Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece is reprinted with permission and can be found on Abrams' blog "Pressure Points" here.
In 2011, with the Arab Spring under way, a Qatari poet named Mohammed el-Ajami wrote a poem. It contained this line: "We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elite." He has also criticized, apparently in prose, the presence of American forces in Qatar, writing that "I hope that change will come in countries whose ignorant leaders believe that glory lies in U.S. forces."
For those "crimes" he was tried in secret in 2012, and given a life sentence for insulting the emir and inciting the overthrow of the government (the latter a capital offense). That sentence has now been reduced to 15 years, but upheld at that level.
His only hope now is a pardon by the new emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. That would be a wonderful move by the new ruler, while failure to make it would affirm the view that freedom of speech is nonexistent in Qatar. Fifteen years for a poem?
Qatar is sensitive to its image and its role in the Arab world and beyond, so one can hope that continuing pressure may lead to a pardon. If it does not, one can only hope that those who laud Qatari foreign policy, or glorify Al-Jazeera and the new Al-Jazeera America, which the Qatari government owns, or participate in their programs, will find a way to protest.
Al-Jazeera America is meant to increase Qatari influence and showcase Qatar as a progressive nation. But we should not forget the poet who has received a 15-year sentence for the lines he wrote in 2011.
From "Pressure Points" by Elliott Abrams. Reprinted with permission from the Council on Foreign Relations.