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Only Dictatorships Jail Poets: On Qatar, Al Jazeera and Free Speech
"You can't have Al Jazeera in this country and put me in jail for being a poet."
So said Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, who has now been in jail in Qatar for over a year. His crime was that he posted a poem online that was deemed to offend the emir and contravene the Gulf state's penal code which explicitly bans calls for the overthrow of the government.
That's apparently the technical basis of the outrageous criminal charge; however many believe the real reason for his imprisonment is his 'Jasmine Poem,' which includes these lines:
We are all Tunisia in the face of repressive elites.
The Arab governments and who rules them are, without exception, thieves.
This week, Al-Ajami's sentence was reduced from life in prison to 15 years. How very generous.
Qatar has used its massive oil wealth to become a major international player, especially in recent years, adding hard power of direct military intervention in places like Libya to its extensive use of the 'soft' power of money and media.
Although Qatar pursues its own goals, for the most part these coincide with the West's in the region, which is why you'll often see and hear the regime referred to as "moderate" (a term that really just means a government the big western powers are not trying to overthrow.)
The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is almost never referred to by mainstream media as a dictator. This despite the absolute nature of his family's rule, and despite the brutal treatment of the majority of workers in the country -- migrants denied basic labour and human rights.
Al Jazeera is a key weapon in Qatar's soft power arsenal, bolstering its carefully crafted image as a benevolent monarchy. The global media outlet was called out by some for being slow to report on the jailing of al-Ajami. Its report today on the reduced sentencing elides some important details.
For instance, they don't quote the poet's response to his new sentence. The Associated Press story, in contrast, includes it:
"Unjust," shouted poet Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami in the heavily guarded courtroom in Qatar's capital, Doha, after his appeal to drop the conviction was denied. The court cut the life sentence handed down in November and imposed a 15-year term instead.
This outrageous attack on free speech must not be allowed to stand.
The only upside -- poetic justice, if you will -- of this sickening episode is that by jailing a poet Qatar's government has proven the point of all its critics.
Here's hoping that the global effort to free al-Ajami brings much needed attention to the plight of all who suffer deprivation of their most basic human rights in the apartheid petrostate of Qatar.
Locking up a poet may end up freeing up a lot of truth.
Only dictatorships jail poets.