DUBAI — Human rights groups on Tuesday criticised Qatar for detaining a poet for "insulting" the emir, with Amnesty International saying he faces a secret trial possibly as a prisoner of conscience.
Mohammed al-Ajami -- also known as Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb -- was arrested on November 16, 2011 in Doha and later reportedly charged with "inciting to overthrow the ruling system" and "insulting the emir," said Amnesty.
Separately, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said Ajami's incarceration "provides further evidence of Qatar's double standard on freedom of expression."
Amnesty said Ajami was being held in solitary confinement "apparently solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression."
"If that is the case, he would be considered a prisoner of conscience and should be released immediately and conditionally," said Amnesty's Philip Luther.
Ajami's trial in Doha's Criminal Court "has been marred by irregularities, with court sessions held in secret," said Amnesty.
"His lawyer reportedly had to provide a written defence... after being barred from attending one of the court sessions," added the London-based watchdog.
Both Amnesty and HRW demanded that Ajami be released from jail without any conditions.
"The prosecution's case against him is reportedly based on a poem he wrote in 2010 criticising Qatar's emir, but Gulf activists have alleged the real reason for his arrest was his "Jasmine Poem", written during the Arab Spring, said Amnesty.
HRW, which called the ode "Tunisian Jasmine", said that in it Ajami praised the uprisings that erupted in Arab countries against veteran leaders and criticised Arab governments, including energy-rich Gulf states.
The poem says "we are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive" regimes, Amnesty and HRW reported.
The Arab Spring first erupted in Tunisia -- where it was known as the Jasmine Revolution -- before spreading to Egypt, Libya, and Yemen where veteran rulers were uprooted, as well as Bahrain and Syria.
HRW stressed the poems attributed to Ajami -- and posted on the Internet -- were "a legitimate exercise of his right to free expression."
It also urged the Qatari emir to revise a draft media law adopted in June by the Shura Council which carries a broadly worded article that penalises criticism of the ruler.
"Qatar's commitment to freedom of expression is only as good as its laws, which in this case do not meet the international standards it professes to support," said HRW's Joe Stork.
"Instead of supporting press freedom, this draft media law is a commitment to censorship," he added.
Qatari ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani set up the Doha Centre for Media Freedom in 2008 to promote press freedom.
But Amnesty said "freedom of expression is strictly controlled in Qatar, hampering freedom of the press and contributing to self-censorship among the media."
"Inciting to overthrow the regime" is a charge punishable by death in Qatar, while "insulting the Emir" carries a five-year prison sentence, the watchdogs said.
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