Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Life In Prison For A Poem

by lizard

Qatar is an important ally of the United States, playing a key support role for CENTCOM during the Iraq war, and more recently supporting the Syrian opposition against Assad. Here is how 60 minutes depicted the US/Qatar relationship before the war in Iraq began:

Life here is tranquil. Almost everywhere you can see a mixture of the old and the new. There’s a growing affinity for American culture and no outspoken opposition to the American presence or the emir’s changes. And American investment is increasing dramatically, especially in natural gas.

“If we go back to 1993-94, the Americans, they invest in our country around $200 million or $300 million. Now it’s over $30 billion American investment in Qatar,” says the emir.

It’s good for the U.S. because it provides bases that can be used in a war with Iraq.

It’s good for Qatar because the American military presence provides protection for the emir and his reforms – reforms that have made Qatar a role model for change in the Arab world.

Sheikh Hamad knows he has to change his country while he can, because he also knows that the last two rulers before him were overthrown.

When asked what he thinks Qatar will look like in 10 years, the emir says, “Well, first, I hope you find me facing you in the same chair. And I hope I’m sure you’ll find a big change.”

Well, nearly 10 years later the role model for change in the Arab world has sentenced a poet to life in prison for reciting a poem.

A Qatari poet has been sentenced to life in prison for inciting the overthrow of the government of Qatar and insulting the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and his son, the crown prince, reports say.

The verdict is likely to prove an embarrassment for Qatar which has worked hard to cultivate a progressive, modern image, and is currently playing host to a major international climate change conference.

The charges relate to a poem that 37-year-old Mohammed al-Ajami, a father of four, recited in 2010 before a small, private audience in his flat in Egypt. One audience member subsequently posted the poem online.

Will the Obama administration express the same degree of concern it did when Russian punk rockers Pussy Riot were sentenced to 2 years for hooliganism?

I hope so, because in this situation, pressure from the United States would probably have a significant effect for this poet and father of four now facing in prison for reading a poem.

I tried to find the offending verse, but so far have had no luck, so this week’s poetry series features no actual poetry.

Instead, this post is a reminder to artists everywhere that authoritarians are afraid of the power of free expression and the potential effect it may have on those living in oppressive countries.

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  1. If US pressure does lead to his release, it will have to be entirely non-public. If the US publicly calls for the release of a prisoner, it’s very difficult for a country’s government to comply without appearing that they are being bossed around, particular a country whose government is more pro-American than its citizens.

    The problem is that to do that, the US has to be completely sure that its diplomatic cables can be secure and that it’s communications will not become public. This is obviously not the case.

    • lizard19

      assuming you’re correct about pressure needing to be non-public to be effective, what does that say about the US and its publicly expressed concern regarding Pussy Riot?

      • Reversed situations – in Qatar, the government is more pro-American than its people, hence embarrassing verdicts like this one. If the government appears to be caving to American interests, it loses legitimacy in the eyes of a population that is more skeptical of the relationship with the US than the government is.

        The point of publicly condemning the Pussy Riot verdict is to accomplish exactly what we’re trying to avoid in Qatar – to harm the government’s standing with its people, on the theory that in Russia, unlike Qatar, the government is more critical of the US than the people would like it to be.

        • lizard19

          and that is why the US has no credibility, PW. geopolitics trumps actual concern for human rights.

          strategic concern, strategic silence.

        • I’d say geopolitics probably trump human rights in every nation. That’s not to say that geopolitical actions can’t benefit human rights. An open condemnation of the Pussy Riot verdict puts Russia on notice that the rest of the world is watching their actions. Qatar is acutely aware that the world is watching their actions, so a public condemnation of this verdict serves little purpose except to reduce their public support. And, unlike in Russia, a weaker Qatari government is unlikely to promote human rights in Qatar.

          • lizard19

            how many Americans do you think know or care some poet in Qatar has been sentenced to life in prison?

            if cable news hyped the story and showed weepy footage of his four children, and celebrities got notice from their publicists that their brand would benefit from a principled stand in defense of this poet to freely express himself, maybe then folks would know.

            but that’s not going to happen.

            • So it would appear your problem lies with cable news, not the US government. But I agree with you – I do think that the US should try to encourage the release of al-Ajami and Hamza Kasgari and other political prisoners, and to the extent that can be done effectively (like I noted, sometimes open government action can produce blowback if it makes a judicial case into a matter of national sovereignty. But how exactly does that square with “Non-interference means not only military non-intervention. It applies also to diplomatic and economic actions:” If we aren’t to use diplomatic or economic actions to promote human rights, what’s your plan?

              • lizard19

                again, I’m not the isolationist you keep trying to make me out to be.

                if the US was capable of taking principled positions regarding human rights, its diplomacy would be more effective, and I would be more supportive of those efforts.

                but the US doesn’t have principles, it has an agenda, and human rights is not a part of that agenda.

              • So, because the US has an agenda, we should not attempt to promote human rights? With the obvious exception, of course, of when our allies imprison poets? I don’t find it important whether you believe yourself to be an isolationist or not – your positions over a period of days are mutually exclusive. Either we believe in diplomatic non-interference, or we believe in intervening to support human rights. You cannot have it both ways, and you’ve yet to even hint at how you are mentally overcoming this hurdle.

  2. lizard19

    So, because the US has an agenda, we should not attempt to promote human rights?

    no, attempt all you want. just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that promoting the US agenda is synonymous with promoting human rights.

    Either we believe in diplomatic non-interference, or we believe in intervening to support human rights. You cannot have it both ways, and you’ve yet to even hint at how you are mentally overcoming this hurdle.

    diplomatic non-interference? I have no idea what you mean by that. is that one of the mental hurdles you’d like me to jump?

    • “just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that promoting the US agenda is synonymous with promoting human rights.”

      They are not, we can agree on that – US policy is very frequently detrimental to human rights. I’m merely saying that nonintervention is a far worse option.

      “diplomatic non-interference? I have no idea what you mean by that.”

      Well you know lizard, I like to read my blog posts before I publish them. Did you read yours, the part where you quoted:

      “Non-interference means not only military non-intervention. It applies also to diplomatic and economic actions”

      Because if you can’t tell me how non-interference applies to diplomatic actions, you maybe shouldn’t throw sentences like that around.

      • lizard19

        why don’t you continue that quote:

        no unilateral sanctions, no threats during negotiations, and equal treatment of all States. Instead of constantly “denouncing” the leaders of countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Cuba for violating human rights, something the anti-anti-war left loves to do, we should listen to what they have to say, dialogue with them, and help our fellow citizens understand the different ways of thinking in the world, including the criticisms that other countries can make of our way of doing things.

        • Right, so diplomatic non interference means equal treatment of states, and to stop denouncing countries for serial human rights violations. Days previously, you were calling for the US to do exactly that to the government of Qatar.

          Now, there’s two possibilities here: perhaps you don’t think we need to stop denouncing serial human rights violators, you’re just throwing that out there for our consideration. If that’s the case, you and I have no argument: I’m merely disagreeing with your source. If that’s how it is, then my ‘dispute’ with you is nothing but curiosity: where do you stand? What’s your opinion about the words you re-stated on and published on your blog?

          But there is another possibility, and I’m not saying its necessarily the case, merely that it appears to be so. That possibility is that you want the US to denounce our Qatari allies while ceasing to denounce China and Russia not because you have a coherent philosophy here, but because you enjoy criticizing US policy. That’s all well and good for you, but don’t try to pass it of as rational or well thought-out. Like I said, this isn’t an accusation, just a statement of how things appear from here.

          • lizard19

            if human rights are universal, which I think they are, then US officials shouldn’t cherry-pick examples for geopolitical leverage if they are to have any credibility on the global stage.

            I focus on the lack of US credibility because it’s a point-of-view not well represented by our corporate media. Pussy Riot trumps Bradley Manning, and the Qatari poet isn’t even on the radar.

            my opinion: all three are being unjustly persecuted by authoritarian regimes.

            I don’t think wanting justice for all three and criticizing the geopolitical dynamics involved are mutually exclusive.

          • Bradley Manning committed treason, Pussy Riot played a concert. I’m not saying Manning’s treatment is fair or civilized by any means, but a soldier committing treason and being severely punished for it is not particularly strange. In many, perhaps most, countries Bradley Manning would have been executed by now. That said, the disparity in coverage between the two is not glaring – I don’t pay for LexisNexis, but a quick search of CNN shows that Pussy Riot has less than half the results that Manning has, though Pussy Riot wins on NYtimes by about the same margin. Pretty balanced, I’d say.

            But potential media unbalance does not excuse the fact that you are dodging the question: Do you or do you not agree with the words you put on your blog? If you do, you are directly contrasting yourself. On the other hand, if you don’t agree with those words, just say so and we’ll be in agreement. You posted an article that strongly suggested the human rights are not universal and are instead subjective. I want to know if you agree with that.

            • lizard19

              I’ll take one more stab at addressing your concerns.

              I would be more supportive of US economic/diplomatic interventions if they were enacted consistently to promote human rights. when I expressed hope the US would exert its influence on Qatar for the poet, it’s because part of me wishes the US could be a consistent champion of human rights for those suffering and dying under more repressive regimes than ours.

              but that’s not the world we live in, and US meddling happens selectively based on furthering its own interests (which are not synonymous with the American people’s interests) so I reflexively oppose or at least remain critical of any situation the US tries to exert its influence over, especially when the cover-story is human rights.

              • ” I reflexively oppose or at least remain critical of any situation the US tries to exert its influence over”

                ” hope the US would exert its influence on Qatar for the poet”

                But if the US exerted real influence on freeing a dissident in, say, Cuba, or Egypt, you I get the feeling (mostly based on that post, which is why I was curious if you agreed with that position or not), you would reflexively oppose it, and when a percentage of the population reflexively opposes all action, there’s absolutely no reason to choose humanitarian involvement unless there is a geopolitical purpose behind it.

                I would propose instead that in foreign policy, as there are no altruistic parties and the obfuscation of motivation the most salient feature, you have to judge the likely results of an action or inaction, not its likely motivation.

                As we’ve ascertained that you have a reflexive reaction against the US, lets use an example outside of the US, lets use an example outside US foreign policy. On Christmas, 1979, Vietnam (after much provocation) invaded Cambodia and in a couple weeks replaced the Khmer Rouge government. There is no reason to believe that Vietnam did this for humanitarian reasons. Nonetheless, the action had an almost indisputably positive effect on the lives of most Cambodians, and if the Vietnamese government had seen the need to defend their action the way the US sees the need to defend its actions, they would have certainly pointed that out. So, the question is, should a thinking person reflexively oppose the action because you know that the real motivation is almost never human rights, or do you evaluate the action first, consider what the effects will be (motivation aside), and then decide whether you support it or not?

                That’s the real question I’m trying to get to. I try to do everything I can to follow the second course of action. It certainly takes a lot of research and thought, and a bit of speculation. And I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes, because their is inherently some speculation in attempting to consider the effects of every action in terms of human rights, rather than blanket opposition or dogmatic loyalty to the doctrine of sovereignty, sometimes I make mistakes. I’ll openly admit that at the time, I thought that invading Afghanistan and militarily occupying it was the best way to handle the situation. I know a great deal more now about history and foreign policy, and if I could go back to 2001 would probably believe differently. But to my mind, it’s better that than adhere to the doctrine of sovereignty, with its demonstrably horrific results, or follow another universal rule of interventions that inevitably leads to mistakes either of action or inaction.

  3. JC

    “Bradley Manning committed treason”

    Complete bullshit Polish Wolf. Besides your acting as judge and jury here, Bradley Manning was never charged for treason.

    Needless to say, the rest of your commentary was rendered moot by your naive hyperbole.

    • Fair point until the end, JC. I should have said ‘allegedly committed the crime of aiding the enemy and wrongfully transmitting intelligence information.’ But my naïve hyperbole, though I admit that’s what it was, renders nothing moot but itself. Bradley Manning is a soldier who admits to many of the acts he is accused of, though he does not admit they comprise the crimes he committed. Pussy Riot is a band. Every nation in the world, for easily comprehended reasons, holds soldiers to higher standards of loyalty to the state than they do artists. The fact that they do two stories have roughly equal levels of media coverage would suggest that the media is not focusing more strongly on Russian rights violations than American ones.

      My hyperbole has nothing to do with that fact, though I applaud that argument as a convenient way to dodge the question of whether lizard agrees with what he is quoting or with what he is writing, and it certainly doesn’t change the reality that the two things are diametrically opposed. I may have argued reality badly, but that doesn’t change reality. This isn’t high school debate: the facts of reality matter.

  1. 1 Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Anticipating April | 4&20 blackbirds

    [...] Life In Prison For A Poem [...]

  2. 2 152 Poetry Posts to Celebrate April, National Poetry Month | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Life In Prison For A Poem […]




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