November 29, 2012 3:49 pm

Qatari poet jailed for ‘insulting emir’

A Qatari poet has been sentenced to life imprisonment after a trial that highlights the broadening crackdown on dissent across the Gulf, rights groups say.

Mohammed ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, who has been detained in solitary confinement since his detention in November 2011, was sentenced by the court of first instance after being charged with insulting the emir and trying to overthrow the government.

The ruling, which can be appealed, is the latest in a string of repressive moves by Gulf monarchies against domestic critics who dare to challenge the status quo of loyalty to the region’s absolute rulers.

“The verdict has sent out shockwaves among activists in Qatar and the Gulf region,” said Dina El-Mamoun, researcher with Amnesty International. “It is an outrageous betrayal of free speech.”

As well as becoming an increasingly active global investor, Qatar has – home to the US military’s regional forward base – played a leading role in promoting change in the Middle East since the Arab spring swept away four dictators in the past two years.

But rights groups say the gas-rich state is less keen on highlighting abuses in Gulf nations or at home. Qatar is coming under increasing scrutiny after its selection as host for the 2022 football World Cup.

The poet wrote the widely distributed “Jasmine Poem” in 2011, which criticised Gulf rulers in the wake of the Tunisian revolution.

The controversial poem was interpreted as attacking the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. “We are all Tunis in the face of the repressive elite,” it read.

The critique echoes the concerns over development among other opposition movements in the richer Gulf states of Qatar and the UAE, where rulers secure loyalty via cradle-to-grave welfare payments.

The clampdown on criticism of the region’s ruling families has swept across the Gulf monarchies since the Arab spring spread from Tunisia and Egypt in February 2011, as serious protests rocked Bahrain and Oman.

Qatar joined Gulf troops that crossed into Bahrain to back the minority Sunni government’s violent crackdown on the protest movement led by the majority Shia.

Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have all launched legal action against critics of their respective ruling families.

The move in Doha comes after a UN committee this week called on Qatar to strengthen its domestic laws and practices to end abuses.

The UN committee on torture called on Doha to ensure safeguards to prevent torture during detention, such as allowing the state-approved national human rights committee access to inspect detainees, while also criticising what it described as a lack of judicial independence in practice.

The concerns were raised by the UN committee against torture after reviewing Qatar’s second periodic report on human rights, which had been submitted to the UN three years late.

The UN committee said it “regretted” the lack of information in the case of Sultan al-Khalaifi, the founder of a human rights group arrested in March 2011, who was detained for a month without charge. The UN committee raised concerns about pieces of Qatari legislation that are used to hold suspects without charge, which prevents them from gaining access to a lawyer, doctor, as well as the right to notify family members and challenge the legality of the detention. Qatar, however, defended its human rights record.

“While in Qatar we have the feeling that we have achieved significant attainments in a short period of time, we realise however that much more needs to be done,” the government’s representative said in a response to the UN.

Additional reporting by Abeer Allam in Cairo

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