Middle East

Sporting events shine spotlight on Qatar's human rights

Official logo of the for the Qatar 2022 bidding campaign to host the 2022 Football World Cup
Image caption Qatar has imported Western sports; some want it to import Western freedoms

A Qatari poet is due to appear at the Court of Appeal in Doha, to ask that his life sentence be commuted. His crime: to have written a poem which was deemed to have insulted the emir and the ruling family.

At the same time, Qatar is continuing with its preparations to show a very different side of itself: staging some major international sporting events - none bigger than the 2022 Fifa World Cup.

So how far should the right to hold such a tournament depend on a minimum standard of human rights at home?

'Imports'

It was on 24 August 2010 that Mohammed al-Ajami, also known as Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb, visited an apartment in Cairo.

He was a third-year Arab literature student at Cairo University. In the company of seven other people, Mr Ajami recited his latest poem, a paean to the Tunisian Revolution.

"We are all Tunisia," Mr Ajami declared. "We are standing up against the repressive elite." He did not mention his home country, Qatar, by name. Rather, he directed his ire at all governments in the region.

He ended by asking: "These rulers import all that the West has to offer.

"So why then don't they import law and freedom?"

The poem was recorded by one of the seven people in the apartment and uploaded onto the internet.

In November 2011, some time after his return to Qatar, Mr Ajami was arrested.

He was later tried and, just over a year later, sentenced to life in prison on charges of "inciting to overthrow the ruling system" and "insulting the emir".

The right time?

"He's only said a poem!" says his lawyer in Qatar, Najeeb al-Nuaimi, his voice rising in exasperation. Mr Ajami did not even recite it in public, but just "to his colleagues and friends inside an apartment", he adds.

Mr Nuaimi argues that the poem was not directed specifically at the emir or the crown prince, but that offence was looked for by the authorities.

Image caption The charge of insulting the emir carries a five-year prison sentence in Qatar

"They brought some people from the ministry of culture, and told them to make an interpretation of this poem. Maybe the ministry of religion here can interpret the people when they have a dream?"

No-one at the Qatari ministry of justice was available for comment on the Ajami case.

But it was no lesser dignitary than Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, one of the emir's wives, who in 2010 raised a rather pertinent question at the very start of her official presentation of Qatar's bid to stage the 2022 World Cup.

Looking directly at her audience in Zurich - the men right at the top of Fifa - she began her speech: "When? When do you think is the right time for the World Cup to come to the Middle East?"

The answer, from the bigwigs of Fifa, was "now". Qatar would be indeed given the right to stage the World Cup.

The emirate had convinced the powers of world football that it could build the stadiums and the transport network, provide the preferential tax regime and handle the global media rights necessary for a World Cup.

'No transparency'

But should the prize of a big sports tournament also hang on adherence to basic democratic values? Within Qatar, a tiny minority are willing to take the risk, and voice concerns.

One of them is the academic, Ali al-Kuwari. His pamphlet, Qataris for Reform, questions, among other things, whether the oil-rich emirate is wasting its finite wealth on ephemeral "transformational" projects, rather than long-term investment.

Image caption Critics say Qatar is wasting money on ephemeral "transformational" projects

"There is no transparency regarding the public accounts," he says. "It's non-existent.

"One of our fundamental demands is to provide us with transparency on the national budget - on the losses and gains of domestic and foreign investments."

It has been widely assumed that most Qataris are delighted at the prospect of hosting the World Cup and other major sports tournaments.

But even here, Mr Kuwari raises an eyebrow.

"I can't say for sure if the people welcome it, because nobody asks the Qataris their opinion about this matter. Decision are are taken out of the blue and we have to accept them," he says.

"Another example I can mention here is the construction of military bases in Qatar; overnight these bases were set up here, and the people had no say one way or another about the matter.

"The same thing applies to the education system. There's no debate, no discussion."

Contradiction

Clearly, upholding political or civil rights was not a deal-breaker for awarding the Olympics to Beijing in 2008, or Moscow in 1980.

But Mr Nuaimi, the lawyer for the imprisoned poet, and himself a former minister of justice in Qatar, argues that there should be some linkage.

"It matters," he says. "We are making reform around the Arab world. Why don't we do it ourselves? We have to reform our society, our legal system, our political system. Then we can stand for any events around the world."

Qatar is currently preparing itself to bid for the biggest bauble of the lot, the Olympics in 2024.

A few years ago, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned the Olympic Movement that human rights abuses directly contradict Olympic ideals.

For those who run sport, the question remains: how heavy should that contradiction weigh?

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