Ali Bin Mohsen Bin Fetais Al Marri
Mr. Attorney General,
We are writing to you to express our concerns over the continued detention of Qatari poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, and the inconsistency of this action with Qatar’s international obligations and its burgeoning global reputation as a center for media freedom.
The background to this case is a poetic duel between Ibn al-Dheeb and another Qatari poet, Khalil al-Shabrami, that took place in 2011. In the course of a series of poems that went back and forth between the two poets over an extended period of time Ibn al-Dheeb performed a poem that was widely circulated on the internet. As a result, security forces arrested Ibn al-Dheeb on November 17 and the judiciary charged him on November 19 with ‘inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime’, an offence that invokes the death penalty under Article 130 of the Qatari penal code. Since November 2011, Idn al-Dheeb’s trial has been postponed on three separate occasions without reason - April 2, June 14 and July 18. The next trial date has been scheduled for October 10, by which time Ibn al-Dheeb will have been in detention for nearly one year.
While we understand that the poem recited by Ibn al-Dheeb included passages which could be construed as insulting to the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, there is no evidence to indicate that he has gone beyond the legitimate exercise of his right to free expression. In addition, while these passages may constitute a violation of Article 134 of the Qatari Penal Code, which provides for five years’ imprisonment for criticism of the Emir, this provision of the law violates freedom of speech standards under international law.
International law is unequivocal on the importance of public officials being required to tolerate a greater degree of criticism than ordinary citizens. This distinction serves the public interest by making it harder to bring a case against persons for speaking critically of public officials and political figures, thereby encouraging debate about issues of governance and common concern. Although Qatar has not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Human Rights Committee has provided authoritative interpretation of the norms of freedom of opinion and expression that Qatar has pledged to respect under the terms of Article 32 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights. The UN Human Rights Committee has made it clear that insulting a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties and affirmed that all public figures, ‘including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government’ are legitimately subject to criticism.
Qatar’s laws are not only out of step with the international law on freedom of opinion and expression, they are at odds with Qatar’s aspirations to serve as a center for media freedom in the region. On May 12 2012, in Middelburg, the Netherlands, Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani collected the Roosevelt Foundation’s Freedom of Speech and Expression Award on behalf of Al Jazeera, the news channel that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani set up in 1996. Al Jazeera’s success, which enhances Qatar’s reputation as a center for media freedom in the region, is predicated on the very principles which the detention of Ibn al-Dheeb undermines: the right to freedom of expression and opinion. The prosecution of Ibn al-Dheeb poses a serious threat to Qatar’s international reputation as a country which respects the values which underpin high quality journalism.
For these reasons we would urge the State Prosecutor to drop the charges against Ibn al-Dheeb. In the event that State Prosecutors continue with the prosecution, Human Rights Watch would urge your office to ensure that any trial is consistent with international standards on due process and the right to a fair trial, and to freedom of expression.
In particular, Qatar should respect Ibn al-Dheeb’s right to a trial within a reasonable time, as outlined in Article 14 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, and ensure that there are no further postponements. As per Article 14 of the Arab Charter, pre-trial detention should be the exception not the rule, so he should be released before trial unless the prosecution prove the necessity of keeping him in detention. Furthermore, in line with Article 13 of the Arab Charter, since there are no grounds for Ibn al-Dheeb’s trial to be held in private, we would urge you to ensure that he is tried publicly.
Middle East and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch