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An International Call to Release Qatari Poet Mohamed Ibn Al Ajami from Life Sentence
As you might well have heard by now, Qatari poet Mohamed Ibn Al Ajami has been sentenced to life in prison for “reciting a poem extolling the courage and values of the popular uprisings in Tunisia.” The Guardian reported on the sentence in late November, writing that:
Ajami was jailed in November 2011, months after an internet video [watch more at Democracy Now] was posted of him reciting “Tunisian Jasmine,” a poem lauding that country’s popular uprising, which touched off the Arab spring rebellions across the Middle East. In the poem, he said: “We are all Tunisia in the face of repressive” authorities, and criticised Arab governments that restrict freedoms.
Qatari officials charged Ajami with “insulting” the Gulf nation’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and “inciting to overthrow the ruling system”. The latter charge could have brought a death sentence.
Nuaimi said Ajami, a third-year student of literature at Cairo University, had been held in solitary confinement since his arrest.
Gulf regimes have stepped up crackdowns on a range of perceived threats to their rule, including Islamist groups and social media activists. Earlier this month, Kuwaiti authorities arrested four people on charges of insulting the emir with Twitter posts, and the United Arab Emirates imposed sweeping new internet regulations that allow arrests for a wide list of offensives, including insulting leaders or calling for demonstrations.
This week, human rights org Roots Action has called on all writers, poets, performers, and artists to urge our respective country’s leaders to free the poet. More:
Mohamed Ibn Al Ajami’s crime consisted of reciting on November 16, 2011 a poem extolling the courage and values of the popular uprisings in Tunisia,[:] /Oh revolutionary, sing the praises of the struggle with the blood of the people/ in the soul of the free carve the values of revolt/ and to those holding the shroud of the dead tell/ that every victory also bears its ordeals/.
According to the poet’s lawyer, Najib al-Nuaimi, the 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.”
Rather than making itself an instrument for cracking down on dissent, we believe that the Court should uphold Mohamed Ibn Al Ajami’s right to free speech. In the tradition of speaking truth to power, following the footsteps of such great poets as Pablo Neruda, Majakovski, Nazim Hikmet, Mahmoud Darwish, Faraj Bayraqdar and innumerable others throughout the world today, such as Colombia’s poet Angye Gaona, Mohamed Ibn Al Ajami placed his poetic talent to the service of a movement for change. The poem he recited called for an end to intolerable conditions, a demand that for the past two years has been aired by millions throughout North Africa and the Arab world.
In this spirit, we poets and non-poets who perceive the need for worldwide change at the social, political and ecological level, call on the Court to review the appeal, stop siding with repression and lend its ear to the movements that have sprung up all over the world for dignity, social justice and freedom, virtues that poets all over the world are endeavoring to voice and deliver using the beauty and power of poetry.
Signatories already include Michael Rothenberg, co-founder of 100,000 Poets for Change, Michael McClure, Ron Silliman, Philip Levine, Alice Walker, Naomi Shihab Nye, Carolyn Forché, Martin Espada, and many more. Find the petition to release Ajami here.