A Qatari poet imprisoned since 2011 over verses he wrote that apparently offended the government of the nation’s former ruler has received a royal pardon and been freed, the United Nations said Wednesday.
Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami’s 15-year sentence, roundly criticized by rights groups and U.N. special rapporteurs, had exposed the limits of free speech in the oil-and-gas-rich country, home to international news broadcaster Al-Jazeera and the site of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The reasoning for the pardon by Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, wasn’t immediately clear. Qatari officials did not respond to requests for comment and state media did not report al-Ajami’s late-night pardon Tuesday.
The U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights told The Associated Press on Wednesday it confirmed al-Ajami’s release through civil society groups working with his family. The poet’s lawyer, Najeeb al-Nuaimi, said he hadn’t had any contact with al-Ajami since his release.
Ali al-Hatab, a human rights activist who worked on al-Ajami’s case, said there was no previous indication that the poet would be released.
“They are planning to (hold) the World Cup, so it’s a good time to dispose of this case,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what the main reason was why he was really released. We’re grateful he is out.”
Rights groups hailed his release, with Amnesty International calling it “long overdue good news.”
“It is absurd that he had to spend more than four years behind bars when his poetry was simply the peaceful expression of his conscientiously held beliefs,” said James Lynch, deputy director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa program.
Al-Ajami is widely known for an Internet video 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 2011. In the poem, he said, “we are all Tunisia in the face of repressive” authorities and criticized Arab governments that restrict freedoms, calling them “thieves.”
He was charged and imprisoned apparently over an online video showing him reciting a poem in 2010 in Egypt, where he was a literature student at Cairo University. That poem described the attributes of a good leader and apparently angered officials in the government of Qatar’s then-ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.
Al-Ajami initially was sentenced to life in prison in 2012, but later saw his sentence reduced to 15 years by an appeals court. He reportedly was held in solitary confinement for periods of his incarceration.
In June 2013, Sheikh Hamad handed over power to his son, Sheikh Tamim. Since then, U.N. special rapporteurs and others have repeatedly called on Qatar’s emir to pardon and free al-Ajami.
The poet gained his freedom just days before the International Press Institute hosts its world congress in Doha, the capital of Qatar, beginning Saturday. That event will include discussions about press freedom. The institute posted a message on Twitter on Wednesday saying it welcomed al-Ajami’s release.