In an open letter today to the emir of Kuwait, Human Rights Watch's Academic Freedom Committee called for the immediate release of imprisoned Kuwaiti academic Dr. Ahmad al-Baghdadi.
"This is a classic example of targeting the man to try to silence the ideas," said Joseph Saunders, academic freedom specialist at Human Rights Watch. "It does not bode well for the future of independent thought in Kuwait."
Dr. al-Baghdadi, who chairs the political science department at the University of Kuwait, was sentenced on October 4 under Kuwait's Press and Publications Law to one month in prison. The conviction was based on an article he had written in 1996 for the university's student magazine, al-Shoula. In the article, al-Baghdadi contended that the prophet Mohammed had failed to convert non-believers during his time in Mecca, an argument that apparently angered some Kuwaiti clerics who faulted al-Baghdadi for improperly associating the prophet with failure. The action against the professor was the latest in a series of arrests of journalists, commentators, and academics for expressing controversial views on religious and political themes. The Academic Freedom Committee called for repeal of those provisions of the Press and Publications Law that allow for incarceration of individuals who peacefully express their ideas and views.
Dr. al-Baghdadi, who suffers from a heart condition, was jailed on October 5, and immediately went on a hunger strike to protest his conviction and sentence. Four days later, he was hospitalized, reportedly with an irregular heartbeat. The letter also called on the Kuwaiti emir to immediately release al-Baghdadi and allow him access to treatment by doctors of his own choosing.
The letter was signed on behalf of the committee by Jonathan Fanton, who recently completed a seventeen-year term as president of the New School University in New York, and by Hanny Megally, who heads the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. In addition to Mr. Fanton, the membership of the committee includes internationally prominent academic leaders and scholars, including presidents of Harvard University, Columbia University and over a dozen other universities in the United States, and figures such as Krzysztof Michalski of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, Ariel Dorfman of Duke University, John Kenneth Galbraith of Harvard University, and Fang Lizhi of the University of Arizona.
A copy of the letter follows.
October 13, 1999
His Highness Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad Al Sabah
Emir, State of Kuwait
We are writing this open letter on behalf of the Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee to protest the imprisonment of Kuwait University professor Ahmad al-Baghdadi, and to express our grave concern over his recent hospitalization.
On October 4, 1999, the Kuwait Court of Appeal ordered Dr. al-Baghdadi, a professor of political science and chair of Kuwait University's political science department, to serve a one-month jail term for an article he had written for the university's student magazine, al-Shoula ("The Flame") in 1996. In the article, Dr. al-Baghdadi contended that the prophet Mohammed had failed to convert non-believers during his time in Mecca, an argument that apparently angered some Kuwaiti clerics who faulted al-Baghdadi for improperly associating the prophet Mohammed with failure. In May, Dr. al-Baghdadi had been found guilty of blaspheming Islam in violation of Kuwait's 1961 Press and Publications law, but was given a suspended six-month sentence. The appellate court decision in early October, reducing the sentence to one month but ordering his incarceration, is not appealable. Instead of being permitted to surrender voluntarily, moreover, Dr. al-Baghdadi was forcibly taken from his home and into custody at Talha prison on October 5, preventing him from holding a planned news conference to protest the verdict. In prison, Dr. al-Baghdadi, who has a history of heart trouble, went on a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. On October 9 he was hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat.
Dr. al-Baghdadi has long been an outspoken critic of the rise of religious fundamentalism in Kuwait and has accused the government of being afraid of Islamists. He has been a regular contributor to the daily newspaper al-Siyassa. Kuwaiti academics, journalists, and human rights activists have requested his release and called for suspension of his sentence. The government has declined, stating that the court's verdict was competent.
The imprisonment of Dr. al-Baghdadi for peaceful expression of his ideas is the latest in a series of attacks on free expression in Kuwait. To the extent that authorities are now targeting campus publications, the case may mark a new stage in the erosion of freedom of expression. In June 1998, Mohammad Jassem al-Saqer, editor of the daily newspaper al-Qabas, was also sentenced under provisions of the Press and Publications Law to six months' imprisonment by the Court of First Instance for publishing a joke deemed offensive to Islam. In December 1998, Fu'ad al-Hashem, a journalist for the newspaper al-Watan, was sentenced to three months' imprisonment for an article in which he allegedly criticized the conduct of the Public Prosecutor. Khalaf al-Arbeed, an Islamist candidate in July parliamentary elections, was sentenced to six months in jail for slander of the government for statements he made at a political rally.
Dr. al-Baghdadi's conviction and imprisonment under Kuwait's Press and Publications Law constitutes a clear violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ("ICCPR"). It also appears to contradict the Kuwaiti Constitution, which includes an explicit guarantee for freedom of expression. When Kuwait acceded to the ICCPR on May 21, 1996, it made a commitment to guarantee all individuals the "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds." This fundamental guarantee is directly contravened where, as here, a dissident faculty member is imprisoned for expressing his thoughts. The freedom to pursue research and scholarship unfettered by censorship and persecution cannot be separated from the freedom to exercise basic civil and political rights as set forth in international human rights law.
As academic leaders committed to defending the basic rights of all members of the academic community, it is not our intention to support or dispute the particular opinions, ideas, or research findings at issue in the cases we work on. Defending the rights of academics to express their views and to study, research, teach and publish without interference, however, is integral to our work. We stand behind the human rights principle that peaceful expression of opinion, no matter how outrageous, should never be subject to criminal prosecution. To the extent that the Press and Publications Law allows for the imprisonment of individuals for the contents of their writings, it directly violates this principle.
Imprisonment of individuals for peaceful expression can also have a devastating impact on society. We understand that a local paper quoted Dr. al-Baghdadi saying after he was imprisoned: "I will leave Kuwait and live abroad, despite my love for her and her people." Loss of a recognized scholar and leader such as Dr. al-Baghdadi will have a direct impact on his colleagues and on his students. International experience suggests that, unless the sentence is reversed, the negative impact will be compounded by the chilling effect of his imprisonment (others will be less willing to express themselves openly in academic and other settings), and by the likelihood that his departure will be followed by those of other valued educators and scholars.
For the reasons set forth above, we respectfully urge, at the earliest possible date, the repeal of those provisions of the Press and Publications law that contravene international human rights norms and law as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR. We also respectfully urge Dr. al-Baghdadi's immediate and unconditional release from prison. Finally, we call on the government to guarantee that Dr. al-Baghdadi be able to choose his own doctors and course of treatment for his heart ailment.
Thank you for you consideration of this important matter. We look forward to your reply.
Jonathan F. Fanton
Co-Chair, Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee
Executive Director, Human Rights Watch, Middle East and North Africa Division
cc: His Highness Sheikh Saad al-Abdalla al-Salem Al Sabah
Crown Prince & Prime Minister
His Excellency Dr. Saad Jassem Youssef Al Hashel
Minister of Justice
His Excellency Dr. Adel Khaled Al Sebeih
Minister of Awqaf & Islamic Affairs
His Excellency Dr. Youssef Hamad Al Ibrahim
Minster of Education & Higher Education