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Qatar cuts poet's life term to 15 years in jail; outcry persists

February 25, 2013|By Emily Alpert

A Qatari poet jailed for verses deemed seditious and insulting to his nation's emir faces 15 years behind bars after an appeals court cut back on his prison term Monday.

Human rights groups were outraged in November when a Qatari court first ruled that Mohammed Ajami must spend life in prison for penning verses that allegedly urged the overthrow of the government and insulted the emir.

No explanation was given Monday for reducing his sentence, according to the Doha News, and the move did little to quell an outcry over the case. As the verdict was read Monday in a Doha courtroom, Ajami reportedly shouted that the decision was unjust. Rights groups quickly chimed in.

“It doesn’t matter if he’s in jail for a day, for 15 years or for life,” said Sunjeev Bery, Middle East and North Africa advocacy director for Amnesty International USA. “It’s a flagrant violation of his human rights.”

Prosecutors have defended the charges as a legitimate reaction to the crime of urging the overthrow of the government. Qatar's attorney general told Al Jazeera that the charges against Ajami were “a totally solid case” and said he would try to reinstate the life sentence. The case now heads to the country's highest court.

Ajami was charged over a 2010 poem that weighed in on the traits of a good leader -- a topic apparently seen as an attack on the emir and ruling family, Associated Press reported.

However, activists believe his arrest resulted from a later work, “Jasmine Poem,” which invoked the Arab Spring uprisings that began in Tunisia. The work criticized governments across the region, declaring, “We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elite.”

“The fact that he was arrested directly following the publication of that poem suggests the poet was being cracked down on for criticizing his government,” Bery told the Los Angeles Times on Monday.

Qatar has celebrated the Arab Spring in other countries while cracking down on its own critics, human rights groups complain. The wealthy emirate has sided with the Syrian uprising and subsidizes Al Jazeera, which has reported aggressively on protest movements elsewhere in the region. Yet journalists in Qatar face jail for “denigration” or breaching a blanket ban on a wide range of topics, according to Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House.

Activists fear it is moving still further from free speech: Human Rights Watch warned in October that lawmakers are seeking to stiffen the rules further, advancing a draft media law that includes “loosely worded provisions penalizing criticism of Qatar or neighboring governments.”

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