Two writers, a poet and a journalist, have been in the dock recently in high profile court cases where judges rowed back and cut sentences that shocked the world. The first was Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, a poet who was jailed for life in Qatar. His crime was to have posted a poem on-line, the “Jasmine poem”, lauding the Tunisian revolution but which, according to the criminal charges levelled against him, offended the emir and contravened the Gulf state's penal code which explicitly bans calls for the overthrow of the government. Alarmed by the international outrage, judges in a higher state security court generously reduced his sentence to 15 years in prison.
The second, Abdiaziz Abdinuur, a Somali freelance journalist was charged with insulting the government when he interviewed a woman claiming to have been raped by government forces. The Bernadir Regional Court in Mogadishu gave him a one-year prison sentence later reduced by an appellate court to six months. Abdiaziz did not even publish the story.
Both cases were received with astonishment around the world. For one, these cases exposed the wanton criminalisation of journalists still operating in many countries. Outdated laws are sill used by unscrupulous governments to gag journalists and instill fear in them that they cannot cross a line in the sand. In most cases, this line is that rulers are above the law and cannot be given a bad press.
Most important is that both authorities claiming to have been offended are friends of the West. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud of Somalia, is relentlessly portrayed by his backers including UK Prime Minister David Cameron, as committed to human rights and reform. Perhaps he should have told him when he welcomed him to Downing Street that such antediluvian laws have no place in the statute book of a country craving for recognition, even it is a failed one peddling hope to donor countries to encourage further funding.
As for Qatar, everybody knows how its massive oil wealth propelled it to become a major international player, in particular acting as a proxy for the Westin in helping the NATO-backed uprising and more recently backing the anti-Bashar rebels in Syria. But its support for the street uprisings in Tunis, Cairo or Sanaa is cruelly wanting when it comes to press freedom or the rights of the majority of workers in its own backyard.
The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is almost never referred to by mainstream media as a dictator and you often hear his regime referred to as “moderate”. Al Jazeera, a key weapon in his soft power arsenal, relentlessly bolsters its carefully crafted image as a benevolent monarchy.
It is left to the global labour movement to stand up against such hypocrisy. A campaign recently launched by the International TUC exposes sharply the ugly face of the kingdom, epitomised by the 1.2 million workers in Qatar who are prohibited from joining a trade union in violation of international rights.
The campaign now focuses on the 2022 world cup which Qatar won controversially the bid to host. The message from the ITUC is “Don’t let your World Cup team play in a shamed stadium. There will be no World Cup in 2022 without workers' rights.”