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Authorities should immediately release more than a dozen persons jailed under Kuwait’s new dress-code law, Human Rights Watch said today. The law, approved by the National Assembly on December 10, 2007, criminalizes people who “imitate the appearance of the opposite sex.”

“The wave of arrests in the past month shows exactly why Kuwait should repeal this repressive law,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East division at Human Rights Watch. “Kuwaiti authorities should immediately drop all charges against those arrested, and investigate charges of ill-treatment in detention.”

Security officials have arrested at least 14 people in Kuwait City since the National Assembly approved an addition (Article 199 bis) to Article 198 of the Criminal Code. The amendment states that “any person committing an indecent act in a public place, or imitating the appearance of a member of the opposite sex, shall be subject to imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year or a fine not exceeding one thousand dinars [US$3,500].”

Dress codes based solely on gender stereotypes restrict both freedom of expression and personal autonomy, Human Rights Watch said. The only known targets of the new Kuwaiti law have been transgender people – individuals born into one gender who deeply identify themselves with another. Kuwait allows transgender people neither to change their legal identity to match the gender in which they live, nor to adapt their physical appearance through gender reassignment surgery. The new law, coming after months of controversy, aims at further restricting their rights and completely eliminating their public presence. In September 2007, the newspaper Al Arabiya reported a new government campaign “to combat the growing phenomenon of gays and transsexuals” in Kuwait.

On December 18, 2007, Al Watan newspaper announced the arrests of three people at a police checkpoint in Salimeya, 10 km southeast of Kuwait City. Days later, police arrested three more people at a checkpoint in Kuwait City. On December 21, security officials detained another three people on Restaurant Street in the Hawalli district, 8 km south of Kuwait City. The same day, two other people were detained at another police checkpoint. Authorities have reportedly arrested three more people in January, one in a coffee shop and two in a taxi stopped by police. Police arrested all 14 because they believed they were “imitating the appearance of the opposite sex.”

All the people detained are being held in Tahla Prison. Friends of the accused told Human Rights Watch that police and prison guards subjected the detainees to physical and psychological abuse. Al-Rai newspaper quoted police as saying that the “confused [men were] deposited in the special ward,” and that the prison administration ordered guards to shave their heads as a form of punishment. The paper quoted a prison administrator as saying “this step [shaving heads] follows the passage of the law concerning men who imitate the appearance of women.” Friends report that at least three of the prisoners were beaten and one was left unconscious. Authorities deported one Saudi Arabian national among those arrested, to face trial in that country. None of the detainees has access to legal representation.

Transgender people in Kuwait tell Human Rights Watch that they are now afraid to leave their homes – even for work or to meet basic needs – for fear of arrest and ill-treatment. Arbitrary and intrusive gender-based codes for acceptable demeanor and dress violate the rights to privacy and to free expression protected under international law. The beatings and ill-treatment to which authorities reportedly subjected the prisoners violate internationally recognized prohibitions against torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

“The intent of this measure is clear: to eradicate the freedoms and visibility of people who already face discrimination daily,” said Stork. “When states impose dress codes, whether on women or on men, they deny their basic rights to both privacy and free expression.”

In a December 31 private letter to Kuwait’s minister of justice, Abdallah Abd al-Rahman al-Matuq, and to the speaker of the National Assembly, Jassem Al-Kharafi, Human Rights Watch urged the government to release the detainees and drop charges against them. In the same letter, Human Rights Watch called on the government to work toward repealing the recent addition to Article 198.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Kuwait has acceded, sets forth the prohibition against torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Article 7). Article 14 of the same treaty affirms the right to counsel. The treaty also bars interference with the right to privacy (Article 17) and protects freedom of expression (Article 19). Kuwait has the obligation to respect and ensure these rights, and to do so in a non-discriminatory manner, as set forth in Article 2.

The Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of International Human Rights Law in relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, adopted by a group of 29 experts on international human rights law in 2006, calls upon states to “take all necessary legislative, administrative and other measures to ensure the full enjoyment of the right to express identity or personhood, including through speech, deportment, dress, bodily characteristics, choice of name or any other means” (Principle 19[c]).

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