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Amnesty: Kuwait sliding into repression

KUWAIT: Amnesty International researcher Drewery Dyke speaks during a press conference at the Kuwait Human Rights Association yesterday. - Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat
KUWAIT: Amnesty International researcher Drewery Dyke speaks during a press conference at the Kuwait Human Rights Association yesterday. – Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat

KUWAIT: Amnesty International urged Kuwait yesterday to release political prisoners and warned that the state was at risk of sliding deeper into repression. In a report titled “The Iron Fist Policy: Criminalization of Peaceful Dissent in Kuwait”, Amnesty said more than 90 government critics were either in jail or on trial for charges such as insulting or offending HH the Amir or top officials. The report was released during a press conference held at the Kuwait Society for Human Right in Shuwaikh.

“Scores of peaceful critics have been arrested and imprisoned simply for speaking out against a specter of widespread repression,” said Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, James Lynch. “The authorities have resorted to a mesmerizingly complex web of laws in an attempt to throttle freedom of expression,” he told a press conference. “It is not too late to reverse this downward spiral of human rights violations. Kuwait is at a critical juncture, the government has a clear choice between allowing the country to slide into deeper repression or taking urgent steps to prove that its public commitments to human rights are more than just hollow promises,” Lynch added.

Online activists who launched a campaign on Twitter on Tuesday in solidarity with people facing prosecution said that as many as 626 Kuwaitis face criminal charges for expressing their views peacefully. Amnesty said that opposition leader and former MP Musallam Al-Barrak, who is serving a two-year jail term for publicly offending the Amir, faces 94 criminal prosecutions.

Amnesty also criticized the government for closing media outlets and revoking the citizenship of a number of leading opposition activists including Abdullah Al-Barghash, a former member of parliament, and Saad Al-Ajmi, spokesman of the opposition Popular Action Movement who was later deported to Saudi Arabia. The watchdog urged Kuwait to review and repeal a number of laws that hinder freedom of expression.

Amnesty will follow up on these issues. “It’s possible to issue new announcements next year depending on the situation. Maybe we will document a case to have them released if we believe they are prisoners of conscience. We have also done surveys and issued reports from other Arab countries on freedom of expression, but we didn’t compare it with Kuwait,” researcher Drewery Dyke told the Kuwait Times.

Lynch spoke about the history of the clampdown, which began in 2011 in reaction to demonstrations staged by members of the bedoon community. Yet it was amidst the outpouring of expression during the series of Karamat Watan (Nation’s Dignity) demonstrations in 2012, when thousands took to the streets to oppose a new electoral law and protest alleged government corruption, that the government acted to restrict freedom of expression in Kuwait, in violation of its international obligations.
As protests continued and were accompanied by a surge of criticism on social media, the Cabinet announced an “iron fist policy” in 2014, promising “a decisive and firm confrontation with whatever could undermine the state, its institutions and constitution”. In particular, in recent years, there has been an upsurge in prosecutions over comments deemed “offensive” or “insulting” to HH the Amir of Kuwait and other Arab rulers, or comments perceived to “undermine” government officials. In the last two years, more than 90 cases have been reported in Kuwaiti media of people facing such charges in court.

“No one should be sent to prison merely for peacefully voicing his or her opinion, however objectionable their views may seem to those in power. Laws that stifle freedom of expression are at complete odds with international law. Instead of responding defensively, the Kuwaiti authorities should acknowledge criticism and view such comments as opportunities for debate and discussion,” said Lynch.

According to the UN Human Rights Committee, political figures including heads of state are “legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition”. According to Lynch many of those imprisoned in the ongoing crackdown are prisoners of conscience targeted solely for peacefully exercising their right to express themselves freely. “Some activists face numerous charges and are mired in multiple, costly lawsuits, facing court proceedings and jail sentences on a cyclical basis. Court processes can sometimes drag out over prolonged periods sometimes years – due to regular delays and trial adjournments,” Lynch pointed out.

Dyke noted that “many activists find themselves hampered by seemingly endless ‘red tape’ legal proceedings, which appear to be part of a deliberate government strategy to harass peaceful activists into quiet submission by wearing them down, and to warn others against speaking out”. He mentioned Barrak as an example. “He is serving a two-year jail sentence on various charges for undermining and insulting the Amir after he delivered a critical speech. At one point last year he was facing 94 separate criminal prosecutions simultaneously, in a clear bid by the authorities to harass and intimidate him into silence,” stressed Dyke.

“A group of 67 people who took part in a peaceful rally to express solidarity with him in April 2013, by repeating his speech, were arrested when security forces dispersed the protest. They were later charged with “insulting the Amir,” he added.

Kuwaiti law even goes as far as to criminalize using specific means to communicate “insulting” messages. A new cybercrimes – or electronic crimes – law, due to come into force in early 2016, potentially offers the authorities further options to prosecute critics for peaceful expressing their opinions online. Amnesty International is calling on the government to urgently review this law and postpone its application.

On Dec 9, the Ministry of Interior’s Twitter account reminded Kuwait’s Twitter users of their requirement to abide by “public morals and the laws of the country” in their tweets, warning there will be no laxity in enforcement of the law “for all that is harmful to the country”. Rana Al-Saadoun was sentenced to three years in jail in June 2015 for posting a speech by Musallam Al-Barrak on YouTube. She is currently appealing the sentence.

During a review of Kuwait’s human rights record at the UN Human Rights Council in June 2015 the Kuwaiti government promised to accept nine specific recommendations committing them to upholding international standards relating to freedom of expression. So far there has been no sign that these commitments have been delivered. “Instead of rounding up critics as criminals the Kuwaiti authorities must prove they are serious about human rights by urgently releasing all prisoners of conscience, repealing or revising laws used to clampdown on freedom of expression and fulfilling their international human rights obligations,” concluded Lynch.

By Nawara Fattahova

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