DOHA, Qatar (AP) — A poet jailed for a verse considered offensive to Qatar's ruler harshly denounced the Gulf nation's legal proceedings on Monday after an appeals court reduced his life sentence but still kept a 15-year prison term.
The rant in court — rare in the tightly controlled Gulf Arab states — underscored the free speech battles across the region as Western-backed authorities take strict measures against perceived political dissent in the wake of the Arab Spring.
From Kuwait to Oman, dozens of people have been arrested in the past year for social media posts deemed insulting to leaders or calling for political forms. For Qatar, the case also could bring added pressure from rights groups looking into labor conditions and other preparations for football's 2022 World Cup, which will be by far the most prominent international event hosted in the Gulf region.
"Unjust," shouted poet Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami in the heavily guarded courtroom in Qatar's capita, Doha, after his appeal to drop the conviction was denied. The court cut the life sentence handed down in November and imposed a 15-year term instead.
Al-Ajami faced specific charges from a poem posted online in 2010 that discussed the traits needed for a good leader — which apparently was seen by authorities as a challenge to Qatar's emir and the ruling family.
He was more 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 the poem, he said, "we are all Tunisia in the face of repressive" authorities and criticized Arab governments that restrict freedoms, calling them "thieves."
Al-Ajami still can appeal the remaining prison term to a higher court.
"This sentence will not stand," said his brother Hasan. "When you strip away everything, this is just a case about power and pressure."
Qatar's attorney general, Ali bin Fetais al-Marri, told Al-Jazeera English that state prosecutors also will seek to restore the life sentence.
"We accept the ruling," al-Marri told the network. "However, we, as public prosecution, will resort to the Supreme Court to challenge the judgment, hoping to restore it as was, a life term. However, in any case, we will honor the (decision) of the court."
Earlier this month, a Kuwait court sentenced three former opposition lawmakers to three years hard labor for insulting the country's ruler during speeches at political rallies. In January, a Kuwait blogger and online journalists received two-year sentences in back-to-back convictions for posts deemed "insulting" to the emir.
In November, the United Arab Emirates set stricter Internet monitoring and enforcement codes. They include giving authorities wider leeway to arrest Web activists for offenses such as mocking the country's leadership or calling for demonstrations.