DOHA (Reuters) - A court in Qatar, which has supported Arab uprisings abroad, jailed a local poet for life on Thursday for criticising the emir and inciting revolt - a sentence that drew outrage and cries of hypocrisy from human rights groups.
In his verses, Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami praised the Arab Spring revolts that toppled four dictators, often with the help of money and other support from the tiny, energy-rich Gulf state. But he also criticised Qatar’s own absolute monarch and spoke, for example, of “sheikhs playing on their Playstations”.
“This is a tremendous miscarriage of justice,” said defence lawyer Nagib al-Naimi, who conveyed the verdict to Reuters after a trial held behind closed doors in the capital Doha.
At the prison where he has been held for a year, Ajami, 36, later told Reuters he believed the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, to be “a good man” who must be unaware of his plight. Lawyer Naimi said the defence would appeal. A royal pardon may also be a possibility.
Ajami was not himself allowed in court and Naimi said the defence was barred from making oral arguments, although he contested the prosecution case that Ajami called for revolution in Qatar - an offence which carries the death penalty.
For Amnesty International, Middle East director Philip Luther said in a statement: “It is deplorable that Qatar, which likes to paint itself internationally as a country that promotes freedom of expression, is indulging in what appears to be such a flagrant abuse of that right.”
Amnesty described Ajami’s arrest in November 2011 as coming after he published a poem named “Jasmine” - for the symbol of the Tunisian revolt in January last year that launched the Arab Spring. In a broad criticism of Gulf rulers, he had written: “We are all Tunisia, in the face of the repressive elite.”
Ajami “did not encourage the overthrow of any specific regime”, Naimi said. He described the charges as having been “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime”, a capital offence, and criticising the ruler, which is punishable by up to five years imprisonment under the Qatari penal code.
Among offending passages from the poem, translated from Arabic, was the line: “If the sheikhs cannot carry out justice, we should change the power and give it to the beautiful woman.”
In another section, Ajami accused a fellow poet of being “with the sheikhs, playing with their Playstations.”
Naimi, who has been largely in solitary confinement, spoke to Reuters in the presence of prison guards and others: “The Emir is a good man,” he said. “I think he doesn’t know that they have me here for a year, that they have put me in a single room.
“If he knew, I would be freed,” he said, noting the Qatari ruler’s past promotion of a more open society, including his hosting of the groundbreaking television channel Al Jazeera, which has given a voice to many opposition groups abroad.
“This is wrong,” Ajami said. “You can’t have Al Jazeera in this country and put me in jail for being a poet.”
Qatar, a close U.S. ally and major natural gas producer with a large American military base, has escaped the unrest seen in other Arab countries. The emir has taken a high-profile role at times in calling for human rights - for example, when he went to Gaza last month, the first foreign leader there in years.
Al Jazeera has assiduously covered the Arab revolts, though it gave scant coverage to an uprising last year in neighbouring Bahrain - ruled by another Gulf Arab monarchy.
The Qatari government has also taken a prominent role in the confrontation between, on the one hand, Sunni Muslim-ruled Arab states like itself and Saudi Arabia and, on the other, non-Arab Iran and its Shi’ite allies in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.
Qatar is backing the rebels in Syria’s civil war. It supported the NATO-backed uprising in Libya and street protests that ousted rulers in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. The emirate’s maroon and white flag has been a common sight on the streets of Arab capitals where demonstrators have challenged autocracy.
But freedom of expression is tightly controlled in the small Gulf state, home to less than two million people. Self-censorship is prevalent among national newspapers and other media outlets. Qatar has no organised political opposition.
In October, Human Rights Watch criticised what it said was a double standard on freedom of expression in Qatar and urged the emir not to approve a draft media law penalising criticism of the Gulf emirate and its neighbours.
In neighbouring monarchy Saudi Arabia, human rights activist Ali al-Hattab said: “We are shocked by the verdict.
“Qatar has tried to help other countries like Libya and Syria become more democratic, but they won’t accept it at home.
“It’s shameful, and a double standard.”
Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal in Dubai and Dasha Afanasieva in London; Editing by Andrew Hammond, Mark Heinrich and Alastair Macdonald