Qatar authorities thwart PEN Prison Visit to al-Ajami
PEN American Center Trustee Joanne Leedom-Ackerman appeared in a follow-up on The Huffington Post Live with Ahmed Shihab-Eldin to discuss the solitary confinement of Qatari poet Mohammad al Ajami.
(Interview begins at 1: 36)
AHMED SHIHAB-ELDIN: Next we head to Qatar, where we’ve been closely following the story of poet Mohammed al-Ajami, also known as Ibn al-Dheeb, who’s been in solitary confinement for the past two years after being sentenced to prison in 2010 for “inciting to overthrow the ruling system” and “insulting the Emir.” Now the country’s Supreme Court said that a 2010 poem written by al-Ajami demonstrated insolence towards the ruling Emir, a charge that al-Ajami denies. Instead his supporters say that it was his controversial 2011 poem “Tunisian Jasmine” that expressed support for the uprising across Tunisia, when he slammed Arab governments as indiscriminate thieves and highlighted the repression of the ruling powers in the North African state, that along with criticisms of the Emir led to his arrest. Now the father of four appealed to the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani for clemency, but while his sentence was in fact shortened this week to 15 years down from the life sentence, he had hoped for clemency as we said, now however it looks as though that has been denied. Joining me now to give us an update is PEN American Center trustee Joanne Leedom-Ackerman. Hi Joanne, thanks for joining us.
JOANNE LEEDOM-ACKERMAN: Thank you for having us.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Joanne, earlier this week we spoke to PEN Freedom to Write coordinator Sarah Hoffman, and we heard reports that she was turned away by Doha central prison when she attempted to visit al-Ajami. Now despite being granted permission by the Qatari attorney general, this happened. So, what’s the latest in the case, and on what grounds were you denied visitation?
LEEDOM-ACKERMAN: Sarah and I both went over to Qatar in the hope that we might be able to have some conversations before the sentence was finally confirmed by the courts. By the time we landed, that sentence had been confirmed. So the very next thing we did was go to the attorney general’s office, and met with officials there. We had several hours’ worth of meetings, and in the afternoon were told that our request had been approved and sent to the prison. So the very next day we got up early and went out to the prison, which is outside of Doha in a very desert, rocky landscape, and the prison authorities told us they had not received the request. So we immediately got on the phone to those we had spoken with in the attorney general’s office and—not to take you through the ordeal but we were standing outside in this dusty desert landscape for five hours, perhaps making as many as 25 phone calls back and forth between different officials, each of them telling us they would get back to us in five minutes, in an hour, the person is in a meeting, and finally one of the leading prison officials who runs the prison was driving out, and stopped and said what are you doing here, and we spoke with him, and he said, I have no problem with you coming, I just haven’t received the permission. Sarah and I—
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Forgive me, I hate to interject, but I want to ask you—it’s important to mention that the family said that the poet al-Ajami himself knew you were there and he was heartened by the prospect of a potential meeting, and he urged you to persist and to persevere. So feel free to continue what you were saying, but if you could share with us any information at all about his mood, if this has affected his spirits at all.
LEEDOM-ACKERMAN: That we do not know. He was visited by family members, and the family members through people who knew us knew that we were there and waiting, and so they did ask us to stay and persist. So we stayed again, we went back to the authority and went through the whole procedure again and then were told we were not allowed to visit. We spoke to the family afterwards. I do not know how it affected his moods because unfortunately we were not able to see him or talk with him. I can’t imagine it was helpful.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Of course. And you know Joanne I have to ask you, we have a comment coming in from Jasenko [Twitter] who is watching this interview in real time, and he’s saying, “with Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera American talking about democracy and freedom who is the freedom of speech seen in Doha?” You know, this is obviously a question, there was news this week that Al Jazeera America is now going to come to Time Warner in America very soon, and there is a blatant hypocrisy that can’t be ignored especially considering the role Al Jazeera, which is funded by Qatar, played in these Arab uprisings in terms of promoting this protest movement so to speak in all these countries. What are your thoughts on that?
LEEDOM-ACKERMAN: Well, we actually did, because we were not able to meet with him, we went and we met with the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, which in fact is funded by the Emir, but has independent board and independent staff, and they in fact had again said that the imprisonment of al-Ajami was not conducive to media freedom or to the goal of this Centre. So even within that confines—but it was explained to us by many people that essentially the Qatari citizen does not have wide access to other points of view, because the Qatari media essentially reports what is told them. And even Al Jazeera in Qatar has not covered this very well. It has not been covered very much at all in the Qatari press.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Well Joanne you know a couple months ago, or maybe even longer, we had covered it and we had asked someone from Al Jazeera to join, we couldn’t get anyone to join us, because we did want to discuss that angle. I do just quickly want to ask you: does this mean then that he’s going to have to serve out the rest of his 15 year sentence?
LEEDOM-ACKERMAN: Well no, I certainly hope not, the only legal—the only recourse we are told, is that he can be given a pardon by the Emir. And we certainly hope that will happen. We hope that enough people will communicate the importance of demonstrating the stated goal of a free and an arts-centered, an idea-centered society in Qatar, which we would all like to see happen. But this is going to be a very big and festering thorn and splinter if he is kept in prison. But there will be voices from many quarters now saying the best thing you could do is to give him a pardon. The nature of that pardon and how that’s worked out has yet to be seen. So we are urging it.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Well Joanne, I appreciate you urging it, I appreciate you joining us, and we have a lot more information of course as always in our resource well for those who are watching and who want to get involved. Thanks again for joining us.
LEEDOM-ACKERMAN: Okay. Thank you very much.