DOHA (Reuters) - A Qatari poet jailed for life for criticizing the emir and attempting to incite revolt had his sentence cut to 15 years on Monday, in a case human rights groups said showed hypocrisy by the Gulf state, which has supported Arab uprisings abroad.
In his verses, Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami praised the Arab Spring revolts that toppled four dictators, often with the help of money and other support from Qatar, a close U.S. ally which also backs rebels in Syria.
But the poet also criticized Qatar’s absolute monarch and spoke, for example, of “sheikhs playing on their PlayStations”.
He was sentenced to life in prison three months ago, but he appealed against the conviction and sentence, arguing he should be freed as there was no evidence that he had recited the offending verses in public and so no basis for charging him with incitement.
His term was reduced on Monday to 15 years. Al-Ajami shouted “There is no law for this” as he was led away by guards from Qatar’s court of appeal.
Defense lawyer Najib al-Naimi said the poet would now appeal to the supreme court, describing the unanimous decision by the three-judge appeal court as a miscarriage of justice.
“There is politics behind this. They are trying to demonstrate to the Qatari citizens that if anyone opens his mouth, they will have the same treatment ... to set an example.”
Among offending passages from one of al-Ajami’s poems, translated from Arabic, was the line: “If the sheikhs cannot carry out justice, we should change the power and give it to the beautiful woman.”
Qatar, a major natural gas producer and home to a U.S. military base, has escaped the unrest seen in other Arab countries. The emir has taken a high-profile role at times in calling for human rights - for example, when he went to Gaza in November, the first foreign leader there in years.
Qatar-based Al Jazeera television has closely covered the Arab revolts, though it gave scant coverage to an uprising in neighboring Bahrain - ruled by another Gulf Arab monarchy.
The Qatari government has also taken a prominent role in the confrontation between, on the one hand, Sunni Muslim-ruled Arab states like itself and Saudi Arabia and, on the other, Iran and its Shi‘ite allies in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.
Qatar supported the street protests that ousted rulers in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. It also supported the NATO-backed uprising in Libya and is backing the rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war.
But freedom of expression is tightly controlled in the small Gulf state, home to less than two million people. Self-censorship is prevalent among national newspapers and other media outlets. Qatar has no organized political opposition.
When al-Ajami was given life, Amnesty International’s Middle East director Philip Luther said: “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.”
The United Nations has also said it is concerned about al-Ajami’s situation. U.N. human rights spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly told a news briefing in Geneva on Jan 8 his trial had been marred by a number of procedural irregularities.
Ali al-Hattab, a Saudi who tracks human rights in the Gulf, said Monday’s ruling presented a “very bad image for Qatar”.
“They talk about democracy and equality, but they won’t give people like Mohammed the freedom to speak, because it threatens their power and control. All he has done is recite a poem. How can they charge him with trying to overthrow a regime?” he said.
Reporting By Regan Doherty; Editing by William Maclean and Pravin Char