Prisoner Profile: Mohammed al-Ajami

Today marks four years since Qatari authorities arrested Mohammed al-Ajami for the contents of his poetry. Al-Ajami is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence and will remain in prison barring a pardon from the emir. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) calls on the government of Qatar to respect his right to freedom of expression, drop the charges against al-Ajami, and release him.

Qatari authorities arrested al-Ajami on 16 November 2011 after a video surfaced of him reciting a poem to a private audience at his house in Cairo, though some believe his arrest came in retaliation against a different poem in which al-Ajami expressed his support for the Tunisian Revolution, saying, “We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elite.” The government charged al-Ajami with insulting the emir and encouraging the overthrow of the nation’s ruling system. Although his poems did not call for violence, a state security court in Qatar sentenced al-Ajami to life in prison on 29 November 2012. In February 2013, an appeals court reduced the sentence to 15 years, and Qatar’s highest court upheld the decision in October that year.

In May 2014, the Qatari government stated to a UN working group that “all measures taken against the poet Mohammed al-Ajami were consistent with international rules.” On 20 October 2015, however, three UN Special Rapporteurs urged the government of Qatar to release al-Ajami, citing the lack of due process afforded to him and the laws that restricted his free expression. David Kaye, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, asserted, “laws restricting the right to freedom of expression must never be used as tools for silencing the criticism of authorities.” According to the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Mónica Pinto, al-Ajami’s sentence is particularly worrying due to “serious indications that the criminal process did not meet all the judicial guarantees of a fair trial.” The Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, Farida Shaheed, further stated that “artists have the right to dissent, to use political, religious and economic symbols as a counter-discourse to dominant powers, and to express their own belief and world vision.”

The arrest and continued imprisonment of Mohammed al-Ajami violates his universal human rights, including the right to liberty, the right to freedom of expression, and the right to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal. The Government of Qatar must uphold its international human rights commitments by releasing al-Ajami and ensuring that it does not restrict its citizens’ right to free expression.

Matthew Tramonti is an advocacy intern at ADHRB.