Two years after his sentencing, a group of United Nations human-rights experts reminded the world about Muhammad al-Ajami, serving 15 years in Qatar for writing and reciting a poem:
In a prepared statement issued October 20, UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights Farida Shaheed said that “the penalty imposed on Mr. al-Ajami is disproportionate and amounts to political censorship to art and expression.”
Although discussion of Al-Ajami has been quieter since his 15-year sentence was confirmed, articles about Qatar continue to routinely insert al-Ajami’s case as a symbol of political and cultural repression in the Gulf state. However, these articles rarely flesh out his story, reporting on his his hunger strike or catching up with his family.
According to Doha News, al-Ajami remains unique:
Despite the arrest of several foreign journalists and ongoing censorship of imported books and magazines, there have been few known detentions in Qatar similar to al-Ajami’s case, in which individuals charged for publishing material are deemed a threat by authorities.
Al-Ajami makes an unfortunate poster-child for free speech. The case apparently stems from a 2010 private get-together in Cairo, where a friend goaded al-Ajami into presenting a poem that was indirectly critical of Qatar’s ruling family.
The poetic exchange was videoed and later posted on YouTube — according to al-Ajami’s lawyer and supporters, without the poet’s knowledge. Qatari authorities arrested al-Ajami in November 2011, charging him with “inciting to overthrow the regime” and “insulting the Emir.”
This is the second time the UN has raised al-Ajami’s case with Qatar. After the first letter, in December 2012, the Qatari government responded, saying the trial had been conducted in line with “international standards.” This time, however, there has been no public response.
Letter: Arbitrary conviction of Qatari poet
Jasmine Revolution Poem:
Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s free translation of al-Ajami’s “Jasmine Revolution Poem,” which was read at an event in support of the poet in San Francisco:
Jasmine Revolution Poem
By Mohammad al-Ajami Ibn al-Dhib
Prime Minister, Mohamed al-Ghannouchi:
If we measured your might
it wouldn’t hold a candle
to a constitution.
We shed no tears for Ben Ali,
nor any for his reign.
It was nothing more than a moment
in time for us,
a system of oppression,
an era of autocracy.
Tunisia declared the people’s revolt:
When we lay blame
only the base and vile suffer from it;
and when we praise
we do so with all our hearts.
A revolution was kindled with the blood of the people:
their glory had worn away,
the glory of every living soul.
So, rebel, tell them,
tell them in a shrouded voice, a voice from the grave:
tell them that tragedies precede all victories.
A warning to the country whose ruler is ignorant,
whose ruler deems that power
comes from the American army.
A warning to the country
whose people starve
while the regime boasts of its prosperity.
A warning to the country whose citizens sleep:
one moment you have your rights,
the next they’re taken from you.
A warning to the system—inherited—of oppression.
How long have all of you been slaves
to one man’s selfish predilections?
How long will the people remain
ignorant of their own strength,
while a despot makes decrees and appointments,
the will of the people all but forgotten?
Why is it that a ruler’s decisions are carried out?
They’ll come back to haunt him
in a country willing
to rid itself of coercion.
Let him know, he
who pleases only himself, and does nothing
but vex his own people; let him know
someone else will be seated on that throne,
someone who knows the nation’s not his own,
nor the property of his children.
It belongs to the people, and its glories
are the glories of the people.
They gave their reply, and their voice was one,
and their fate, too, was one.
All of us are Tunisia
in the face of these oppressors.
The Arab regimes and those who rule them
are all, without exception,
without a single exception,
This question that keeps you up at night—
its answer won’t be found
on any of the official channels…
Why, why do these regimes
import everything from the West—
everything but the rule of law, that is,
and everything but freedom?
THE CASE OF QATARI POET AL-AJAMI REMINDS US OF HUNDREDS OF OTHER POETS, WRITERS AND JOURNALISTS WHO ARE ON THE ROADS OF EXILE BECAUSE OF PERSECUTION, DEATH THREATS, LOSS OF FREEDOM…
We do not forget, 20 years ago, on 10 November 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian military dictatorship because he told the truth. And the murder of Anna Politkovskaya in Russia, on 7 October 2006 and that of Hrant Dink in Turkey, in January 2007, are the most glaring examples and revolting crime. Or, in Viet Nam, PEN International also mourned the painful and unjust death of blogger and teacher Dinh Dang Dinh occurred on 3 April 2014 at his home, after being sentenced in August 2012 to six years in prison. He was amnestied too late on 21 March 2014, when he was only a dying skeleton devoured by stomach cancer in prison. Shortly before his death, Dinh Dang Dinh said that when he discovered blood in his bowel movement, he formulated many requests to be admitted to a hospital for examination but that the camp warders beat him instead of giving him the adequate treatment he urgently needed. 69-year-old poet Nguyen Huu Cau serving a life sentence in lieu of a death penalty imposed in 1983 was also amnestied in March 2014 for health reasons: he suffers from severe heart failure, blindness in his left eye, failing vision in his right eye, and is almost deaf. While his release is welcome, he should never have been in prison in the first place. We continue to work together to raise public awareness to the plight of persecuted writers and journalists who are in jail for their writings or their opinion.
As a reminder, sent by the RFI to Mali, Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon were murdered on 2 November 2013. Since their atrocious death, blood does not stop flowing. Charlie Hebdo was reduced to ashes at the heart of Paris. Elsa Cayat, Jean Cabut, Philippe Honoré, Bernard Verlhac, Georges Wolinski, Stephane Charbonnier, Bernard Maris and Mustapha Ourrad were killed unjustly. Everywhere, pen and pencil continue to be confiscated or destroyed. Drawings, songs, poems are targets of arbitrary political power, religious fanaticism and intolerance, secret police surveillance and major organized crime.
During the last 12 months, since 2 November 2014, according to PEN International, at least 49 writers, poets, journalists, bloggers, cartoonists, correctors and filmakers have been murdered, with impunity. We deplore 8 killings in France (Charlie Hebdo), 6 in Mexico (José Moisés Sanchez Cerezo, Ismail Diaz Lopez, Gerardo Nieto Alvarez, Juan Mendoza Delgado, Filadelfo Sanchez Sarmiento, Ruben Espinosa), 5 in Bangladesh (Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Dash, Niloy Chakrabarti, Faisal Arefin Dipan), 5 in India (Jagender Singh, Sandeep Kothari, Raghavendra Dube, Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi, Mithilesh Pandey), 4 in Iraq (Thaer Alali, Ammar Al-Sahahbander, Raed Al-Joubouri, Suahaa Ahmed Radhi), 2 in Brazil (Marcos de Barros Leopoldo Guerra, Evany José Metzker), 2 in the Philippines (Nerlita Ledesma, Gregorio Ybanez), 2 in Syria (Kenji Goto Jogo, Khaled al-Asaad), 2 in Turkey (Ibrahim Abdulkadir, Firaz Hamadi), 1 in Azerbaijan (Rasim Aliyev), 1 in Denmark (Finn Nørgaard), 1 in Egypt (Shaimaa El-Sabbagh), 1 in Guatemala (Danilo Lopez), 1 in Kenya (John Kituyi), 1 in Mozambique (Paulo Machava), 1 in Pakistan (Zafarullah Jatak), 1 in Peru (Fernando Raymondi Uribe), 1 in Poland (Lukasz Masiak), 1 in Somalia (Abdullahi Ali Hussein), 1 in South Soudan (Peter Moi Julius), 1 in Ukraine (Oles Buzyna), and 1 in Yemen (Abdul Karim Mohammed Al-Khaiwani).
At the same time, the Writers in Prison Committee has recorded about 900 cases of attacks against our bearers of dreams and adventures, witnesses of human realities around the world. The PEN Congress in Quebec, last October, has adopted resolutions on the very critical situation of the freedom of expression, including those concerning Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Honduras, Iran, Mexico, China, Tibet, Viet Nam and Turkey, among many others.
The Congress delegates have expressed their concern about the plight of women writers and men of letters among thousands of their compatriots reported missing in Mediterranean, in their actual deadly exodus. They recalled also the tragedy of many hundreds of thousands Vietnamese boatpeople refugees drowned under the seas in Asia-Pacific after the arrival of communist troops in April 1975.
The 15 November 2015 will be the 34th World Day of the Imprisoned Writer, just 2 weeks after the 2nd International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.
On the occasion of these Days – Events, the Suisse Romand PEN Centre, one of the PEN International’s 145 Centres, addresses to you: Please join your voices to ours, to those thousands of writers, poets, journalists, bloggers, translators and publishers, as well as friends and sympathizers of PEN International, for supporting victims of the tragedies of those being persecuted and punished for freedom of expression.
The following major cases, among many others, inspire to us profound concerns:
– Juan Carlos Argenal Medina, Hondurian journalist, assassinated on 7 December 2013 because he would have had the courage to denounce corruption. The circumstances of his death have not been clarified. No progress in investigations
– Raif Badawi, Saudi blogger and publisher, sentenced in 2012 to 10 years in prison, 1000 lashes, a fine, a travel ban for ten years and a ban on same duration to collaborate in the media for ‘’insult to Islam” and ” creating a Liberal website’’.
– Amanuel Asrat, Eritrean poet, critic and editor of the major newspaper The Times. Arrested on 23 September 2001 during a crackdown on public and private media. Detained without charge nor trial.
– Patiwat Saraiyaem et Pornthip Munkong, Khadija Ismayilova (f), Thai student and female student, arrested in August 2014, sentenced to 2 years and a half in prison for lèse-majesté crimes by participating in the staging of a play at Thammasat University in 2013.
– Khadija Ismayilova, Azerbaijani investigative journalist, famous for his investigations into corruption at the top of the state and its critics, arrested on 5 December 2014 in a fabricated case. Sentenced on 1 September 2015 to 7 years and a half in prison for ”embezzlement and tax evasion’’.
– Ho Thi Bich Khuong (f), Vietnamese blogger, human rights defender and author of a memoir in prison, satirical poems and online articles. Interviewed by foreign radio, she denounced the abuse of power against poor women peasants. In June 2006, her husband was mysteriously murdered in their village. Having served two previous prison sentences in 2005 and 2007, she was arrested again in January 2011 and sentenced in December 2011 to 5 years in prison and 3 years in probationary detention, for “propaganda against the Socialist state’’. Tortured in prison and badly beaten by common law detainees. Other aggressors broke her left arm during pre-trial detention. She still suffers from a long-untreated broken collarbone due to lack of adequate medical care. She has frequently been held in solitary confinement for protesting against detention conditions by hunger strikes. She is in very poor health.
Nguyên Hoàng Bao Viêt
Vietnamese poet in exile
Suisse Romand Centre of PEN International
Writers in Prison Committee
Genève 2-15 November 2015
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