WhatsApp insults lead to jail sentence for Qatar woman
In one of the first cases prosecuted under Qatar’s cybercrime law, a female resident has been convicted of insulting her former landlord over social media.
Dina Abdulhamid was sentenced in absentia late last month to spend six months in jail and pay a QR20,000 fine for sending several messages to a man who arranged her accommodation over messaging program WhatsApp.
Apparently upset over being evicted from her home, Abdulhamid called the man several names – including a homophobic slur. She also said she would have the man forced out of the country, according to the court’s verdict, which was first reported by Al Raya.
Court documents state that last December, she sent messages full of profanity and also wrote, “You’ll see, I’ll f— you over and make you leave with a scandal. You’ll be followed, caught and humiliated.”
In response, the man filed a complaint at a police station near the Industrial Area. Prosecutors subsequently laid charges against the woman after viewing the messages on the victim’s phone.
The case provides an early insight into how local authorities are applying Qatar’s cybercrime law, which was approved by the Emir in September of last year.
The legislation was denounced by several local and international critics, who said several overly broad provisions are open to abuse by authorities.
At particular issue are provisions regarding so-called “content crimes” that make it illegal to publish “false news.”
Residents can also be punished for posting or sharing content – whether true or false – that violates the country’s “social values” or “general order.”
In this particular court case, prosecutors appear to have used provisions under the cybercrime law dealing with libel – an offense that’s already a part of Qatar’s criminal code.
Under section 330 of the criminal code, it’s illegal to insult another person in private or use the phone with obscenities that are “intrinsically shameful.” The maximum jail sentence for the crime is three months and/or a fine of up to QR1,000.
According to the court documents, presiding judge Yasir al-Zayyat said Abdulhamid’s messages met this definition:
Her words all “targeted (the victim’s honor), were demeaning to his dignity and would cause him to be contemptuously regarded by other people,” he wrote in the verdict.
Because Abdulhamid used an electronic device to send the messages, she was also convicted under Qatar’s cybercrime law and had additional jail time and fines added to her sentence.
While Qatar’s courts have handed down convictions for defamation in the past, most cases involve individuals who have insulted others in a public forum, rather than private messages.
For example, earlier this year, a misdemeanor court in Doha convicted three expats of defaming their children’s principal and other school officials on Facebook.
The parents were apparently upset about tuition fee increases at the Philippine School Doha and vented their frustrations online.
However, prosecutors did not apply the cybercrime law in that case.
Qatar, like other GCC states, treats defamation as a criminal offense.
Matt Duffy, who is an expert on journalism and media laws in the Middle East, previously told Doha News that threats of jail time are “pretty out of alignment with how many international courts are handling defamation these days.”
He suggested leaving such matters to the civil court system, which deals with private disputes between individuals and could levy financial penalties large enough to dissuade others from making harmful, public statements about identifiable individuals.
Duffy, who teaches media law at Kennesaw State University in the US, said one of the problems with criminal defamation laws is that a complaint could theoretically lead to an individual being arrested and held in jail before appearing in court.
“That’s a huge encumbrance to speak freely,” he said.