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Press Conference on Behalf of Imprisoned Qatari Poet, Mohammed al-Ajami

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Fri, Jun 13, 2014

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On Tuesday, June 10, 2014, the campaign to free Muhammad Ibn-Dheeb al-Ajami, including representatives from human rights groups, PEN America, and CODEPINK, held a press conference calling for the release of imprisoned Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami.

Speakers included Lex Paulson, a former Congressional staff and now a professor; Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch; Medea Benjamin, cofounder of the peace group CODEPINK; Ikram Yakoubi, a Tunisian artist and cofounder of Atlas Leaders; Tighe Barry, a member of the Screen Actors Guild and Hollywood film art director; and Ann Wright, retired Colonel of the US Army and State Department official, who read a statement on behalf of PEN.

On November 16, 2011, Qatari poet Mohammad al-Ajami was handed a life sentence (which was later reduced to 15 years) for “insulting the Emir,” Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and “inciting to overthrow the ruling system.” These claims came after a recording was posted on YouTube of al-Ajami reciting his poetic tribute to the Arab Spring, “Tunisian Jasmine.” Since November of 2011, al-Ajami spent much of the time in solitary confinement. The featured speakers at the press conference called on the new Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to release Al-Ajami immediately.

In his poetic tribute to the Arab Spring, “Tunisian Jasmine,” Mohammed declared, “Enough with tyrannical regimes! Tell the one who torments his people that tomorrow someone else will take his place. He should not rest assured that the country belongs to him or his offspring because the country belongs to the people and so does glory. Join your voices in a chorus for a single destiny. We are all Tunisian in the face of repression.”

Medea Benjamin said that she wants people in the United States to know that the Qatari government, which positions itself as a moderate, modern Arab state, is imprisoning a poet. “It is very strange for us to see someone being arrested for poetry,” she stated on behalf of CODEPINK. “Poets hold a special place in our societies, using their words to speak truth and inspire us. Al Ajami deserves to be respected and valued for his work, not persecuted and imprisoned.”

Qatar, a major US ally in the Middle East, considers itself to be a defender of human rights. “Qatar, after all its posturing as a supporter of freedom, turns out to be determined to keep its citizens quiet, as we have seen the hammer come down on people like Mohammed,” said human rights leader Joe Stork.

Ann Wright called on our State Department to have the courage to tell the Qatari government to treat al-Ajami with the respect he deserves. Lex Paulson stated that we are not asking Qatar to adopt American laws, but even under its own laws, Mohammed has not been fairly treated. The Qatari government has failed Mohammed.

Human rights activists have been organizing on behalf of al-Ajami across the world. Last year, British MP George Galloway introduced a motion, signed by 14 members of Parliament, calling on the British government to intervene on al-Ajami’s behalf. The peace group CODEPINK organized hundreds of Americans to write poems to him and the group held a demonstration at the Qatari Embassy in Washington, DC.

Lex Paulson, a professor of human rights in Paris who has met with al-Ajami’s lawyers in Doha, stated that when he visited al-Ajami in prison, he was told that he kept writing poetry in his mind while in solitary confinement. He is sure that his spirit is “as undimmed and unquenched as I first met him.” In some verses of his latest poem, Poem From a Prison Cell, al-Ajami leave us with words of warning:

Tell your children, east and west
—and keep telling them, until
the birds sing it in the branches—
that a people without opinions
is nothing but a herd that’s thirsty
yet blind to the nearby oasis

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