(Beirut) – A five-year prison sentence followed by permanent exile for a Kuwaiti activist over his Twitter comments violated the rights to free expression and movement. A Kuwait first instance court imposed the sentence on Abdullah Fairouz Abdullah Abd al-Kareem, 30, on January 9, 2014. The authorities should drop the charges and not contest al-Kareem’s appeal, which is before an appeals court.
Since a political crisis in June 2012, Kuwaiti authorities have rampedup efforts to limit free expression, with courts sentencing at least 18 politicians, online activists, and journalists to prison terms for “offending” the emir. However, this is the first time that the court also issued an order to permanently exile a Kuwaiti citizen following a prison sentence.
“Kuwait has made clearthrough the recent string of cases that it is willing to trample on people’s rights to protect the emir from criticism,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Kuwait should be calling a halt to its embarrassing campaign to silence dissent, not ramping it up with permanent exile orders.”
Local police arrested al-Kareem for his tweets in November 2013 and the first instance court convicted him on the basis of article 25 of the penal code, which sets prison sentences of up to five years for anyone who publicly “objects to the rights and authorities of the emir or faults him,” as well as for misusing his mobile phone to disseminate objectionable comments. Al-Kareem is a Kuwaiti rights activist who is studying law in Egypt. He is a member of the Kuwait Human Rights Society and has worked to stem rights violations against Bidun, people who are denied Kuwaiti citizenship though many come from families with longtime residence in the country.
His conviction was based on several tweets, including two that read: “Your Highness, how comes [sic] that bitch Goutier is barking like dogs [sic] at citizens from your lodging at Dar Salwa,” and, “Your Highness, as you have the right to hold accountable whoever abuses you, I have the right to hold accountable whoever verbally abuses me from your lodging at Dar Salwa.” Dar Salwa is the residence of Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. Goutier refers to a Twitter handle that Al-Kareem believes belongs to someone from the emir’s residence.
Kuwait’s constitution describes the emiras “immune and inviolable,” but article 28 prohibits the deportation or forced exile of citizens. The penal code stipulates that noncitizens convicted of serious crimes can be deported after finishing their prison sentence.
Al-Kareem’s lawyer, Mohammed Abdullah al-Enizi, told Human Rights Watch that al-Kareem, whose father is Kuwaiti, is a Kuwaiti citizen and has a national ID and passport. Under Kuwait’s nationality law, the government may revoke citizenship and deport a person under certain circumstances. Al-Enizi says that these circumstances do not apply to al-Kareem but that court treated al-Kareem as a noncitizen because he does not have a citizenship certificate. The Ministry of Interior issues all Kuwaiti citizens with a citizenship certificate, a document ensuring proof of citizenship, in addition to a passport or national ID card. Al-Enizi said that neither he nor his client knew why the Ministry of Interior has failed to issue one for al-Kareem.
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Arab Charter on Human Rights, Kuwait is required to protect the rights to freedom of opinion and expression. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which provides the definitive interpretation of the covenant, has stated that, “All 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 that there is a need for “uninhibited expression” in public debate concerning public figures. It also says that “prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant,” except in very limited circumstances.
The exile sentence is an additional violation of the Covenant. Article 12 states that, “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.” The Human Rights Committee has interpreted the article to mean that this includes bans or exile of citizens based on repressive domestic laws: “The reference to the concept of arbitrariness in this context is intended to emphasize that it applies to all State action, legislative, administrative, and judicial; it guarantees that even interference provided for by law should be in accordance with the provisions, aims and objectives of the Covenant and should be, in any event, reasonable in the particular circumstances. The Committee considers that there are few, if any, circumstances in which deprivation of the right to enter one’s own country could be reasonable. A State party must not, by stripping a person of nationality or by expelling an individual to a third country, arbitrarily prevent this person from returning to his or her own country.”
“The judgment against al-Kareem is shocking in and of itself,” Houry said. “We hope that the exile sentence is not a new strategy by the prosecution to chill political commentary in Kuwait.”