inciting the overthrow of the government.

The call comes two years after Qatar’s highest court upheld a 15-year prison sentence against Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami.

Court of Appeal and Court of Cassation

Shabina Khatri

Court of Appeal and Court of Cassation

On the eve of the Court of Cassation’s verdict anniversary, three UN special rapporteurs issued a statement that called his trial flawed and incompatible with international human rights norms that protect freedom of expression.

“The penalty imposed on Mr. al-Ajami is disproportionate and amounts to political censorship to art and expression,” stated Farida Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on cultural rights.

Despite the arrest of several foreign journalists and ongoing censorship of imported books and magazines, there have been few known detentions in Qatar similar to al-Ajami’s case, in which individuals charged for publishing material are deemed a threat by authorities.

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But since al-Ajami’s trial ended, the government has passed a vaguely worded cybercrime law that makes it illegal to violate Qatar’s “social values or principles” online.

Despite the new legislation and al-Ajami’s ongoing incarceration, Qatar Culture Minister Hamad Bin Abdulaziz Al Kuwari said earlier this year that critics are welcome in the country and that the only off-limit topics are those that offend Islamic values.

‘He did not do anything wrong’

The case against al-Ajami – who goes by the name Mohammed Ibn Al-Dheeb in his poetry – stems from a 2010 incident in Cairo, when he was studying Arabic literature with a group of friends.

Al-Ajami was allegedly approached by another Qatari poet named Khalil al-Shabrami, who provoked him into presenting a poem indirectly critical of this country’s ruling family.

That exchange was recorded and subsequently posted on YouTube.

Qatar authorities arrested al-Ajami in November 2011 and charged him with “inciting to overthrow the regime” and “insulting the Emir.”

Appeals court

Shabina S. Khatri

Appeals court

He was initially sentenced to life in prison, but had his term reduced to 15 years in February 2013 by Qatar’s Court of Appeals.

Al-Ajami’s lawyer, former justice minister Najeeb al-Nauimi, has repeatedly said there is no evidence to support the charges.

“He did not insult anyone,” he told Doha News today. “He did not do anything wrong.”

Al-Nauimi said he’s not optimistic that al-Ajami will be pardoned and that the poet’s family told him al-Ajami went on a hunger strike earlier this year. He said he did not know what prompted the protest or how long it lasted, but said the issue has since been resolved.

In 2013, al-Nauimi said there were several problems with the prosecution’s case, namely the suggestion that al-Ajami read his poem in public. That distinction is important because it’s required to support a charge of inciting the overthrow of the government.

Al-Ajami’s supporters have argued said the poet’s remarks were made during a private gathering and posted on YouTube without his knowledge.

At the time of the Court of Cassation hearing, al-Nauimi said there was no evidence that the poem was presented in public other than an uncorroborated confession al-Ajami signed following two hours of interrogations without the presence of a lawyer.

International objections

While the UN special rapporteurs said there are signs al-Ajami did not receive a fair trial, they also argued that he should have never been arrested in the first place.

“The simple fact that a poem was considered to be insulting is insufficient to justify the imposition of penalties,” stated David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression. “Laws restricting the right to freedom of expression must never be used as tools for silencing the criticism of authorities and promoting political censorship.”

This is the second time the UN has raised al-Ajami’s case with Qatar and follows a December 2012 letter, sent after the initial life sentence was issued, that asked government officials to justify their actions.

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Ashitaka San / Flickr

For illustrative purposes only.

In its response, Khalid bin Jassim Al-Thani – the human rights bureau director at Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – defended the government’s handling of the case:

“His trial was conducted in accordance with international standards,” Al-Thani wrote, adding the conviction was based on the court’s “free conviction and the legitimate evidence presented before it.”

A UN spokesperson said the Qatar government had not responded to the international organization’s most recent letter, which was sent to the Gulf state several days before it was publicly released.

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Josh Hughes/Flickr

Qatar has been appointed to a new three-year term on the UN’s Human Rights Council, edging out Thailand by six votes for the final spot allocated to the Asia-Pacific region.

It’s the third time the Gulf country has held a seat on the 47-member body, which was formed in 2006 to promote and protect human rights around the world. The last term Qatar served was from 2010 to 2013.

Media reports say Qatar received 142 votes from the UN General Assembly’s 193 members. The other three seats reserved for the region were filled by India (162 votes), Indonesia (152 votes) and Bangladesh (149 votes).

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Lance Cenar

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Qatar’s own human rights record has come under the international spotlight in recent years as activists use the attention around the 2022 World Cup to highlight the living and working conditions of migrant laborers, as well as the country’s restrictive sponsorship laws.

Joe Stork, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, said in a statement that he’d like to see Qatar’s elevation to the UN’s human rights organization accelerate the country’s planned reforms:

“We hope joining the council will finally prompt Qatar to address the laws and policies that make its growing migrant worker population so vulnerable to trafficking and forced labor. Qatar should abolish its exit visa system, reform the kafala system to allow workers to change employers, and ratify the (International Labour Organization) domestic workers convention.”

Reforms

Recently, Qatar’s Emir publicly conceded that there have been “problems and errors” in protecting the human rights of migrant workers here.

In May, government officials proposed changes to the country’s sponsorship laws that would make it easier expats to leave the country and change jobs. The changes would also increase penalties for employers who confiscate their employee’s passports.

Chris Fleming / Flickr

Another change that’s being rolled out is a new requirement on companies to pay salaries electronically. This would help ensure wages are deposited into a worker’s bank account on time.

Earlier this month, Qatar’s Chamber of Commerce said it would support the planned reforms, raising the prospect that a new law could be approved by the end of the year.

Critics, however, have argued that the changes fall short of international human rights standards, as well as the recommendations of a report by law firm DLA Piper that was commissioned by the Qatar government.

Beyond its borders, Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee has recently raised the issue of individuals with disabilities, and called for more efforts globally to remove barriers that prevent their full integration into society.

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