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Qatar: UN experts welcome release of poet al-Ajami, but call for deep review of law and judicial system

GENEVA (18 March 2016) – Three United Nations human rights experts today welcomed the release of the Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami, while urging the Government of Qatar to give serious consideration to reviewing the laws and judicial procedures that have led to his imprisonment in the first place.

Mr. al-Ajami was granted Emiri pardon on 15 March and released from prison, where he was serving a 15 years sentence for writing and reciting a poem that allegedly criticized the Crown Prince of Qatar, praised the Tunisian revolution and denounced the corruption and oppression by Arab rulers.

“We are glad Mr. Al-Ajami could be released and reunited with his family, but the royal pardon does not amount to an acknowledgement of wrong doing and is no guarantee that the rights and freedoms of citizens will be better respected in the future,” said UN Special Rapporteurs on cultural rights Karima Bennoune; on freedom of expression, David Kaye; and on the independence of the judiciary, Mónica Pinto.

“This does not change the fact that the articles of the Penal code penalizing criticism of the authorities are still in force and can be used abusively to charge and imprison people for the legitimate use of their freedom of expression, in clear contravention of international human rights law,” they noted. “Reparation should be granted to Mr. Al-Ajami in recognition that his fundamental rights have been violated.”

The human rights experts stressed that “the laws of Qatar and the policies of its Government should protect those who exercise their freedom of expression, including artistic expression, and their right to take part in cultural life instead of prosecuting them.”

“Restrictions or limitations on the right to freedom of expression must not be used as a means of political censorship or of silencing criticism of public officials or public policies”, they added, “and Mr. Al-Ajami is not the only person behind bars in Qatar for simply exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

The experts recalled that the concerns they raised directly with the Government in 2015 regarding irregularities in the legal procedures are still valid. They further noted that, following the visit of the Special Rapporteur on the independence of the judiciary in 2014*, a number of recommendations concerning the independence of the justice system and due process of law and fair trial guarantees were addressed to the government and still need to be implemented.

“We urge the Government of Qatar to engage substantively and meaningfully with the human rights concerns regarding the law and the judicial system that we and other UN human rights mechanisms have raised, and to implement relevant recommendations that have been addressed to the authorities,” they said.

“In particular”, the experts underscored, “Qatar should ensure that all fundamental safeguards are provided, in law and in practice, for all persons deprived of their liberty, and should amend the Protection of Society Law and the Law on Combating Terrorism to bring them into conformity with international standards.”

(*) Check the 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

Ms. Karima Bennoune (United States of America) was appointed UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights in October 2015. She grew up in Algeria and the United States. She is Professor of Law and Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall Research Scholar at the University of California-Davis School of Law where she teaches courses on human rights and international law. Ms. Bennoune has worked in the field of human rights for more than 20 years. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/CulturalRights/Pages/SRCulturalRightsIndex.aspx 

Mr. David Kaye (United States of America) 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. Mónica Pinto (Argentina) 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.

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

For more information and media requests please contact Mylène Bidault (+41 22 917 92 54 / mbidault@ohchr.org) or 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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