February 2, 2016
“Illiterate” man on trial in UAE for sharing poem on WhatsApp
by Liam O’Brien
The poetry-friendly (in specific contexts) United Arab Emirates has jailed and put a man on trial for sharing a poem on WhatsApp. The man’s counsel, however, is claiming that the defendant’s minimal literacy should disqualify any assumption of malice or intent.
Naser Al Remeithi reports for The National:
S A, 29, from Oman is on trial for sharing an audio recording of a poem that ridiculed the country and its martyrs killed in Yemen on the online messaging service.
“My client can’t read or write. He didn’t even hear the message. He foolishly forwarded a slanderous poem he received through WhatsApp to an online group he belonged to,” said his lawyer, Salem Al Ameri.
Prosecutors said S A broadcast information online with the intent of mocking the country, its leadership and its martyrs in Yemen by calling them traitors and cowards.
“The unpatriotic sentiments in that poem are not what the accused believes in. It does not represent his values. I won’t stand before you today, your honour, if he intentionally disrespected our martyrs’ great sacrifice this way. This was purely a mistake that landed him behind bars,” said Mr Al Ameri, adding that even if S A had listened to the poem he wouldn’t have been able to understand it due to his limited schooling.
This prosecution comes in the wake of Federal Legal Decree No. 5, which was passed by President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2012. The law, which defines “cybercrimes” in the UAE, has been criticized by Human Rights Watch for restricting online speech and suppressing any form of political dissent.
S A claims to have been in prison for “around three months”, after allegedly forwarding the offending poem in September of last year.
Judge Al Hajeri asked S A his profession and if he could read or write.
“I’m a camel herder. I work with camels and take care of them,” said S A, who told the judge that he had basic reading knowledge and only attended school up to grade 6. He also insisted that he never listened to the poem.
Article 29 of the cybercrime law allows for imprisonment and a fine of up to 1 million dirhams ($272,000) for anyone who uses social media “with the intent of inciting to actions, or publishing or disseminating any information, news, caricatures, or other images liable to endanger state security and its higher interests or infringe on the public order.”
S A’s verdict is scheduled for February 29th.
Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.