Stifled Verse: The Case of Mohammed al-Ajami

Since clinching its 2022 World Cup bid, Qatar has faced heightened international scrutiny. As workers have broken ground on elaborate new facilities for the tournament, human rights defenders have pointed to the country’s abusive kafala sponsorship system and the horrible conditions under which migrant laborers work. Yet Qatar engaged in human rights abuses long before its bid for the World Cup. Abuses continue in many forms, and not just against migrant workers; in recent years, the small nation has actively worked to suppress the free speech and expression of its citizens.

The case of Mohammed al-Ajami represents one of the most notorious instances of Qatar infringing upon its citizens’ right to free expression. Al-Ajami, known to some by his penname Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb, has gained fame throughout the Gulf and the Arab World for his poetry. His poems contain liberal and satirical elements, often poking fun at religion and the region’s rulers. A father of four children, he studied literature at Cairo University.

On 16 November 2011, Qatari security officials summoned al-Ajami to a meeting. Upon his arrival, they arrested him and charged him with insulting the emir and “inciting to overthrow the ruling system.” Authorities claimed that the charges relate to a poem he recited at a private gathering in Cairo in August 2010, but many people believe the arrest actually came as a result of his poem “Jasmine Revolution,” which includes the line “we are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elite” and denounces Arab governments as “indiscriminate thieves.”

Both al-Ajami’s pre-trial detention and actual trial were littered with due process violations. Security officials reportedly held al-Ajami incommunicado for months. The authorities did not inform al-Ajami of the official charges against him until more than six months after his arrest, longer than the period under which detainees can legally be held without charge under Qatari law. During interrogation, officials forced al-Ajami to sign a document falsely stating that the Cairo poem was read in the presence of the press. On multiple occasions, the government attempted to assign al-Ajami different lawyers even though he had already obtained his own counsel. By 29 October 2012, the government had postponed his trial five times and kept him in solitary confinement for at least five months.

Authorities finally handed down a sentence of life imprisonment in a secret trial on 29 November 2012. Al-Ajami’s lawyer, Najeeb al-Nuaimi, had to provide a written defense for his client after being barred from attending court sessions. Al-Nuaimi additionally complained of other “procedural irregularities,” including evidence tampering. Amnesty International reported additional fair trial concerns, noting that court guards refused to allow activists and journalists into the proceedings at times. The court also heard testimony from three poetry experts employed by the culture and education ministries. Ironically, al-Ajami’s conviction came less than a week after the UN Committee on Torture criticized Qatar’s lack of judicial independence.

On 25 February 2013, an appeals court reduced al-Ajami’s life sentence to 15 years. On 20 October 2013, Qatar’s highest court upheld the 15-year sentence. His only remaining path to freedom is through a pardon from the emir.

Since 2011, state security officials in Qatar have continued to detain people like al-Ajami for exercising their rights to free expression and assembly. Many have reported torture and ill-treatment, especially while being held incommunicado. The Al-Jazeera news network, headquartered in Qatar, prides itself on reporting human rights violations in other countries but rarely reports on abuses in Qatar itself. With Qatar set to host the 2022 World Cup, the international community must ensure that it takes advantage of the atmosphere of heightened scrutiny to call attention to Qatar’s human rights abuses.

The US government is in a unique position to influence the human rights situation in Qatar given its strong strategic and security relationships with the Gulf. It must not rely on Qatari leaders’ rhetoric to indicate the reality on the ground. Looking the other way while regional security partners commit human rights abuses sends the wrong message to both regional populations and domestic constituencies.

The Government of Qatar must release those imprisoned for exercising their right to free expression, including Mohammed al-Ajami, and cease its practice of arresting people on expression-related charges. The international community must hold Qatar accountable to its international commitments by requesting that the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Expression and Opinion, and Special Rapporteur on Cultural Expression review the case of Mohammed al-Ajami, along with those of other prisoners of conscience in Qatar, and pressure the Qatari government to end arbitrary detentions and secret trials for freedom of expression cases.

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