DOHA (Reuters) - A Qatari poet jailed for 15 years for reciting verses that praised the 2011 uprising in Tunisia and criticized his own country’s ruling family has been freed after receiving a royal pardon, a relative said on Wednesday.
Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami’s imprisonment was widely seen by rights groups as an act of hypocrisy by the tiny Gulf Arab monarchy, which has supported Arab uprisings abroad and spent millions on its satellite TV network Al Jazeera.
The reasoning for the pardon by Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, wasn’t immediately clear, but it came days before Qatar hosts two international press freedom conferences.
Qatari officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The family member, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the case, said Ajami was in “good health” and “relieved to be free”. Najeeb al-Naimi, the poet’s lawyer, said he had not been contacted by al-Ajami since his release.
In his verses, Ajami praised the Arab Spring revolts that toppled four dictators, often with the help of money and other support from Qatar. He also criticized Qatar’s own absolute monarch and spoke, for example, of “sheikhs playing on their Playstations”.
Like other Gulf Arab monarchies, Qatar tightly controls freedom of expression, with self-censorship prevalent among national newspapers. The Gulf Arab state, home to a U.S. military base and a population of less than two million people, has no organized political opposition.
Doha-based Al Jazeera assiduously covered movements for democracy in the Arab world but gave scant coverage to a 2011 uprising in the neighboring Gulf kingdom of Bahrain.
Ajami, 39, was arrested in 2011 and initially sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime”, a term that a year later was cut to 15 years.
His case drew international attention. In January, several of the world’s top Arabic-English translators and Arab novelists urged participants at an international translation conference, sponsored by Qatar, to withdraw in protest at his arrest.
Since winning the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has modeled itself as a hub for art and intellectual freedom, investing in the careers of prominent artists and writers from across the Middle East and funding literary awards and publishing houses.
Some Qataris on Wednesday celebrated the news of Ajami’s release while others said he should have been kept behind bars for what a prominent pro-government youth activist, Mostafa Adawai, called his “recklessness and insolence.”
Reporting by Tom Finn; Editing by Sami Aboudi/Mark Heinrich