A poet will face life in prison in Qatar after penning verses that state officials deemed insulting to the nation’s emir and an incitement to topple the government, his attorney told news agencies Thursday.
Rights activists say Mohammed Ajami was arrested over his “Jasmine Poem,” which skewered governments across the region, at one point declaring, “We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elite.” He had previously recited a poem criticizing the emir, according to free speech groups.
His attorney Najib Nuaimi told the Associated Press that a state security court sentenced Ajami to life in prison Thursday. The stiff sentence infuriated Amnesty International and other human rights groups, which argued Qatar has cheered “Arab Spring” uprisings elsewhere while hypocritically cracking down on criticism of its government at home.
“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 International’s Middle East and North Africa director, Philip Luther, said in a statement Thursday.
The Persian Gulf nation has championed Syrian rebels and is home to Al Jazeera, a government-subsidized TV station that has won awards for its extensive coverage of Arab unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab Spring hotbeds. In an article last year, the Qatar Tribune quoted a U.S. ambassador praising the nation’s leadership for backing reform and speaking its mind on the uprisings. The country hosts U.S. military facilities and is a Western ally.
But free speech groups say peaceful criticism of the wealthy monarchy can still land Qataris in prison. Al Jazeera itself has faced accusations of underplaying concerns about Qatar and its allies, particularly Bahrain, where protests have simmered more than a year and a half.
Ajami underscored the inconsistency in remarks to Reuters. “You can’t have Al Jazeera in this country and put me in jail for being a poet,” Ajami told the news agency in the presence of prison guards. He called the emir a “good man” who must not know of his plight.
“If he knew, I would be freed,” he told Reuters.