Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Fifteen Years for a Poem?

by Elliott Abrams
October 22, 2013


In 2011, with the “Arab Spring” under way, a Qatari poet named Mohammed el-Ajami wrote a poem. It contained this line: “We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elite.” He has also criticized, apparently in prose, the presence of American forces in Qatar, writing that  “I hope that change will come in countries whose ignorant leaders believe that glory lies in U.S. forces.”

For those “crimes” he was tried in secret in 2012, and given a life sentence for insulting the Emir and inciting the overthrow of the government (the latter a capital offense). That sentence has now been reduced to 15 years, but upheld at that level.

His only hope now is a pardon by the new Emir, Sheik Tamim.  That would be a wonderful move by the new ruler, while failure to make it would affirm the view that freedom of speech is non-existent in Qatar. Fifteen years for a poem?

Qatar is sensitive to its image and its role in the Arab world and beyond, so one can hope that continuing pressure may lead to a pardon. If it does not, one can only hope that those who laud Qatari foreign policy, or glorify Al-Jazeera and the new Al Jazeera America, which the Qatari government owns, or participate in their programs, will find a way to protest.

Al Jazeera America is meant to increase Qatari influence and showcase Qatar as a progressive nation. But we should not forget the poet who has received a fifteen year sentence for the lines he wrote in 2011.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by ah

    Agreed, it is hypocritical and a tragedy. Let’s hope increased international attention due to the World Cup will put pressure on the new Emir to act in a more transparent and just manner.

    Look forward to your post on Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli prisons for ridiculous charges as well.

  • Posted by Steve

    No sympathy for an anti-American poet. Had Hitler been jailed for Mein Kampf in Germany I would not have wailed about his rights to free speech. This person is not deserving of US sympathy. Why should we root for a man so hostile to the US ?

    BTW, there is no Constitution in Qatar, there are no rights to free speech at all. These are real crimes there, not “crimes”. It is not the sentence, it is the system itself but oddly no criticism of the fact that Qatar does not offer the equivalent of the First Amendment and that is the only criticism that would make any sense at all.

    If you want to worry about free speech, worry about it in the United States, where a man sits in jail for making a video about Muhammed.

  • Posted by Stephen Albert

    To another Steve.

    A poet isn’t Hitler.

    One should worry about free speech everywhere.I’m a Canadian .My country has libel laws which have a chilling effect on speech However, one can hardly compare Western democracies with authoritarian countries.

    I doubt that Quatari subjects are free to speak out on the issue .As Elliot pointed out, their government is sensitive to foreign pressure. We .Westerners make ourselves heard on this issue without fear of any consequences.So we should.

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