Outrage as Qatar hands poet life sentence

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Qatar Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. (AFP/Getty Images)

Qatar Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. (AFP/Getty Images)

A court in Qatar, which has backed Arab uprisings abroad, has jailed a poet to life for criticising the emir and inciting revolt - a sentence that drew outrage and charges of hypocrisy from human rights groups.

In his verses, Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami praised the Arab Spring revolts that toppled four dictators, often with the help of money and other support from the tiny, energy-rich Gulf state. But he also criticised Qatar's own absolute monarch and spoke, for example, of "sheikhs playing on their Playstations".

"This is a tremendous miscarriage of justice," said defence lawyer Nagib al-Naimi, who conveyed the sentence and verdict to Reuters outside the closed-door courtroom in the capital Doha.

At the prison where he has been held without family visits for almost a year, Ajami, 36, later told Reuters he believed the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, to be "a good man" who must be unaware of his plight. Lawyer Naimi said the defence would appeal. A royal pardon may also be a possibility.

Ajami was not himself allowed in court and Naimi said the defence was barred from making oral arguments, although he contested the prosecution case that Ajami called for revolution in Qatar - an offence which carries the death penalty.

For Amnesty International, Middle East director Philip Luther said in a statement: "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 described Ajami's arrest in November 2011 as coming after he published a poem called "Jasmine" - the symbol of the Tunisian uprising of January last year which launched the Arab Spring. In a broad criticism of Gulf rulers, he had written: "We are all Tunisia, in the face of the repressive elite."

Ajami "did not encourage the overthrow of any specific regime", Naimi said, describing the charges as having been "inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime", a capital offence, and criticising the ruler, which is punishable by up to five years imprisonment under the Qatari penal code.

Among offending passages from the poem, translated from Arabic, are the lines: "If the sheikhs cannot carry out justice, we should change the power and give it to the beautiful woman."

In another section, Ajami accused a fellow poet of being "with the sheikhs, playing with their Playstations."

Naimi, who has been largely in solitary confinement, spoke to Reuters in the presence of prison guards and others: "The Emir is a good man," he said. "I think he doesn't know that they have me here for a year, that they have put me in a single room.

"If he knew, I would be freed," he said, noting the Qatari rulers past promotion of a more open society, including his hosting of the groundbreaking television channel Al Jazeera.

"This is wrong," he said. "You can't have Al Jazeera in this country and put me in jail for being a poet."

Qatar, a close US ally and major oil and gas producer with a large American military base, has escaped the unrest in other parts of the Arab world. The emir has taken a high-profile role at times in calling for human rights - for example, when he went to Gaza last month, the first foreign leader there in years.

Al Jazeera has assiduously covered the Arab revolts, though it gave scant coverage to an uprising last year in neighbouring Bahrain - ruled by another Gulf Arab monarchy.

The Qatari government has backed the armed revolt in Syria, the successful NATO-backed uprising in Libya and street protests that ousted rulers in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. Qatar's maroon and white flag has been a common sight at pro-democracy rallies.

But freedom of expression is tightly controlled in the small Gulf state, home to less than two million people. Self-censorship is prevalent among national newspapers and other media outlets. Qatar has no organised political opposition.

In October, Human Rights Watch criticised what it said was a double standard on freedom of expression in Qatar and urged the emir not to approve a draft media law penalising criticism of the Gulf emirate and its neighbours.

"We are shocked by the verdict," said a human rights activist in neighbouring monarchy Saudi Arabia, Ali al-Hattab.

"Qatar has tried to help other countries like Libya and Syria become more democratic, but they won't accept it at home. It's shameful, and a double standard."

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