15 Years in Prison for a Poem! Welcome to Qatar

03/12/2015 05:00 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

He wrote a poem. Recited it in his apartment to a group of seven people. Unknown to him, the poem was recorded and uploaded on YouTube. That was in 2011. Now he sits in prison in Qatar, serving a prison sentence of 15 years!

He is Mohammed al-Ajami: a poet, a prisoner of conscience.

Fifteen years in prison for a poem? Welcome to Qatar -- an Island of contradiction.

One can be excused for thinking that this tiny emirate, considered the world's richest country per capita, would be more tolerant of a dissenting opinion.

After all it stood alone in its support of the Arab uprisings that flooded the MENA region since 2011.

That this support was biased in its preferential for Islamist parties/militia (depending on the country) seems to have escaped the scrutiny of many.

But then, very few also know that Qatar, just like Saudi Arabia, follows the Salafi Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

Never mind that. It was in fact very ironic. The very emirate championing the Arab Spring arrests a citizen for a poem that hails none other than this Arab Spring.

The Qatari poet was studying at the time in Cairo University. He was fascinated by the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia.

So he wrote that famous poem -- he called it the Jasmine poem.

It was fierce in its anger, simple in its hope, and clear in its aspiration:

"Repeat after me, with one voice for one destination,
We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elites."

Al-Ajam was straightforward in his wish that the winds of change will reach Qatar.

Least he would be considered 'ungrateful', he reminded the readers of past grievances:

"This is a country where you sleep as a citizen
And wake up stripped of your citizenship."

HE was referring to the famous case of Murra tribe's members. The Emir of Qatar at the time, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, decided in April 16, 2005, to strip 1,000 Qataris from their citizenship.

As a result, all their family members, i.e. children and wives, lost their citizenship as well. In total, thousands Qataris lost their citizenship without due process.

Just like that!

The Emir considered their tribe hostile to him and supportive of his father, whom he disposed of power in a coup in 1995. So he decided to punish them.

The case is exemplary in showcasing the type of political system that reigns in Qatar -- one of absolute power.

And Al-Ajami's poem made that fact clear just as it was blunt in its critique of the Emir: "Tell him he does not own the country nor his children"

As I said before, Al-Ajami wrote the poem and recited it among friends in his apartment.

He was not aware that his poem was uploaded on YouTube. So you can imagine his surprise when he went back to Qatar to find the state security agents waiting for him.

He was arrested in November 16, 2011, and tried on March 26, 2012 on charges of 'publicly inciting to overthrow the ruling system' and 'publicly challenging the authority of the Emir'.

The limits of Qatar support of the Arab Spring stopped at its own doorsteps. The Qatari poet knew that rather well. He said it in his poem:

"If (our government) imports everything from the West,
Why does not it import its Rule of Law and Freedom (as well)?"

Good question!