Doha, Qatar – A Qatari poet jailed for life for encouraging the overthrow of the government has had his sentence reduced to 15 years by an appeals court.
Muhammad Rashid al-Ajami – a Qatari citizen who goes by the name ibn al-Dheeb in his poetry – was sentenced to life in prison last year.
But Qatar’s Court of Appeal reduced the sentence following a brief session on Monday.
Ajami’s lawyer, Dr Najeeb al-Nuaimi, said the five judges on the court were unanimous in their decision. Nuaimi plans on filing an appeal to Qatar’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, in three weeks.
Ajami was visibly disappointed by the ruling and looked agitated while being led out of the packed courtroom.
Qatar’s attorney general, Dr Ali bin Fetais al-Marri, also said he was “not happy” with the judgment. “As a chief prosecutor, I look forward to restoring the sentence to a life term,” he told Al Jazeera.
Nuaimi, however, voiced optimism that his client will be spared a long jail term. “We know at the end of the day he will be pardoned,” he told reporters gathered outside the court. “Everybody knows. They told us. Even if he’s sentenced for life, 15 years, whatever … [he is likely to be released] in a couple of months.”
“The case is well-founded in law; it is a totally solid case.”
– Qatar Attorney General Ali ben Fetais al-Marri
In August 2010, Ajami reportedly recited a poem critical of Qatar’s leadership in front of several friends in Cairo, where he was studying Arabic literature at the time. A recording of the recitation was later uploaded to YouTube.
The poem seems to have been part of a back-and-forth poetry battle between Ajami and another poet. “What we believe to be the case from the information available,” Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera, “is that … in the course of those [duels], ibn al-Dheeb appears to have disparaged the emir [of Qatar] to some extent”.
The 37-year-old poet, a father of four, also wrote a controversial poem about the 2010-11 uprising in Tunisia, which some activists believe contributed to his arrest. “We are all Tunisia in the face of repressive elites,” the poem read.
Steve Caton, a professor of contemporary Arab studies at Harvard University, said political poetry is taken far more seriously in the Arab world than in the West. Nevertheless, he said, it is “very rare” for a poet to be jailed for his verses.
Ajami was arrested in November 2011 and held in solitary confinement for several months, according to his lawyer – a claim Attorney General Marri denies. In November 2012, Qatar’s Court of First Instance sentenced the poet to life in prison. Calling for the overthrow of the government is codified under Article 136 of Qatar’s penal code, which mandates a life sentence for those who “instigat[e] by public means to overthrow the regime of the country”.
“The case is well-founded in law; it is a totally solid case. There is an offence culpable under the law, the perpetrator confessed of the offense,” said Attorney General Marri.
Nuaimi, however, argued that because the poem Ajami read in Cairo was not recited in public, he should not be charged with encouraging the overthrow of the government. He also said Ajami was not permitted to attend court during his earlier sentencing.
Nuaimi, a former Qatari justice minister, also worked for Saddam Hussein’s defence team when the ousted Iraqi leader was convicted and sentenced to death in 2006 for crimes against humanity.
Ajami’s life sentence was heavily criticised by rights groups.
“It is deplorable that Qatar, which likes to paint itself internationally as a country that promotes freedom of expression, is indulging in what appears to be such a flagrant abuse of that right,” said Amnesty International.
“We have called for his unconditional release as he appears to be a prisoner of conscience – and to overturn the conviction,” Amnesty International researcher Dina el-Mamoun told Al Jazeera.