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US says still work to be done on human rights in Kuwait

KUWAIT: Standing up for human rights is in every country’s interest, and while Kuwait continues to make progress, there’s still work to be done, the US State Department said in its 2021 Human Rights Report released Tuesday. “We will continue working with our Kuwaiti partners on human rights throughout the year,” US Ambassador to Kuwait Alina Romanowski said on her verified Twitter account, commenting on the report.

The report mentions in its executive summary “significant human right issues” in Kuwait, including “torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government agents; arbitrary arrest; political prisoners; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including censorship and the existence of criminal libel laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of NGOs and civil society organizations; restrictions on freedom of movement including the right to leave the country; government corruption,” among others.

Furthermore, the report indicates that the government took significant steps in some cases to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in the government. However, impunity was a problem in corruption cases, it notes.

Xenophobic rhetoric

Notably, the report indicates that the spread of COVID-19 was followed by a strong upsurge in xenophobic rhetoric. Expatriates, particularly those working in lower-wage positions, suffered from housing discrimination, and were largely limited to specific neighborhoods designated for their use. These neighborhoods were typically higher density and suffered from poor road maintenance and were prone to flooding. High density neighborhoods were subjected to much tighter COVID restrictions, including restrictions on freedom of movement not imposed on majority citizen neighborhoods.

COVID-19 vaccines provided by the government were offered first to citizens, the report points out. At the beginning of the year, the Ministry of Health stated citizens were vaccinated at a rate six times that of noncitizens, although by later in the year noncitizen legal residents had free access to the vaccine due to increased supply. In May the Ministry of the Interior questioned a policeman who was caught on video slapping an expatriate in line for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Local media reported that from January to November, there were 120 suicides, mostly among the migrant worker community. Local media reported that the government stated in response that any noncitizen would be deported for attempting suicide.

Unmarried persons, particularly foreign workers, continued to face housing discrimination and eviction based on their marital status and income, according to the report. For example, authorities frequently raided apartment blocks housing foreign worker “bachelors,” and reportedly shut off water and electricity to force single male workers out of accommodations. Local authorities evicted single foreign male workers to make room for citizen families, citing the presence of single men as the reason for increased crime, a burden on services, and worsening traffic. In December the Ministry of Interior indefinitely suspended all transactions related to obtaining or renewing driver’s licenses for migrant workers, reportedly to improve traffic conditions.

Labor law violations

The report indicates that as of July, the Ministry of Interior arrested 95 employers for issuing residency permits in exchange for money and deported 4,896 residents whose legal status had lapsed. The Ministry of Interior reported that it closed 44 fake domestic worker employment offices.

The law does not prohibit and criminalize all forms of forced or compulsory labor, according to the report. There are exceptions to the law in cases related to “national emergency and with just remuneration.” The law allows for forced prison labor as a punishment. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

In April security guards at the Ministry of Education posted on social media that they had not received their salaries for five months. In response the Public Authority for Manpower (PAM) required their employer to pay their salaries. As of June, hundreds of security guards and cleaners working for private companies with government contracts had not received their salaries since February. Some incidents of forced labor and conditions indicative of forced labor occurred, especially among foreign domestic and agricultural workers. Such practices were usually a result of employer abuse of the sponsorship system (kafala) for foreign workers. Employers frequently illegally withheld salaries from domestic workers and minimum-wage laborers. Employers confined some domestic and agricultural workers to their workspaces by retaining their passports and, in the case of some domestic workers, locked them in their work locations. The government did not make consistent efforts to educate households regarding the legal prohibition on seizing domestic employees’ passports. Some employers did not allow workers to take their weekly day of rest or leave their work location. Workers who fled abusive employers had difficulty retrieving their passports, and authorities deported them in almost all cases.

Domestic servitude was the most common type of forced labor, principally involving foreign domestic workers employed under kafala, but reports of forced labor in the construction and sanitation sectors also existed. Forced labor conditions for migrant workers included nonpayment of wages, long working hours, deprivation of food, threats, physical and sexual abuse, and restrictions on movement, such as withholding passports or confinement to the workplace.

Numerous domestic workers who escaped from abusive employers reported waiting several months to regain their passports, which employers had illegally confiscated when they began their employment. There were numerous media reports throughout the year of sponsors abusing domestic workers or injuring them when they tried to escape. Some reports alleged that abuse resulted in workers’ deaths. Female domestic workers were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Police and courts were reluctant to prosecute citizens for abuse in private residences but prosecuted some serious cases of abuse when reported, particularly when the cases were raised by the source country embassies. According to a high-level government official, authorities prosecuted several cases of domestic worker abuse. PAM operated a shelter for female domestic workers, victims of abuses, or persons who were otherwise unwilling to continue to work for their employers and preferred to leave the country. The shelter had a capacity of 500, and PAM reported the shelter accommodated a total of 160 occupants during the reporting period. In August a Filipina domestic worker posted a video on social media claiming abuse by her sponsor. According to PAM, the Ministry of Interior and PAM found her and moved her to the women’s domestic worker shelter in Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh.

A government-owned recruiting company designed to mitigate abuses against domestic workers (Al-Durra) officially launched its services in 2017 and initially planned to bring 120 domestic workers a month from the Philippines and approximately 100 male workers from India. Al-Durra reported it had not recruited any new domestic workers since the end of the first quarter of 2020 due to COVID-19. Al-Durra’s services included worker insurance, a 24/7 abuse hotline, and follow-up on allegations of labor rights violations. The target recruitment fee depends on domestic workers’ experience and skillset. The government regularly conducted information awareness campaigns in Arabic and English via media outlets and public events and otherwise informed employers to encourage compliance by public and private recruiting companies with the law.

Numerous media reports highlighted the problem of residence permit or “visa trading,” wherein companies and recruitment agencies collude to “sell visas” fraudulently to prospective workers. Often the jobs and companies attached to these visas do not exist, and workers are vulnerable to exploitation in the black market where they are forced to earn a living and repay the cost of their fake “visa.” Arrests of traffickers and illegal labor rings occurred almost weekly. Since workers cannot freely or easily change jobs under the country’s kafala system, many workers were unwilling to leave their initial job, even if visa traders had misled them regarding the position, or their position existed only on paper. Workers who left their employers due to abusive treatment, nonpayment or late payment of wages, or unacceptable working conditions risked the Ministry of Interior charging them with falling into illegal residency status, absconding, and being deported. In 2020 PAM established an emergency hotline to track “visa trading” and labor infraction allegations. Through the hotline, online applications, social media platforms, and the PAM website, PAM received 53 complaints as of November. In October the Anti-Trafficking Department at the Ministry of Interior established a 24/7 hotline in Arabic and English to receive reports of human trafficking. Since its establishment the hotline received 95 complaints, none of which the Ministry of Interior qualified as a trafficking in persons violation.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought increased public and press attention to “visa trading.” Civil society groups, press outlets, and MPs called for the government to increase its efforts to protect victims and punish traders and their enablers.

In May the Court of Cassation sentenced a Ministry of Interior colonel and two Egyptian nationals to three years in prison for visa trading and violating the residency law. In September the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered the arrest of three citizens for running a human trafficking operation, after the Immigration Investigations Department found that 400 expatriates were falsely told they would be working at hotels, which the workers later discovered did not exist. Some expatriates from various countries reportedly indicated to the Public Prosecutor’s Office they paid approximately 1,500 dinars ($5,000) each to be brought to the country for work.

In March the rapporteur of the National Assembly’s human rights committee stated that the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, among other ministries, were involved in human trafficking, and government contracts are a large source for trafficking.

In November the Court of Cassation rejected the appeals of Bangladeshi member of parliament Kazi Shahidul Papul, two Kuwaiti government officials, and a Kuwaiti former member of parliament who were convicted of bribery and human trafficking in April. The court upheld Papul’s seven-year prison sentence, his fine of approximately KD 270,000 ($900,000), and his deportation after serving his sentence. The court also upheld the appeal ruling for the former PAM chief, who was sentenced to seven years in prison and a fine of almost KD 180,000 ($600,000). The police officers involved were sentenced to seven years in prison and a fine of approximately KD 1.97 million ($6.5 million).

Domestic workers

Although the law prohibits withholding of workers’ passports, the practice remained common among sponsors and employers of foreign workers, particularly domestic employees in the home, and the government demonstrated no consistent efforts to enforce this prohibition. Domestic workers had little recourse when employers violated their rights except to seek admittance to the domestic workers’ shelter where the government mediated between sponsors and workers either to assist the worker in finding an alternate sponsor, or to assist in voluntary repatriation.

There were no inspections of private residences, where most of the country’s domestic workers were employed. Reports indicated employers forced domestic workers to work overtime without additional compensation. In 2020 PAM began implementing a “blacklist” system that would prevent the sponsorship of domestic workers by recruitment offices or employers that violate workers’ rights. The government usually limited punishment for abusive employers to administrative actions such as assessing fines, shutting employment firms, issuing orders for employers to return withheld passports, or requiring employers to pay back wages. In September 2020 PAM, the Supreme Council for Planning and Development, the United Nations Development Program and the International Organization for Migration launched the Tamkeen Initiative to implement the International Recruitment Integrity System to promote ethical recruitment of migrant workers. As of November, PAM stated that the first phase of the Tamkeen Initiative, which included training for its own staff and recruitment agencies, was complete.

Some domestic workers did not have the ability to remove themselves from an unhealthy or unsafe situation without endangering their employment. There were reports of domestic workers’ dying or attempting to die by suicide due to desperation over abuse, including sexual violence or poor working conditions. The law provides legal protections for domestic workers, including a formal grievance process managed by PAM. A worker who was not satisfied with the department’s arbitration decision has the right to file a legal case via the labor court.

Several embassies with large domestic worker populations in the country met with varying degrees of success in pressing the government to prosecute serious cases of domestic worker abuse. Severe cases included those where there were significant, life-threatening injuries or death.

In July, PAM imposed a ban on residence permits for laborers in the country working in the industrial, agricultural, and fishing industries. In September, PAM implemented a decision to permit expatriates to transfer commercial visit visas to a work permits due to widespread labor shortages.

In September the Ministry of Commerce and PAM issued a decision banning sexual harassment and discrimination in the private sector workplace. The decision prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of gender, age, pregnancy, or social status in the oil and private sectors.

In July, PAM approved a proposal to prohibit the issuance of new work permits for expatriate workers at the age of 60 years and above, and those who hold only high school diplomas, unless the employer paid a KD 2000 ($6,555) fee. In October the Department of Fatwa and Legislation determined that the prohibition was illegal and that the fee would be removed. In November, PAM proposed a new decision stipulating that this category of expatriate residents could renew their visas if their employers were to pay for private health insurance, amounting to approximately KD 900 ($3,000) and an annual visa fee of KD 510 ($1,680). Though this fee was for the employer, most employees paid the fees. The Fatwa and Legislation Department must approve PAM’s new decision before it can be implemented. As of December no visas have been renewed and the suspension was still in place.

Women’s rights

The report says that violence against women continued to be a problem in Kuwait, and the law does not include separate criminal penalties for domestic violence. “There were reports alleging that some police stations did not take seriously reports by both citizens and noncitizens of sexual assault and domestic violence, which service providers stated contributes to a culture of underreporting by rape and domestic violence survivors,” the report reads.

Although the government does not regularly publish statistics on domestic violence, cases of domestic violence against women were regularly reported by local NGOs. These NGOs noted an increase in cases during the COVID-19 pandemic. The courts issued verdicts for 991 domestic violence cases, including 662 cases of violence against women. Some defendants were acquitted, while others received jail sentences from six months to 20 years, and some were sentenced to the death penalty. Service providers observed that domestic violence was significantly underreported to authorities, but press publicized some high-profile cases.

In April a citizen man stabbed to death a citizen woman after he crashed his car into her sister’s car and kidnapped her and her daughter. She had previously filed two police complaints against the perpetrator for harassing and threatening her for more than a year after her family had refused his marriage proposal. In July the Criminal Court charged the perpetrator with first degree murder and sentenced him to death by hanging. In September the Criminal Court referred a citizen man responsible for the September 2020 killing of his sister for examination by mental health experts. Press reports indicated that the accused man killed his sister while she was recovering in the hospital from an initial attempt on her life by another brother. Media asserted the men attacked their sister because they did not approve of her marriage.

In February activists launched a countrywide social media campaign under the name Lan Asket (“I will not be silenced”) to raise awareness and end violence against women. The campaign encouraged women to submit their experiences online and documented numerous reports of women facing violence and harassment. Women’s rights activists also documented numerous stories of citizen and female foreign workers seeking help to leave an abusive situation who faced significant obstacles or were forced to remain in life-threatening situations because government has not yet opened a shelter for victims of domestic violence. As of December the Ministry of Social Affairs assigned a building for a domestic violence shelter with capacity for up to 100 women and hired at least six staff to work at the shelter and operate the domestic violence hotline.

Meanwhile, the report mentions that the law establishes protections for abused children, including noncitizen children. The Child Protection Office of the Ministry of Health, established in 2014, has made significant efforts in monitoring and following cases of child abuse. The office manages a child abuse hotline, which received 474 reports of abuse as of November. Most abuses occurred within the family, and cases were approximately split evenly among boys and girls. In instances of reported child abuse, children are admitted to a hospital and assessed by medical professionals pending legal proceedings. There is no shelter for abused children.

Censorship and internet freedom

In January amendments to the Press and Publications Law came into effect that dismantled the Ministry of Information’s oversight committee for imported publications (mainly books). Publishers importing books are no longer required to obtain prior permission from the Ministry of Information to import books, and they are only expected to provide the book title, the author’s name, the number of copies to be imported, and a copy of the book to the Ministry of Information. They remain liable to legal action if the courts receive an official complaint from the public. Other amendments to the Press and Publications Law prohibited publishing any content that “stirs up sectarianism or tribal strife” or racist ideas. According to the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs reviewed books of a religious nature.

The government continued to monitor internet communications, such as blogs and discussion groups, for defamation and general security reasons. The Ministry of Communications blocked websites considered to “incite terrorism and instability” and required internet service providers to block websites that “violate [the country’s] customs and traditions.” The government prosecuted and punished individuals for the expression of political or religious views via the internet, including by email and social media, based on laws related to libel, national unity, and national security. The government prosecuted some online bloggers under the Printing and Publications Law and the National Security Law.

In June an Egyptian resident was arrested and deported by security forces for “insulting the country” in a social media post in which he criticized the weather. In November local media reported a citizen who was sentenced in 2017 for criticizing Saudi Arabia on Twitter went on a hunger strike after the central prison transferred him to a cell occupied by convicted terrorists; he remained imprisoned at the end of year. In July the Ministry of Interior deported a Jordanian resident for taking part in a gathering to protest the government’s decision barring unvaccinated individuals from entering malls. During the gathering he spoke to local television stations and criticized the ban.

Stateless Persons

UNHCR estimated there were 92,000 stateless persons in the country in 2020. UNHCR’s estimate included Bedoon residents who are stateless Arabs considered illegal residents by authorities and not granted citizenship. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and press, however, estimated the Bedoon resident population at more than 100,000. Data from the Central Agency for Illegal Residents on the number of Bedoon residents in country was not available. The law does not provide stateless persons, including Bedoon persons, a clear path to acquire citizenship. The judicial system’s lack of authority to rule on the status of Bedoon residents further complicated the process for obtaining citizenship, leaving Bedoon with no access to the judiciary to present evidence and plead their case for citizenship.

The Central Agency for Illegal Residents oversees Bedoon resident affairs. In August the Council of Ministers issued two resolutions that extended the agency’s expired term by two additional years and reappointed the head of the agency. Bedoon residents, Bedoon rights advocates, members of parliament, and human rights activists protested the decision, arguing that the agency had not been effective in resolving matters pertaining to the Bedoon, and that conditions for Bedoon residents had dramatically deteriorated under the agency’s leadership. They pointed to several Bedoon community members who had died by suicide in recent years due to dire social and economic conditions, including a 12-year-old boy in February. The agency received tens of thousands of citizenship requests by Bedoon residents for review since its establishment in 2010. Data on the number of requests accepted by the Central Agency was unavailable. In August the Ministry of Interior summoned 19 Bedoon activists for organizing an unauthorized weekly gathering and for insulting the Central Agency on the audio based social media platform Club House.

According to Bedoon advocates and government officials, many Bedoon residents were unable to provide documentation proving ties to the country sufficient to qualify for citizenship. Since the government considers Bedoon illegal residents, many lacked identification cards, which impeded access to education, prevented them from engaging in legal employment, or obtaining travel documents.

Security cards provide Bedoon residents with access to basic services. In January the Ministry of Defense requested more than 600 of its Bedoon employees renew their expired security cards to amend their legal working status. Some did not, however, receive renewed security cards from the agency because they were required to declare a different nationality. In August a Bedoon resident attempted to set himself on fire after the agency refused to renew his security card.

Although Bedoon residents are by law entitled to government benefits – including free healthcare, education, and ration cards – community members have alleged it was often difficult for them to access those services due to bureaucratic red tape.

Since citizen children were given priority to attend public school, a small minority of Bedoon children whose families could afford it enrolled in substandard private schools. In December the Central Agency announced in a press statement that there were 33,700 Bedoon students enrolled in public and private school for the 2020-21 academic year whose expenses were paid through a government charitable fund. Some activists alleged that they or their family members have been deprived of access to education, healthcare, and jobs for advocating on behalf of the Bedoon. In October local media reported that the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs repeatedly suspended the salaries of Bedoon employees for various periods of time, including more than a month due to budgetary issues and auditing.

The government alleged that most Bedoon residents concealed their “true” nationalities and were not actually stateless. Agency officials have extended incentive benefits to Bedoon who disclose an alternate nationality, including priority employment and the ability to obtain a driver’s license. According to the Central Agency, approximately 12,700 Bedoon admitted having a claim on another nationality in 2018. Bedoon leaders, however, alleged that when some members of the Bedoon community attempted to obtain government services from the Central Agency, officials required Bedoon individuals to sign a blank piece of paper to receive the necessary paperwork. Later, Bedoon reported, the agency would write a letter on the signed paper purportedly stating they held another nationality. The Court of Cassation ruled that decisions issued by the Central Agency for Illegal Residents fall under the jurisdiction of the judiciary and as a result, are challengeable in the courts, excluding those related to citizenship status.

The Central Agency was tasked with granting or revoking government identification, birth, death, or marriage certificates, recommendations for employment, and other official documentation, whereas the Supreme Committee for the Verification of Citizenship at the Ministry of Interior managed all citizenship revocations and naturalizations. Nonetheless, many Bedoon and activists on their behalf continued to accuse the Agency of not complying with the law and failing to implement court rulings requiring it to register Bedoon residents and issue them required documents. There were reports of violence against Bedoon residents. In November the Criminal Court sentenced a former assistant undersecretary in Ministry of Information to 10 years in prison with hard labor for kidnapping and attempting to assault a Bedoon resident.


In August the NGO Kuwait Economic Society announced that the country lost approximately KD 1.2 billion ($4 billion) annually to corruption. Numerous cases of serious corruption, including government corruption, occurred. Nazaha continued to refer government officials involved in corrupt practices to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, including officers of the Ministry of Interior, for forgery of official documents. In January the Criminal Court issued a life sentence for four European nationals employed by the country’s Health Office in London for stealing public funds and embezzling approximately KD 4.5 million ($15 million). In March the Cassation Court ordered the release of former minister of health, Ali Al-Obaidi, and two undersecretaries who had been sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment with hard labor and ordered to refund KD 24.5 million ($81 million) to compensate the state for corruption. The Court of Cassation overturned the Court of Ministers’ ruling and cancelled the refund order.

In May the Public Prosecutor’s Office referred eight judges, three lawyers, and six administrators in the Plenary and Appeal Courts to the Criminal Court on charges of bribery, forgery, and money laundering for their connection to a money laundering case initiated in 2020. In September the Court of Cassation upheld the appeal ruling for the imprisonment of former Ministry of Health undersecretaries Khaled al-Sahlaoui and Mahmoud Abdel Hadi for seven years with hard labor and banned them from holding any public sector jobs. The Public Prosecutor’s Office charged the defendants with forgery and bribery during their time at the Ministry of Health. Investigations uncovered widespread use of false academic credentials by citizens and foreign residents in the public and private sectors, exposing fraud and a lack of transparency in the hiring and promotion of officials.

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