Renowned Qatari poet Mohammed Ben al-Dheeb has been sentenced to life imprisonment for writing verse that authorities claim insults the country's symbols and encourages the overthrow of the government.
Qatar has been a supporter of Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and of the overthrow of the Gadaffi régime in Libya. It also supports Syrian rebels against Assad. However, it is not willing to countenance criticism of the monarchy even in poetry by a well-established poet.
The poet was charged with three counts: incitement against the régime, defamation of the crown prince, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and attacking the constitution. The verdict came after six hearings, most of which were held in secret.
Al-Dheeb's lawyer, Najib al-Nuaimi said that the poet would actually only be liable for five years in prison, that the life in prison would apply only if he had mounted a coup. The decision is being appealed. Al-Nuaimi complained: 'This judge made the whole trial secret. Muhammad was not allowed to defend himself and I was not allowed to plead or defend in court. I told the judge that I need to defend my client in front of an open court, and he stopped me.''
The famous Qatar-based news outlet Al Jazeera did not carry the new even though Al Jazeera has been at the forefront of criticizing human rights violations in other Arab countries including Kuwait, Jordan, and Bahrain. Amnesty International said that the verdict bore “all the hallmarks of an outrageous betrayal of free speech." Philip Luther the regional director of Amnesty added:“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 poet was arrested on the charges in November of 2011, so has already served a year in jail. The charges were based upon the content of one poem. After publication of his Jasmine poem that criticized governments across the entire Gulf region, authorities placed him under arrest for the charges listed. In the poem, he had said that in the face of the repressive elite, we are all Tunisia.
The charges against al-Dheeb are just the latest in a series of crackdowns on dissent in Gulf States, including Bahrain, Kuwait, and Dubai. Since his arrest al-Dheeb has been held in solitary confinement. He is a third-year student in literature at Cairo University.