Qatari poet appeals over life prison sentence

Mohammed al-Ajami photographed in prison Mohammed al-Ajami says he has not seen his wife or child for over a year

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A Qatari poet has been sentenced to life in prison for inciting the overthrow of the government of Qatar and insulting the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and his son, the crown prince, reports say.

The verdict is likely to prove an embarrassment for Qatar which has worked hard to cultivate a progressive, modern image, and is currently playing host to a major international climate change conference.

The charges relate to a poem that 37-year-old Mohammed al-Ajami, a father of four, recited in 2010 before a small, private audience in his flat in Egypt. One audience member subsequently posted the poem online.

In the Arab world it is customary for poets to praise those in power. Mohammed al-Ajami's poetry is generally liberal and satirical, supporting the Arab Spring, while poking fun at religion and Arab rulers generally.

But he was arrested in Doha on 16 November last year and, some two weeks later, he was transferred to the central prison.

He has remained there since, spending five months in solitary confinement with no access to books, television or writing material.

It was only in September that his friends and family say they found out what had happened to him and where he was.

Speaking outside the courtroom on Thursday, Mohammed al-Ajami's lawyer, Najeeb al-Nauimi, said the case had been marred by a number of procedural irregularities and had been held largely in secret. He also alleged that critical evidence had been tampered with.

All these charges have been denied by Qatar's Attorney-General, Ali bin Fetais al-Marri.

Limiting freedoms

A key part of the evidence against the poet was near-identical testimony submitted by three government poetry experts at the ministries of culture and education, asserting that the poem al-Ajami had written was indeed insulting to the emir and his son.

Sheikh Hamad Al Thani speaks at the UN General Assembly (25 September 2012) The charge of insulting the emir carries a five-year prison sentence in Qatar

Al-Ajami was not in court when his sentence was handed down and, when he was visited a few hours later, he had still not been informed of the verdict against him. Under Qatari law, he now has 30 days to appeal against the sentence.

Mohammed al-Ajami has never disputed that he is the author of the poem, but he says it was not meant to be offensive or seditious.

"I am a poet. I have done nothing wrong. Now I haven't seen my wife and children for one year," he said.

"We have a good country and a good man. The emir is not Saddam or Gaddafi. He doesn't have a black heart but he is surrounded by those who want to please him."

Asked if he had a message for the emir, al-Ajami said: "This is not supposed to happen to me or any other person in Qatar. I deserve your help more than the people outside my country."

The case poses a dilemma for the Qatari government and exposes the limits to freedom of expression in a country that has been one of the most ardent supporters of the Arab Spring and is planning its first legislative elections in 2013.

The case also exposes the Achilles heel of Qatar's pan-Arab satellite TV channel, Al-Jazeera, which assiduously reports human rights violations in other countries around the world but rarely in Qatar itself.

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