March 20, 2016

Cornell Student Groups Celebrate Release of Student in Qatar

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Clarification appended

Mohammed al-Ajami, a student at the University of Cairo who was arrested by Qatari security forces in 2011, was pardoned and released by the Emir of Qatar following a letter written by Amnesty International Cornell and Cornell Organization for Labor Action earlier this month.

Christopher Hanna ’18, the co-president of Amnesty International Cornell, said that while he considers the letter drop just one part of a larger movement, it speaks to the power of collective action on matters of international justice.

“Our letter-drop served a small but important role in rapidly ramping up press attention and public pressure for al-Ajami’s release, ultimately resulting in the Emir of Qatar’s decision to issue a pardon,” he said. “Altogether, this testifies to the power of coalition-building and human rights activism.”

The letter was given to acting President Michael Kotlikoff, requesting that he pressure the Qatari government to release poet Ajami from prison.

Al-Ajami was arrested for “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime” and “criticizing the Emir” through two poems he read in Cairo, according to a letter.

“The poems in question did, in fact, express sympathy for the Arab Spring uprisings that famously gripped nations throughout North Africa and the Middle East that year,” the letter stated. “As an artist and man of conscience, Mr. al-Ajami used the spoken word to envision a more perfect and just future.”

Al-Ajami was held in solitary confinement less than ten miles from Cornell’s medical campus in Qatar. The campus was formed with the help of the Qatar Foundation, chaired by Qatari royal Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser, a member of the family that “arbitrarily put Mohammed al-Ajami behind bars,” according to the letter.

Hanna said that although Kotlikoff responded to a letter-drop from COLA and AIC the same day that al-Ajami’s was released, he was still impressed by Kotlikoff’s receptiveness to the letter’s suggestions.

“We think that Kotlikoff’s letter definitely serves as an admission that Cornell and other American institutions have a stake in Qatar’s human rights record, and also reveals a particular institutional mechanism through which Cornell could potentially place pressure on the regime,” Hanna said.

He further emphasized that Kotlikoff’s reaction makes him hopeful about the potential for the University to support international change.

“Amnesty [International] and COLA will definitely hold the University to a high standard going forward, especially given the supportive rhetoric of the letter,” he said.

Kyle Friend ’17 added that al-Ajami’s release is encouraging news for all parties involved.

“We at Amnesty International were delighted to hear of Acting President Kotlikoff’s willingness to speak up on behalf of Mr. al-Ajami, and his desire to use Cornell’s influence in the region for the greater good,” Friend said. “Even more importantly, though, we are overjoyed to hear that Mr. al-Ajami is free from his unjust detention, and is able to return back to his family.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly implied that student groups credited Provost and Acting President Michael Kotlikoff’s letter with contributing to al-Ajami’s release. In fact, the various students stated that they appreciate the letter but do not believe that it contributed to the student’s release.