A Poem Leads to a Life Sentence in Qatar

Mohammed al-Ajami was just sentenced to life in prison in Qatar after reading a poem.

Illustration by Michael Shaeffer

The Arab Spring has mostly faded from headlines in the West, but that doesn’t mean activists in the Middle East have stopped speaking out against the countless injustices they experienced before and as a result of the uprising. Nor does it mean that governments have ceased oppressing their people. Case in point: Mohammed al-Ajami was just sentenced to life in prison in Qatar late in November after merely reading a poem aloud at his house to a small group of friends and colleagues.

In 2010, the 37-year-old poet recited his work “Tunisian Jasmine” which expressed solidarity with pro-democracy protests, before a small private audience at his home in Egypt. Then, in November 2011, Mohammed was arrested in Qatar on charges of inciting to overthrow the country’s monarchist government and “insulting the emir.” (The exact reasons behind the arrest are still unclear, but Amnesty International believes it was in response to the 2010 reading.) 

After a series of trials, some of them closed to the public, Mohammed was sentenced to life in prison. He’s appealing the decision, but it’s unlikely he’ll achieve freedom given the absurd way the courts have treated him. 

I wanted to know more about this case, so I spoke with Dina El-Mamoun, who works for Amnesty in Qatar and other countries in the Gulf.

VICE: What kind of message was the Qatari government trying to send with Mohammed’s sentencing?  
Dina El-Mamoun: Activists in the subregion have said they feel this sentence sends a clear message that they must not think the Arab Spring means they can criticise their leaders.

Is this kind of oppression happening in other countries as well?
We have seen activists in the Gulf facing similar charges of “insulting” heads of state. In Oman, dozens of activists have been charged with insulting the sultan and participating in protests. In Saudi Arabia, protests have been taking place in the Eastern Province, Qassim, and Riyadh. The authorities have responded with live fire and arrests. Some people have been sentenced to flogging.

Would you consider Mohammed’s sentence to be hypocritical of the Qatari government, who claim to support the Arab Spring?
A Qatari official told us that Qatar is often criticised for having too much freedom of expression. The reality, of course, is very different – Qatar does not allow for freedom of expression when it is at the receiving end of criticism.

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