It may not seem especially unusual in itself for a poet to be imprisoned in a Gulf state on charges of attacking state symbols. Authoritarianism and hostility to dissent, actual or perceived, in such quarters are nothing new. That the particular state in question has been a leading sponsor of democratic uprisings around the region, however, has caused more than a few resentful murmurings of hypocrisy.
Human rights organizations were appalled last November when Qatar sentenced local poet Muhammad al-Ajami, also known as Muhammad Ibn al-Dhib, to life imprisonment for alleged “incitement against the regime, defamation of the crown prince, and attacking the constitution.” The evidence, such as it was, constituted a poem written by Ibn al-Dhib in solidarity with the 2011 Tunisian revolution. A trio of purported “poetry experts” employed by the government testified in court that the poem was indeed insulting to the Qatari ruler, Emir Sheikh Hamad al-Thani. An Amnesty International statement at the time described the verdict as bearing “all the hallmarks of an outrageous betrayal of free speech.”
The sentence was appealed and reduced on Monday to 15 years in prison. Ibn al-Dhib’s lawyer vowed to take the case to the court of cassation, Qatar’s highest court, for a final appeal.
This reduction, however, has failed to satisfy human rights organizations, who object to Ibn al-Dhib’s arrest in the first place.
“He hasn’t committed any internationally-recognized crime,” said Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “The issue here is not reducing the sentence from life to fifteen years, the issue is that his sentence, regardless of the length of it, violates freedom of expression, and should be dismissed. He was using his freedom of speech and no one should go to jail for that,” he told NOW.
Houry added that Ibn al-Dhib’s arrest was “frankly in direct contradiction with Qatar’s… posturing in support of freedom in the Arab world. It’s very important to implement these principles in their own country. The problem is that the penal code of Qatar, like many other Arab penal codes, criminalizes certain forms of speech.”
Monday’s news also sparked a backlash on Twitter, with a number of renowned figures in the Gulf arts community voicing their anger. The Saudi artist Nasser al-Qosseiby wrote: “Muhammad Ibn al-Dhib is sentenced to 15 years in prison for a poem and others lead a quiet life knowing that they deserve capital punishment. Beware, O earthly judge, [of] the Heavenly Judge.”
Poet Saud al-Hafi wrote a rhyming tweet encouraging Ibn al-Dhib, denouncing the injustice against him and praising his peaceful stance.
Other tweets on the hashtag #MohammadIbnal-Dhib’strial mocked Qatar for its support of the Arab Spring while not allowing freedom of expression on its own soil.
Nawwaf al-Ajami thus wrote: “They support freedoms, but are bothered by a poem. They have grown more immune than Allah and His Prophet.”
Another popular tweet read: “Democracy is not [a word] to be worn as adornment in front of others and discarded when we reach the confines of our own rooms.”
Alex Rowell contributed reporting.
This article is a translation of the original Arabic