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Qatar pardons and frees poet three years into 15-year jail term

Rashid al-Ajami was recorded in 2010 reciting a poem which was critical of Qatar's then-leader and had been in prison since 2012
Protesters at the Qatari embassy in London call for the Rashid al-Ajami's release last month (YouTube)

A Qatari poet, Rashid al-Ajami, has been pardoned and released after serving more than three years of a 15-year prison sentence for insulting the emir, a family member said on Wednesday.

"We have nothing to say but 'Thank God,'" the family member of Ajami, jailed for insulting the emir and trying to overthrow the regime, told AFP, asking not to be named.

It was the first such confirmation of his release inside Qatar where officials have refused to comment, despite his pardon by the emir being widely reported outside the tiny Gulf emirate.

It is not known if his pardon by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani came attached with conditions. 

A friend of Ajami's said the poet had returned to his family home after his release which apparently came after the intervention of a relative.

The poet, also known as Ibn Al-Deeb, had been serving his sentence since being imprisoned for life in November 2012. This was reduced on appeal several months later to 15 years.

He was convicted after reciting a poem in August 2010 while with a group of friends in Cairo, where he was a student at the time.

Ajami was apparently challenged to read a poem that was indirectly critical of then Qatari ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. He was recorded and the video was then uploaded on to YouTube.

Ajami was subsequently arrested by Qatari authorities in November 2011, although his lawyers argued there was no evidence to support the charges.

Ajami's case, which garnered international condemnation over limits to free speech in Qatar, had again threatened to embarrass the 2022 World Cup football host, with demonstrations planned outside Qatari embassies in London and Washington. 

Outside Qatar, however, Ajami's release was welcomed by Amnesty International, which called it "long overdue".

"It is absurd that he had to spend more than four years behind bars, when his poetry was simply the peaceful expression of his conscientiously held beliefs," said Amnesty's James Lynch. 

"We hope that the authorities will take the opportunity of this release to review Qatar’s criminal justice system and ensure that such flagrant violations of the right to freedom of expression are not repeated."