Thursday, December 20, 2012

Qatar’s Human Rights Record

On November 28 a Qatari poet was sentenced to life in prison for a poem criticizing the Qatari government. Muhammad al-Ajami was arrested in November 2011. He has been held in solitary confinement for the past year.

According to Democracy Now!, this is the text of Muhammad al-Ajami’s poem.

Knowing that those that satisfy themselves and upset their people tomorrow will have someone else sitting in their seat, knowing that those that satisfy themselves and upset their people tomorrow will have someone else sitting in their seat, for those that think the country is in your and your kids’ names, the country is for the people, and its glories are theirs. Repeat with one voice, for one faith: We are all Tunisia in the face of repressive elites. We are all Tunisia in the face of repressive elites. The Arab governments and who rules them are, without exception, thieves. Thieves! The question that frames the thoughts of those who wonder will not find an answer in any official channels. As long as it imports everything it has from the West, why can’t it import laws and freedoms? Why can’t it import laws and freedoms?

Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, interviewed al-Ajami’s lawyer. She also interviewed a member of Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee who was chosen by the emir to talk about the case. (I am still amazed she was able to book that guest.)

This prosecution is especially noteworthy because Qatar is home to Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera is a news channel that has done more than any other organization to spread human rights in the Middle East. Al Jazeera receives funding from the Qatari government. The member from Qatar’s Human Rights committee said that at the time of the interview Al Jazeera Arabic hadn’t covered Muhammad al-Ajami’s case. Al Jazeera English’s website does contain an article on the case which quotes Muhammad al-Ajami as saying, “This is wrong. You can’t have Al Jazeera in this country and put me in jail for being a poet.” That one article is the only coverage of the case on Al Jazeera’s English-language website.

Al Jazeera English has covered many stories critical of the human rights record of the United States, as well they should. I think it’s time we return the favor.

Qatar is a constitutional monarchy. It has a hereditary monarch and an elected legislature that is known as the al-Shoura council. Part 3 Article 47 of Qatar’s constitution states, “Freedom of expression of opinion and scientific research is guaranteed in accordance with the conditions and circumstances set forth in the law.” If Muhammad al-Ajami’s sentence is upheld, then this protection is meaningless.

Qatar has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens in the world and Human Rights Watch explains that migrant workers are often mistreated in the gulf nation.

Migrant workers reported extensive labor law violations. Common complaints included late or unpaid wages and employers’ failure to procure work permits that proved workers’ legal residence in the country. Many workers said they received false information about their jobs and salaries before arriving and signed contracts in Qatar under coercive circumstances. Some lived in overcrowded and unsanitary labor camps, and lacked access to potable water.

Unfortunately, the abuse of migrant workers is common throughout the Middle East, and is not a uniquely Qatari problem.

Human Rights Watch explains the how the laws defining Qatar’s sponsorship system encourage abuse.

A major barrier to redressing labor abuses is the kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties a migrant worker’s legal residence to his or her employer, or “sponsor.” Migrant workers cannot change jobs without their sponsoring employer’s consent, except in exceptional cases with permission from the Interior Ministry. If a worker leaves his or her sponsoring employer, even if fleeing abuse, the employer can report the worker as “absconding,” leading to detention and deportation. In order to leave Qatar, migrants must obtain an exit visa from their sponsor, and some said sponsors denied them these visas. Workers widely reported that sponsors confiscated their passports, in violation of the Sponsorship Law.

In June 2011 Qatar forcibly returned Eman al-Obeidi to Libya. Al-Obeidi feared for her safety after she claimed to international media, at great risk to herself, that she had been raped by forces loyal to the government of then Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Al-Obeidi was eventually granted asylum in the United States.

These are stories you are not likely to hear on Al Jazeera, whether it be on their Arabic or English channel.

I thought there was still one country in the world that respected human rights, but I was wrong.

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