20-Month Sentence Reflects Mounting Assault on Free Speech
(Beirut) – A Kuwaiti appeal court’s decision to uphold a 20-month prison sentence on a teacher for political comments she made on Twitter further erodes the right to free speech in Kuwait.
On July 17, 2013, the court of appeals confirmed the conviction of Sara al-Drees, 26, on charges of offending Kuwait’s emir and misusing her mobile phone when sending tweets that the authorities considered offensive. She is free on bail, awaiting the outcome of a further appeal.
“The Kuwait authorities over the past year have prosecuted dozens of people for peaceful political statements,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should tolerate this kind of criticism, not persecute people who dare express it.”
Since a political crisis between the government and the political opposition in June 2012, the authorities have charged several dozen politicians, online activists, journalists, and others with “offending” the emir, Kuwait’s head of state. The government should drop charges against those accused or convicted of crimes solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and it should amend Kuwait’s criminal code to remove the crime of “offending the emir,” Human Rights Watch said.
On May 29, 2013, a Kuwaiti criminal court convicted al-Drees of offending the emir in four tweets that she admitted sending. One referred to an October 2012 protest that local activists said was met with a violent government response and many arrests. She wrote: “What’s taking place now is a shame on Kuwait’s history. Damn this era! The curse of Allah shall rest on the oppressors!”
In another, referring to the ruling family, she wrote: “We loved you as a part of Kuwait’s history, rejecting violations by some of you, but we now feel that you are spongers imposed on us by our constitution.” In a third, referring to the emir, she wrote: “He is a wonderful orator, telling us about an ideal society where an individual would sleep, without the fear of getting clamped down by someone who is a great placid actor before the cameras, and tyrant behind the scenes!”
Her fourth tweet referred to the general state of affairs in Kuwait: “This is sort of making fool of the people and treating them with disregard, as if they are all stupid and should not oppose the government. Hear and obey even if you were oppressed in broad daylight. The people are insulted throughout their own law.”
Al-Drees, who teaches high school students about human rights under Kuwait’s constitution, is not the only woman to be sentenced to prison for political speech. On June 10, a court sentenced Huda al-Ajmi, a 37-year-old teacher, to 11 years in prison, including 5 years for “offending the emir,” after convicting her on charges based on a series of tweets. She is free on bail, awaiting the outcome of her appeal.
Article 25 of Kuwait’s penal code of 1970 sets out sentences of up to five years in prison for anyone who publicly “objects to the rights and authorities of the emir or faults him.” This provision violates the free speech protections in international treaties to which Kuwait is a party. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in article 19, permits restrictions on speech to protect the reputations of others or to protect national security, but only for a narrow purpose that is strictly necessary.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors government compliance with the covenant, has stated in a General Comment on article 19, that:
The mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties… [A]ll public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition… and laws should not provide for more severe penalties solely on the basis of the identity of the person that may have been impugned.
“Kuwait used to have a better reputation than most other Gulf states in respecting the right to free speech,” Stork said. “But with each case like this, the authorities are lowering themselves to the standards of the rest of the region.”