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UN experts call for the release of a Qatari poet serving a 15-year jail sentence for writing and reciting a poem

GENEVA (20 October 2015) – United Nations human rights experts today urged the Government of Qatar to release Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami, who is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence for writing and reciting a poem at his home. The experts call comes on the second anniversary of his sentence.

“The arrest, detention and sentencing of Mohammed al-Ajami in October 2013 seem to be solely related to the peaceful exercise of his fundamental human rights,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye.

For the UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, Farida Shaheed, “the penalty imposed on Mr. al-Ajami is disproportionate and amounts to political censorship to art and expression.”

“The 15 years prison sentence against this poet is also particularly worrying, as we have received serious indications that the criminal process did not meet all the judicial guarantees of a fair trial,” stressed the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Mónica Pinto.

In 2010, Mr. al-Ajami recited one of his poems in his house in Cairo, criticizing the Crown Prince of Qatar, praising the Tunisian revolution and denouncing corruption and oppression by Arab rulers. He was arrested, sentenced in first instance to life imprisonment in 2012, which was reduced to 15 years on appeal on 20 October 2013.

“The grounds and legal provisions provided by the authorities to justify the arrest and sentence of Mr. al-Ajami are contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” the experts said. “Penalizing criticism against the Emir’s and Vice-Emir’s authorities is clearly incompatible with international standards, which protect the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including in the form of arts, and to take part in cultural life.”

“The simple fact that a poem was considered to be insulting is insufficient to justify the imposition of penalties,” Mr. Kaye stressed. “Laws restricting the right to freedom of expression must never be used as tools for silencing the criticism of authorities and promoting political censorship.”

Ms. Shaheed added that “artists have the right to dissent, to use political, religious and economic symbols as a counter-discourse to dominant powers, and to express their own belief and world vision.”

The UN experts have been closely following Mr. al-Ajami’s situation, and requested information from the Government in 2012. The matter was also raised with the Qatari authorities by several UN human rights mechanisms since then.

Mr. David Kaye (USA) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in August 2014 by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomOpinion/Pages/OpinionIndex.aspx

Ms. Farida Shaheed took up her functions as Independent Expert and then Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights in August 2009. She has worked for more than 25 years promoting and protecting cultural rights by fostering policies and projects designed in culturally sensitive ways to support the rights of marginalized sectors, including women, peasants, and religious and ethnic minorities. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/CulturalRights/Pages/SRCulturalRightsIndex.aspx

Ms. Mónica Pinto took up her functions as UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers on 1 August 2015. Ms. Pinto is a professor of international law and human rights law at the Law School of the University of Buenos Aires, where she is currently the Dean. She has long-standing experience working on human rights issues in a variety of settings, including for the UN. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Judiciary/Pages/IDPIndex.aspx

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Check 2014 report on Qatar by the former Special Rapporteur on the independence of the judiciary: http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/29/26/Add.1

UN Human Rights, country page – Qatar: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/MENARegion/Pages/QAIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests please contact Johanne Bouchard (+41 22 917 9605 / jbouchard@ohchr.org) or write to srculturalrights@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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