Qatar Authorities Thwart PEN Prison Visit with al-Ajami
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DOHA—PEN representatives were denied access to jailed poet Mohammed al-Ajami this week after Qatar’s highest court upheld the poet’s 15-year sentence on Monday. Al-Ajami remains in solitary confinement two years after his arrest for “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime” and “insulting the Emir” in his poetry.
On Tuesday, PEN International Vice President and PEN American Center Trustee Joanne Leedom-Ackerman and PEN American Center Freedom to Write Coordinator Sarah Hoffman met with authorities at Qatar’s Public Prosecution office, expressing concern about al-Ajami’s case and formally requesting access to the poet, whose visitation rights are severely restricted. The office later informed the PEN representatives that their request had been approved and was sent to prison authorities.
The following morning, Leedom-Ackerman and Hoffman traveled to Doha’s Central Prison, located in a vast desert landscape on the outskirts of the city, where they were met with a series of obstructions as both the attorney general’s office and prison authorities gave conflicting information and advice. Al-Ajami’s family told the PEN representatives that the poet knew they were there and was heartened by the prospect of a meeting, and urged them to persist.
Leedom-Ackerman and Hoffman returned to the attorney general’s office the next morning to receive hard copies of the approval to bring to the prison, but were ultimately denied.
“We came to Qatar out of respect for the country’s commitment to the arts and expanded global dialogue and a deep concern that the imprisonment of a writer for his poetry is inconsistent with this stated goal,” said Leedom-Ackerman.
“We stood in sight of the prison complex with the continued hope that the bureaucratic knot would untangle and we would be permitted access. We remain concerned about the conditions of al-Ajami’s detention, in particular the restrictions of solitary confinement. We call for his immediate and unconditional release, but have been told that al-Ajami’s only recourse now is a pardon from the Emir, which we strongly urge. In the meantime, PEN continues to call on authorities at the very least to remove him from solitary confinement and allow him to associate with other prisoners, and to lift restrictions on visits from family, friends, and independent observers as mandated by UN principles.”
Mohammed al-Ajami, 37 years old, is a married father of four children, the youngest of whom was born while the poet was already in prison. Al-Ajami was a third-year literature student at Cairo University when he was arrested in Qatar in November 2011. A year later, after a trial marred by irregularities, the Criminal Court in Doha sentenced al-Ajami to life in prison—a sentence reduced to 15 years on appeal.
PEN American Center is the largest branch of PEN International, the world’s leading literary and human rights organization. The Freedom to Write Program of PEN American Center works to protect the freedom of the written word wherever it is imperiled and defends writers and journalists from all over the world who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted, or attacked in the course of carrying out their profession. For more information on PEN’s work, please visit www.pen.org
PEN International celebrates literature and promotes freedom of expression. Founded in 1921, our global community of writers now comprises 146 Centres spanning more than 100 countries. Our programmes, campaigns, events and publications connect writers and readers for global solidarity and cooperation. PEN International is a non-political organization and holds consultative status at the United Nations and UNESCO. www.pen-international.org
Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Doha/Brussels: +1 (202) 669-7349, jlajoanne[at]aol.com
Sarah Hoffman, Doha: +974 4428 1428, sarah[at]pen.org
Suzanne Nossel, New York: +1 (212) 334-1660, ext. 103, snossel[at]pen.org
Ann Harrison, London: +44 7804 867427, ann.harrison[at]pen-international.org