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(New York) - Kuwait's interior ministry should not use violence to disperse peaceful political gatherings, Human Rights Watch said today. On the evening of December 8, 2010, special forces security officers forcibly dispersed a diwaniya, or informal political gathering, held at a private home in Kuwait, injuring four members of parliament, a Kuwait University professor, a journalist, and others severely enough that they required hospital treatment.

"Kuwait's brutal breakup of a political meeting that included parliament members and professors is a new low in the government's refusal to respect the right to peaceful assembly," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The only threat to public safety was the behavior of the security forces."

Juma'an al-Harbish, a member of parliament and host of the gathering, told Human Right Watch that approximately 50 people gathered at his home in Kuwait's Suleibikhat neighborhood for a forum called "Preserving the Kuwaiti Constitution." The group planned to discuss attempts to strip one member of parliament, Faisal al-Mislim, of the immunity provided to members of parliament under Kuwait's constitution.

Mislim may face charges for displaying confidential bank documents during a parliamentary questioning of Prime Minister Shaikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah. Mislim had accused the prime minister of bribing members of parliament in exchange for their political support. Ten members of parliament attended the gathering, as well as Kuwaiti journalists, lawyers, and university professors.

Harbish told Human Rights Watch that some of the group went outside to sit in the garden of his home because it had become crowded inside. A special forces officer entered the garden and told them that they would have to go inside, and they asked him to give them time to do so. At some point, the officer said, "This is the last time I am asking," Harbish recalled. At that point, security forces had assembled around the home and in the garden, numbering in the hundreds, according to Harbish's estimate. Then, members of the security forces began hitting people with their batons. "Those inside the house were frightened, so they stayed there for some time. Eventually they were able to leave the house in groups of ten," Harbish said. "They have closed diwaniyas before, but never in this violent way."

An interior ministry spokesperson said on December 9 that security forces broke up the gathering because it violated the 1979 Public Gatherings Law. The law requires organizers of any gathering of more than 20 people to obtain a police permit in advance. However, a 2006 court decision found these restrictions unconstitutional. The interior ministry spokesperson said that the ministry acted under instructions from the amir (ruler) of Kuwait, Shaikh Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah, that gatherings should only be permitted inside the host's home and that people should not congregate outdoors.

Article 44 of the Kuwaiti constitution states that "individuals have the right of private assembly without permission or prior notification, and the police may not attend such private meetings." Kuwait is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which in article 21 protects the right of peaceful assembly. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are strictly necessary and proportionate for national security, public safety, or public order.

"Kuwait has grown increasingly comfortable throwing international protections out the window when a meeting involves peaceful dissenters, using the bogus excuse of public safety," Stork said.

A group of members of parliament have expressed concerns about the violent break-up of the December 8 gathering and announced that they plan to question the prime minister in parliament about it. Dr. Khalid al-Kandari, president of the Kuwait Lawyers' Association, told Human Rights Watch that, "What happened yesterday, it's not something we've seen before in our country."

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