The Qatari poet Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, who was given a 15-year prison sentence in 2011 for reciting a poem in support of the Arab Spring uprisings on YouTube, was given a royal pardon and freed on Tuesday, 15 March. The surprise reversal comes after a storm of criticism from human rights groups and the UN about limits to free speech in the country, which has touted itself as a supporter of the arts. The poet’s release also comes at the end of a conference organised by the New York Times in Doha on the topic “Art for Tomorrow”, and days before the International Press Institute is due to host its world congress in the Qatar capital on Saturday.
In a trial marred by irregularities, the Criminal Court in Doha found al-Ajami guilty in 2012 of incitement to overthrow the Emir and condemned him to life in prison, but this was reduced to 15 years on appeal. Al-Ajami was pardoned by Qatar’s new ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who took over from father in 2013. The details of al-Ajami’s release have not been explained, however, and Qatari officials have not responded to requests for comment.
Carles Torner, the executive director for the writers’ association PEN International said of al-Ajami’s pardon: “This is heartening news, coming as it does just days before World Poetry Day, but it’s ludicrous that al-Ajami, a father of four, spent almost five years in prison, simply for reciting a poem in private. Qatari authorities must ensure that all its citizens are free to express themselves peacefully without fear of imprisonment or reprisals.” James Lynch, the deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa programme said: “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.”
Human rights groups are also asking that Qatari authorities do not impose any stifling conditions on al-Ajami’s release and allow the poet to exercise his right to freedom of expression.
• A longer story on the poet, including an interview with his lawyer, will appear in our April issue