Kuwait’s Activists Risk Jail for Pushing the Limits on Social Media

Migrants workers are seen in Doha, Qatar. Qatar's ruler has introduced a law giving broad protection to tens of thousands of foreigners in the country.


By Abdullah Alelyan

Earlier this month, Sheikh Abdullah Salem Al Sabah, a member of the Kuwaiti ruling family, was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for slandering the ruler of the country in his tweets. A few days later, Kuwaiti social activist Sarah Al Idriss was detained based on the orders of the Public Prosecutor, for 21 days before she was moved to the central prison over her comments on social media which investigators deemed slanderous to the ruler’s person.

Idriss had been part of the first batch of Twitter activists who were pardoned by the Emir of Kuwait back in 2013 for allegedly writing slanderous tweets attacking the Emir’s status. In September, she slammed those trying to “shame” her and prevent her from stating her political views, while trying to force her to express “gratitude” towards the Emir’s “kind gesture.” That tweet apparently landed her in hot waters.

Idriss, who went to the police personally to explain the meaning behind her tweets and that they were not defamatory as some investigators had interpreted, has been put under detention until the investigation is over. This has caused an uproar on social media, and users have started a hashtag expressing solidarity with her.

The constitution is the first and final resort for Kuwaitis, which establishes their relationship with their ruler, according to several Kuwaiti lawyers who were approached by Newsweek Middle East.

Article 54 of the Kuwaiti Constitution clearly notes that the “Emir is the head of state and his status is untouchable.”

To show that no one is above the law, ruling family members have been tried, convicted and imprisoned in the past in cases that breached the country’s laws and regulations. One ruling family member was slapped with a death sentence for smuggling drugs, but the sentence was never carried as the man died in prison prior to his execution.

The Emir’s own sister, Sheikha Naima Al Ahmed Al Sabah, along with his nephews Sheikh Talal Al Fahad and Sheikh Ahmed Al Fahad were also not shielded by their royal post, as there have been cases brought against them recently for distorting Kuwait’s image in the field of sports worldwide.

A case for freedom of speech is brought up every time someone makes a comment which investigators deem inappropriate or slanderous, based on their own understanding of the comment.

Over the course of the past few years, the number of legal cases brought against social media activists, including former members of the parliament and politicians and common citizens, has surged, with most being accused of tarnishing the image of the ruler, which is considered a crime on its own.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has slammed Kuwait in its World Report 2015 stating that the Kuwaiti “government aggressively cracked down on free speech throughout 2014, using provisions in the constitution, the national security law, and other legislation to stifle political dissent. The authorities stripped 33 Kuwaitis of their nationality, including three who appeared to have been targeted because they represented opposition voices.”

In the report, HRW further accused the authorities of resorting to “several laws to prosecute at least 13 people in 2014 for criticizing the government or institutions in blogs or on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media.”

The laws in question were part of the country’s constitution and penal code, in addition to laws on printing and publishing, public gatherings, and the National Unity Law of 2013.

According to Kuwait’s Constitution, defaming the Emir publicly via speeches, drawings, illustrations or photos is punishable by a jail term not exceeding five years, according to Kuwaiti lawyer Mohammed Al Otaibi.

“The law is derived from two articles in the constitution: Article 54 which denotes that the Emir’s status is safeguarded and untouchable; and Article 55 which notes that the Emir’s powers are exerted via the ministers…which means the law was explicit that any aggression on the Emir’s rights and powers, his rule, his status, and his person are considered criminal acts punishable by law,” explains Otaibi.

Legal experts from Kuwait agree that freedom of speech is sacred in the country, but it does not mean that any person can say anything they wish, such as slurs and spread rumors, because that harms other people and breaches their rights.

By that, defaming and slandering the Emir of the country is no exception.

“The second chapter of the constitution in Kuwait safeguards people’s freedom of speech and right to criticize issues within the laws. It stipulates that justice, freedom and equality are the pillars of the society and everyone enjoys their freedom under the ceiling of the law,” legal expert Abdul-Rahman Al Watari tells Newsweek Middle East.

He adds: “No one is above the law. That is why you see a member of the ruling family receiving a three-year jail term for breaching the rules. Members of the ruling family are citizens with same rights and duties as other Kuwaiti citizens, except the Emir and his crown prince who are shielded by the constitution to maintain the dignity of the country.”

It is worth noting that three ruling family members have also been tried and convicted in September, and received jail sentences of five years each for slandering the Emir’s status and person.

The increase in the legal cases brought before Kuwaiti courts citing defamation and slander on social media has come in parallel with the turbulent events that the Arab world has been facing over the past five years. Furthermore, the availability of social media outlets, namely twitter, has given people more mediums to freely express their views.

Though many people were sent to jail in Kuwait over accusations of slandering the ruler, Kuwait’s Prince Sabah Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah issued a pardon in July 2013 releasing them from prison.

However, the jail sentences did not halt following the pardon. In 2015, former MP and politician Musallem Al Barrack was convicted for slandering the ruler in his famous speech titled Enough, and he remains in jail. Over 60 other defendants have also been accused of slandering the prince after they showed solidarity with Barrack through carrying out his speech after his conviction.

Another former MP, Saleh Al Mulla, who is a member of the Progressive Party in Kuwait, was also convicted for slandering the ruler and for slandering Egyptian President Abdelfattah El Sissi.

However, the Court of Appeals overruled the sentence and cleared him of all charges.

Common people such as Ayyad Al Harbi, and Abdullah Fairouz received terms ranging from two to five years’ imprisonment respectively, among tens of other cases of slandering the ruler brought against those who openly posted their criticism online.

In Kuwait, all court rulings are issued in the name of the Emir, as dictated in Article 53 of the constitution.

Over of the past few years the Emir has often called for respecting and upholding the rule of law.

Lawyer Abdullah Al Dhai’an says Kuwait is one of the pioneer countries in the Middle East when it comes to safeguarding people’s freedoms and liberties.

“A citizen can express his or her views freely without breaching other people’s rights or breaching the laws and without having fear of any repercussions. This right is guaranteed by the law,” he adds.

“It is in that sense,” Dhai’an explains to Newsweek Middle East “that the law is not set to restrict people’s freedoms, but rather to draw the boundaries between one person’s rights and another’s.”

“For that reason,” the lawyer continues, “you can say whatever you want as long as you do not harm another person by defaming them among other means.”

The law is also explicit in terms of who has immunity from legal action and when that immunity expires.

According to the law, says Watari, MPs are immune during their parliamentary term, but that the immunity is partial, as there are cases which allows the judiciary to go after an MP, such as the case of MP Abdul-Hamid Dashti, who was recently tried in absentia and convicted of slandering and defaming a sisterly nation (Saudi Arabia) in addition to other charges which landed him jail for 28 years.

Dashti’s trial would have been made possible had it not been for the parliament agreeing to drop his immunity to allow the judiciary to go after him.

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