16 March 2016
News that Qatari poet Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-‘Ajami, imprisoned for nearly five years, has been pardoned and released is a welcome development, PEN International said today. However, the worldwide association of writers said that the poet should never have been imprisoned in the first place.
Al-‘Ajami was arrested in Doha in 2011 on charges of ‘inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime’ and ‘insulting the Emir’ relating to the content of two of his poems. The charges were brought after recordings of Al-‘Ajami reciting his poems at private gatherings were posted online. One of the poems, ‘Tunisian Jasmine,’ expresses support for the uprising in Tunisia that initiated the Arab Spring. Al-‘Ajami was initially sentenced to life in prison, which was reduced to 15 years on appeal in February 2013.
‘This is heartening news, coming as it does just days before World Poetry Day, but it’s ludicrous that Al-Ajami, a father of four, spent almost five year in prison, simply for reciting a poem in private. Qatari authorities must ensure that all its citizens are free to express themselves peacefully without fear of imprisonment or reprisals,’ said Carles Torner, PEN International executive director.
PEN International and its Centres have been campaigning for Al-‘Ajami’s release since his arrest, and several adopted him as an Honorary Member, including Austrian PEN, English PEN, German PEN and PEN American Center. In October 2013, representatives of PEN International and PEN American Center travelled to Qatar to meet with authorities at the Public Prosecution office to formally request access to Al-’Ajami—who was being kept in solitary confinement and whose prison visitation rights were severely restricted—and were approved to visit the poet. The delegation was met with a series of obstructions when they reached Doha’s Central Prison, however, and was ultimately denied access by prison authorities. Al-‘Ajami’s family told the PEN representatives that the poet knew they were there and was uplifted by the visit.
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