By Andy Sambidge
Human Rights Watch says life sentence undermines Qatar's image as 'free speech haven'
An international human rights group has slammed a Qatari court’s life sentence for the poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, saying it "violates the right to free expression".
Human Rights Watch said putting Ibn al-Deeb on trial "badly undermined Qatar's efforts to present itself as a free speech haven".
HRW said in a statement that the court’s two-line written judgment on November 29 made no reference to any law that Ibn al-Dheeb is alleged to have broken, although the prosecution claimed during the five-minute hearing that he had called for a revolution in Qatar.
Ibn al-Dheeb was not in court and according to his lawyer the judge prevented him from entering any defence or responding to the prosecution’s claims.
In a January 2011 poem titled Tunisian Jasmine, Ibn al-Dheeb expressed support for the uprising there. He previously had recited poems that included passages disparaging senior members of Qatar’s ruling family.
“Qatar, after all its posturing as a supporter of freedom, turns out to be determined to keep its citizens quiet,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“Ibn al-Dheeb’s alleged mockery of Qatar’s rulers can hardly compare to the mockery this judgment makes of the country’s posture as a regional center for media freedom.”
Ibn al-Dheeb has been in detention since his arrest on November 17. Qatar’s judiciary reportedly charged him two days later with “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime,” but HRW said it is unclear on what basis the court convicted him.
In June, it was reported that a draft media law approved by the State Cabinet would prohibit publishing or broadcasting information that would “throw relations between the state and the Arab and friendly states into confusion” or “abuse the regime or offend the ruling family or cause serious harm to the national or higher interests of the state".
Violators would face stiff financial penalties of up to QR1m ($275,000).
“Ibn al-Dheeb’s conviction is evidence that Qatar’s rulers regard the country’s constitution and treaty obligations as meaningless words,” Stork said.