Kuwait at risk of sliding into deeper repression amid growing clampdown on critics

The Kuwaiti authorities have arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned scores of peaceful activists, including human rights defenders and political opponents, in their efforts to silence critics and punish dissent, said Amnesty International in a new report published today.

The ‘iron fist policy’: Criminalization of peaceful dissent in Kuwait, details the clampdown on freedom of expression in Kuwait since 2011, in the context of an overall deterioration of the human rights situation in the country, and highlights how the authorities are increasingly resorting to a multitude of restrictive laws to muzzle critical voices.

“In the five years since a wave of popular protests swept across the Arab world we have witnessed a steady, relentless eroding of human rights in Kuwait as the authorities step up the clampdown on dissent. Scores of peaceful critics have been arrested and imprisoned simply for speaking out against a spectre of widespread repression,” said James Lynch, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.

“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.”

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
James Lynch, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International

The clampdown began in 2011 in reaction to demonstrations staged by members of the Bidun 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".

The authorities stepped up the throttling of freedom of expression by using a web of vague and overly broad defamation laws. They also closed media outlets and invoked the country’s nationality law to strip some critics of their citizenship.

In particular, in recent years, there has been an upsurge in prosecutions over comments deemed “offensive” or “insulting” to 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.

Under current laws, undermining or questioning the Amir is punishable with a five year prison sentence. Quoting the Amir’s words without official permission is criminalized. There are similar laws for comments deemed to endanger national security or which are considered defamatory of religion or religious figures.

“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,” said James Lynch.

“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.”

According to the UN Human Rights Committee, political figures including heads of state are “legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition”.

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. 

“The authorities have resorted to a mesmerizingly complex web of laws in an attempt to throttle freedom of expression in the country,” said James Lynch.

“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.”

The authorities have resorted to a mesmerizingly complex web of laws in an attempt to throttle freedom of expression in the country
James Lynch

The case that best exemplifies this phenomenon is that of Musallam al–Barrak, a former opposition MP and outspoken government critic. 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.

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”.

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 9 December, 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”.

Among those imprisoned for falling foul of such laws is Abdallah Fairouz, a human rights defender and political activist who was sentenced to five-years in jail because of tweets he posted online more than two years ago, saying that no one should be immune from prosecution simply because they reside in a royal palace.

Rana al-Sa’adoun 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.

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
James Lynch

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,” said James Lynch.