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Qatar poet appeal becomes test for Web crackdowns

Thursday - 1/24/2013, 2:30am  ET

BRIAN MURPHY
Associated Press

DOHA, Qatar (AP) -- After morning prayers next Monday, Qatar's most prominent defense lawyer plans to gather his files, drive five minutes to the appeals court and try to convince a judge that a poet doesn't deserve to spend his life in prison for a Web-posted verse interpreted as defiance against the Gulf nation's ruler.

The attorney -- a former Qatari justice minister who later helped defend the toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- knows he has given himself an ambitious agenda.

He first seeks to prove the poet was convicted on an allegedly falsified confession. He is then setting his sights on trying to reform legal codes to give more room for free expression in Qatar, a hyper-rich nation with a rapidly expanding international profile.

And if that's not enough, he also is up against an overall mood from Gulf officials that's becoming decidedly unfriendly to the Web.

Arrests now occur regularly across the Western-backed Gulf states for Twitter posts and blogs -- even some poems -- considered threatening to the state or offensive to rulers increasingly on guard for perceived threats inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings. Earlier this month, two Kuwaitis received two-year prison sentences for Twitter messages considered offensive to the country's ruler. The United Arab Emirates last year imposed sweeping Internet laws that give authorities wide authority against posts construed as a challenge to the ruling system.

"Do we want this to be a region where any political opinion runs of risk of bringing a criminal charge?" said defense lawyer Najeeb al-Nauimi in an interview with The Associated Press in his Doha office. "The system has to reform itself. This is my mission."

The immediate test in Qatar, though, strikes at some of Gulf's most sensitive issues as leaders grope for ways to keep a lid on possible dissent.

The appeal seeks to overturn the most severe punishment from the Web crackdowns: the life sentence in late November against a well-known poet, Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, for a verse deemed as encouragement to fight the ruling system.

While each Gulf state has its own legal procedures and laws, the region is moving toward greater integrations of all policies. The poet's case will be closely followed -- by both authorities and activists -- as a message on how far officials can go in muzzling cyberspace.

"This sentence, in particular, sent a huge chill right across the region," said Rori Donaghy, a coordinator at the London-based Emirates Center for Human Rights. "All these crackdowns are meant to make everyone on the Internet think, 'Could I be next?'"

It also has presents a potential quandary for Qatar, which has tried to craft a reputation as a pragmatic power that has benefited from the Arab Spring by exerting its influence with opposition groups in places such Libya and Syria.

The case could put an uncomfortable spotlight on issues such as Qatar's proposed new media laws that -- like others emerging in the Gulf -- give authorities wide leeway for arrests. Qatar's pan-Arab network Al-Jazeera, meanwhile, has faced criticism for aggressive reporting about rights abuses outside the Gulf but giving scant attention to similar accusations at home.

"What it all shows is that the Gulf has done well with adopting and adapting many aspects of the West in commerce and technology," said Christopher Davidson, an expert on Gulf affairs at Britain's Durham University. "Where it stops is over anything that could challenge the political status quo. There, they fall back on the traditions of coming down fast and hard."

Qatari officials have declined to comment on the poet's conviction or appeal. Even the basis for the charges is difficult to pin down.

Al-Ajami, 37, has been jailed awaiting trial since November 2011. He was taken into custody months after an Internet video was posted 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, criticizing Arab governments that restrict freedoms. "Thieves," he called them.

But the actual charges appear to be built around an earlier online dispute in August 2010, before the Arab Spring, said attorney al-Nauimi.

In that instance, al-Ajami claims he was secretly recorded reciting a verse mocking another poet, who was believed close to high-level officials in Qatar. The audio of al-Ajami's poem, recited to a private group at Cairo University, was posted on the Web and became a brief sensation in Gulf literary circles.

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