Qatar court upholds poet Mohammed al-Ajami’s sentence
PEN’s Freedom to Write Coordinator Sarah Hoffman appeared on The Huffington Post Live this morning with Ahmed Shihab-Eldin to discuss the case of Qatari poet Mohammad al Ajami, sentenced to 15 years in prison. “[Ajami] exercised his universal right to free expression,” she said. “Regardless, we support that. We hope the Emir will be generous and free him, because that’s what right.”
AHMED SHIHAB-ELDIN: That’s it for Japan, now we move to Qatar, where in Qatar we actually have a developing story. It’s actually a story that we’ve covered here at HuffPost live for quite some time, where the 15 year prison sentence of a poet, Muhammed al-Ajami, also known as Ibn al-Dheeb has been upheld by the country’s supreme court in what al-Ajami’s lawyer called a political ruling. Al-Ajami was jailed for life two years ago allegedly because of a 2010 poem that the court claims demonstrated that he was inciting to overthrow the ruling system and insulting the emir. Charges that al-Ajami denied. By his supporters believe 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 shortened on Monday, he still faces 15 years in jail for writing a poem. Joining us now from Dubai is Mohammad al-Ajami’s lawer Dr. Najeeb al-Nauimi, who has represented a number of high profile figures, including, it has to be said, Saddam Hussein, and from Doha we have Sarah Hoffman, the Freedom to Write coordinator at PEN America and an expert of issues of free speech, who has been working on this case since his arrest was first made public in late 2011. Dr. Najeeb thank you so much for joining us. I want to ask you very basically, why did you feel compelled to take this case, and what do you make of the sentencing being upheld?
NAJEEB AL NAUIMI: Well first of all I like the world sentence which says, “breaking the silence.” It’s beautiful. Because, in our world, in the Arab gulf, or worldwide, wherever, in the Arab gulf in particular, that breaking silence is very, very important. It is the same situation. The reason I have taken this case, because somebody called me the day before his arrest, and told me, been arrested Thursday, please, Mohammad would like you to represent him, and he is in a situation of he said [inaudible] please represent him. What I did, I called some VIP people and I said, “what’s going on?” Because I don’t know him personally, I don’t know Mohammad. I never heard about this poem. Because I don’t—I’m not much interested in these kind of things. But we came to the edge that a poem being said, and an arrest to be taken, and the charge has to be held on by the prosecutor. For me, I said, somebody says a poem, and you have to arrest him? So I told the guy who called me, “don’t worry, tomorrow I will meet the prosecutor,” because this is, I will call it freedom of speech. Whatever he said is supposed to be very much protected because Qatar has raised up the flag in our world that we want to defend the people who have the right to speak, people have to be free from dictatorship, [inaudible]. So I took that case, on that basis, and I started working out, and I met with him, I never heard about him before—
AL NAUIMI: But it becomes, you know, human rights business.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: You know, I appreciate your encouraging words about breaking the silence, and tying what’s happening to your client to the need to break the silence on any injustice, in Israel, or in Qatar or what have you, but Dr. Najeeb I have to ask you a very blunt question perhaps. A lot of people are pointing to an obvious hypocrisy, and I’m troubled by it as well because I used to work for Al Jazeera, I’ve been considering Al Jazeera’s role, which I’m sure you know, in amplifying and accelerating not just voices of dissent but voices of protesters in Tunisia, in Egypt, that have been challenging perhaps authority but also more importantly demanding dignity—isn’t it odd that while Al Jazeera which is funded by Qatar championed those things and amplified their voices—it’s quizzical almost that they’re jailing a poet. What do you say to that criticism and is this something that you think could lead to a pardon eventually?
AL NAUIMI: Well, let me tell you something—I am one of the people who really supported and made this kind of Al Jazeera. I am one of the people in 1995 I was a minister, we supported this to have independent TV, who have to really break the silence of all the Arabs for the media, it was started really in a very good way, and was very much independent, was you know, the rights of the people to speak loudly, so Al Jazeera became the leading of the Arab conscience on knowing exactly what’s going on in their countries.
AL NAUIMI: Which is all fine, but. But: with the influence of the Brotherhood through political whatever, they start to [inaudible] Al Jazeera because Al J became very much public, and very much listened world wide, and nobody can deny that. That’s why, this Brotherhood, they broke it inside, and started monopolizing it in a way, that served them, and I’m calling every day, that Al Jazeera admits…
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Right. So Sarah, hearing what the lawyer’s saying, do you think Mohammad al-Ajami’s case is representative of the state of free speech in Qatar? And if you can field also, the discrepancy between the state of free speech in Qatar and the way it presents itself to the world through Al Jazeera and other brands.
SARAH HOFFMAN: It doesn’t seem quite representative of the country, it doesn’t seem like they’re jailing a whole lot of journalists and writers here, but it does seem that people are quite silent in public. But then again, al-Ajami read his poem in private, and his case has been twisted around, that they’re making it seem like he read his poetry in public, and are prosecuting him based on those assumptions. You know, we can’t really dig down into the back story, it’s really not our place, but this does seem like a free expression issue, which is why PEN has gotten involved.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Right. And are you optimistic that there’s a chance for pardon?
HOFFMAN: I’m sorry—
SHIHAB-ELDIN: And are you optimistic that there’s a chance he’ll be pardoned, or that the sentence could—is there an actual legal avenue for that?
HOFFMAN: I mean, that’s the last step as far as we understand. We’re hopeful, cautiously optimistic, but you know, we hear that he must apologize to the Emir. And I don’t know if he’s willing to do that. It’s completely up to him and whether or not he wants to or should, he spoke his mind and he wrote what he felt and he exercised his universal write to freedom of expression, so regardless we support that, and we hope that the Emir will be generous and free him, because that’s what right. If Qatar wants to be a figure on the cultural stage, one of the things that allows them to fully participate in this internationally is respecting its citizens right to freedom of expression and so that would be an excellent first step, to pardon al-Ajami. So we’re hopeful.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: I’d certainly have to agree with you on that. I do want to thank you both for taking the time the join us. Dr. Najeeb, Sarah, hopefully as news develops, as we hear more, you’ll join us again to explain to us the latest details. Thanks for joining us.
AL NAUIMI: I just want to say something—
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Very quickly Dr. Najeeb, go ahead.
AL NAUIMI: I just want to say something, that Mohammad is a prisoner of conscience. He is being imprisoned for something else, or criminalizing, or attempt to throw the whatever, he is just a prisoner of conscience. And we need the support worldwide, to help, and have him released.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Thank you very much Dr. Najeeb, and thanks again for joining us both of you.