(New York) - Kuwait should stop prosecuting Mohammad al-Jasim, a journalist and blogger, for criticizing public officials, Human Rights Watch said today. Kuwait's prosecution office should also lift its ban on media coverage of his case.
Al-Jasim, who was sentenced in April 2010 to six months in prison for slandering Kuwait's prime minister, faces new charges of "instigating to overthrow the regime," "slight to the personage of the amir [the ruler of Kuwait]," and "instigating to dismantle the foundations of Kuwaiti society," for postings critical of the government on his blog.
Previously released on bail, he was rearrested on May 11, 2010, and has been in detention ever since awaiting his trial, which is set to begin on June 7.
"Kuwait, once relatively tolerant of free speech, is increasingly punishing individuals for their political views," said Joe Stork, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch. "The Kuwaiti authorities should stop persecuting Mohammad al-Jasim just for criticizing Kuwait's rulers."
Abdullah al-Ahmad, al-Jasim's lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that Kuwait's State Security Forces, an agency under the authority of the Interior Ministry, was reviewing all of al-Jasim's writings published online and in print over the past several years - including three books published with approval from the Ministry of Information, the latest of which is entitled "The Spirit of the Constitution." Based on its preliminary review, the prosecution has charged al-Jasim with three offenses following complaints filed by Shaikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, Minister of Amiri Diwan Affairs (the executive office of the ruler) and son of the Emir.
Human Rights Watch has reviewed four of the 32 postings which al-Ahmad says form part of the basis for the new charges. All are criticisms of public officials connected with the exercise of their offices. None incite violence. In one posting, which takes the form of a letter addressed to the Emir, al-Jasim asks for assurance that the ruling family will not overturn the country's constitutional system of government. The ruler of Kuwait has the power to dissolve parliament by decree, and has done so on multiple occasions in the past.
In April, a Kuwaiti trial court convicted al-Jasim on criminal slander charges based on remarks he made at a private gathering in the house of a member of parliament at which he allegedly questioned the prime minister's fitness for office and called for his removal. The court sentenced him to six months in prison. Al-Jasim has appealed the sentence, and his sentence was suspended pending the appeal. Over his career, al-Jasim has been the object of more than 20 formal complaints filed because of his writings and statements.
On May 11, state security officers detained al-Jasim and questioned him for more than 15 hours over a period of two days, according to his lawyer. From May 11 to May 18, he went on a hunger strike to protest his detention and the allegation that his writings threatened state security. Security officials denied al-Jasim access to his lawyer during the investigation. Al-Jasim has been detained now for 27 days, in apparent violation of Kuwait's criminal procedure laws that restrict pretrial detention to 21 days without extension by court order. Al-Ahmad, al-Jasim's lawyer, has filed a complaint about the duration of al-Jasim's pretrial detention.
In a public statement about al-Jasim's first court appearance, his daughter Sumayah said, "My father was ... blindfolded, his hands were handcuffed very tightly and twisted behind his back and his legs were both cuffed. He was being pushed and shoved [by the officers escorting him]."
Local activists held public demonstrations demanding al-Jasim's release in front of the National Assembly, Kuwait's parliament, as well as at the Kuwait Trade Union Federation.
On May 24, the public prosecutor's office banned coverage of the case in all media. The order did not provide any legal justification or compelling reasons for such a ban. On May 5, the prosecutor's office had also banned coverage of the alleged discovery of an Iranian spy cell in the country.
As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Kuwait is bound by article 19(2) of that covenant which states: "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice." Article 36 of Kuwait's constitution protects freedom of speech and opinion, stating that: "Every person has the right to express and propagate his opinion verbally, in writing, or otherwise, in accordance with the conditions and procedures specified by law."
Although certain restrictions on freedom of expression are permitted under international law, peaceful speech criticizing public officials is given special protection. The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, drawn up by leading experts in freedom of expression in 1996, suggest the limits on restrictions on freedom of expression. The principles state that freedom of expression may not be restricted to "protect a government from embarrassment (principle 2.b)." Principle 7 states that expression is permissible that "advocates non-violent change of government policy or the government itself," that "constitutes criticism of, or insult to, the nation, the state or its symbols, the government, its agencies, or public officials , or a foreign nation, state or its symbols, government, agencies or public officials," and that, "No one may be punished for criticizing or insulting the nation, the state or its symbols, the government, its agencies, or public officials, or a foreign nation, state or its symbols, government, agency."
The Johannesburg Principles also address the right to access information. Principle 11 states: "Everyone has the right to obtain information from public authorities, including information relating to national security." The government can only justify a restriction on such access if it "is prescribed by law and is necessary in a democratic society to protect a legitimate national security interest."
"Gagging the media from reporting should be imposed only as a last resort to protect genuine security interests, and not merely to shield a ruler from criticism," said Stork. "By muzzling the country's press, arbitrary gag orders damage Kuwait's reputation as a country where people have historically been able to exchange information and voice their opinions."