16 March 2016 – Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) welcomes the announcement that Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, has issued a royal pardon for imprisoned poet Mohammed al-Ajami. The detention of Mr. al-Ajami on charges related solely to the contents of his poetry was a glaring example of Qatar’s failure to meet its international obligations to respect human rights; his release, conversely, represents a significant step toward the free and open development of Qatari civil society.
Qatari authorities arrested Mr. al-Ajami on 16 November 2011, after they summoned him to a state security facility. Upon his arrival, officials took him into custody and held him incommunicado for several months, charging him with insulting the emir and “inciting to overthrow the ruling system.” It is unclear precisely to which poem the charges relate, but the arrest came soon after a video surfaced of Mr. al-Ajami reciting a poem that was allegedly critical of the emir while at a private gathering in Cairo. Others believe his arrest was a reprisal for a separate poem in which al-Ajami expressed his support for the Tunisian Revolution, saying, “We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elite.” Although none of his poems call for violence, a state security court 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 that October.
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.” But on 20 October 2015, three UN Special Rapporteurs urged the government of Qatar to release Mr. al-Ajami, citing the lack of due process afforded to him during his trial and the laws that restricted his free expression. The Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression asserted that “laws restricting the right to freedom of expression must never be used as tools for silencing the criticism of authorities,” while the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers noted “serious indications” that the “criminal process [in Mr. al-Ajami’s case] did not meet all the judicial guarantees of a fair trial.” The Special Rapporteur on cultural rights added that the Qatari government appeared to be infringing on the right of artists “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.”
This past February, on the third anniversary of Mr. al-Ajami’s appellate hearing, international human rights and poetry organizations including ADHRB, Freedom Now, English PEN, PEN International, Amnesty International, and Split this Rock staged demonstrations outside the Qatari embassies in London and Washington, DC calling for his release. ADHRB submitted a petition to the Washington embassy with more than 3,000 signatures expressing solidarity with Mr. al-Ajami and urging the Emir to issue a pardon.
“It seems that the Government of Qatar has finally listened to the concerns of the United Nations and international community,” says ADHRB’s Executive Director, Husain Abdulla, “The Emir’s decision to pardon Mohammed al-Ajami is not only a victory for free expression over the forces of censorship and repression in Qatar, it is also a testament to the power of public, international pressure to improve human rights everywhere.”