Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani addresses the 67th UN General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25, 2012 file photo. A court in Qatar, which has backed Arab uprisings abroad, jailed a poet to life on Nov. 29, 2012 for criticising the emir and inciting revolt. (MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS)

A Qatari poet has been sentenced to life imprisonment after a trial that rights groups say highlights the broadening crackdown on dissent across the Gulf.

Mohammed ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, who has been detained in solitary confinement since his detention in November 2011, was sentenced by the trial court after being charged with insulting the emir and trying to overthrow the government.

The ruling, which can be appealed, is the latest in a string of repressive moves by Gulf monarchies against domestic critics who dare to challenge the status quo of loyalty to the region’s absolute rulers.

“The verdict has sent out shock waves among activists in Qatar and the Gulf region,” said Dina El-Mamoun, a researcher with Amnesty International. “It is an outrageous betrayal of free speech.”

Qatar, which is home to the U.S. military’s regional forward base, has played a leading role in promoting change in the Middle East since the Arab spring swept away four dictators in the past two years, in addition to becoming an increasingly active global investor.

But rights groups say the gas-rich state is less keen on highlighting abuses in Gulf nations or at home. Qatar is coming under increasing scrutiny after its selection as host for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Ajami wrote the widely distributed “Jasmine Poem,” which criticized Gulf rulers in the wake of the Tunisian revolution, last year. The controversial poem was interpreted as attacking the emir, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani. “We are all Tunis in the face of the repressive elite,” it read.

The critique echoes the concerns among other opposition movements in the richer Gulf states of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, where rulers secure loyalty via cradle-to-grave welfare payments.

The clampdown on criticism of the region’s ruling families has gained strength across the Gulf monarchies since the Arab spring spread from Tunisia and Egypt in February 2011, triggering serious protests in Bahrain and Oman.

A Qatari contingent joined Gulf troops that crossed into Bahrain to back the minority Sunni government’s violent crackdown on the protest movement there led by the majority Shiites.

Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have all launched legal actions against critics of their respective ruling families.

The move in Doha against Ajami comes after a U.N. committee this week called on Qatar to strengthen its domestic laws and practices to end abuses.

The U.N. committee on torture urged the Doha government to ensure safeguards to prevent torture during detention, such as allowing the state-approved national human rights committee access to inspect detainees, while also criticizing what it described as a lack of judicial independence in practice.

The concerns were raised by the committee after it reviewed Qatar’s second periodic report on human rights, which had been submitted to the United Nations three years late.

The committee said it “regretted” the lack of information in the case of Sultan al-Khalaifi, the founder of a human rights group arrested in March 2011, who was detained for a month without charge. And it raised concerns about pieces of Qatari legislation that are used to hold suspects without charge, which prevents them from gaining access to a lawyer or a doctor and denies them the right to notify family members and challenge the legality of their detention.

Qatar, however, defended its human rights record.

“While in Qatar we have the feeling that we have achieved significant attainments in a short period of time, we realize however that much more needs to be done,” the government’s representative said in a response to the United Nations.

— Financial Times

Abeer Allam in Cairo contributed to this report.