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(Kuwait City) - Kuwait carried out a major crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly during 2010, Human Rights Watch said today, in issuing its World Report 2011.

The 649-page report, the organization's 21st annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major human rights issues in more than 90 countries worldwide. During 2010, the government tightened restrictions on public gatherings and began using violent methods of enforcement, Human Rights Watch said. Kuwait should allow activists to assemble peacefully and halt both state security cases and criminal defamation prosecutions against peaceful political activists, Human Rights Watch said.

"This year, Kuwait's government grew more and more comfortable harassing Kuwaitis who dared criticize the government," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Watching what's happening in the streets of Egypt and Tunisia, the Kuwaiti government should think long and hard about depriving people of their basic human rights to free speech and assembly."

In April, government security agents arrested and summarily deported over 30 Egyptian residents who had gathered in a local café to discuss support for the Egyptian reform advocate Mohammed El Baradei.

In September, the interior ministry issued a decision banning public gatherings without prior approval. The ministry later said this ban included a prohibition on outdoor gatherings, in particular gatherings outside of diwaniyas, or traditional discussion salons held in private homes that occur almost daily in Kuwait. Local civil society activists criticized the decision as an unduly burdensome restriction of their freedom to peacefully assemble.

In December, security forces violently dispersed a diwaniya on constitutional debates at the home of a member of parliament, Juma'an al-Harbish, injuring participants, including four other members of parliament and a Kuwait University law professor, Dr. Obaid al-Wasmi. The clash between state security and those attending sent shock waves through Kuwaiti society, and many activists told Human Rights Watch that they had not seen this type of state violence in recent memory. An interior ministry spokesperson said attendees had violated the September ban on outdoor gatherings when they assembled in the garden of al-Harbish's residence. A few days later, the Information Ministry shut down the country's  Al Jazeera news station, based upon its coverage of the events.

"If the government sees a national security threat when Kuwaitis gather in their own homes to discuss the constitution, then the Kuwaiti government is really in trouble," Whitson said. "And as if silencing Kuwaitis wasn't enough, the government is trying to cover their eyes and ears by banning Al Jazeera."

Despite these setbacks, Kuwaiti activists remained determined to speak their minds and demand their rights. Activists such as the journalist and government critic Mohammed al-Jasim and the former head of Kuwait's National Democratic Alliance, Khalid al-Fadhala, faced government backlash after criticizing Kuwait's prime minister. Both were charged with criminal libel and slander against the prime minister. In June, the public prosecutor's office also charged Jasim with crimes against the state including "instigating to overthrow the regime," and "slight to the personage of the emir."

A court ordered Fadhala's release after he spent ten days in detention, deciding that he had served adequate time, while Jasim was released on bail. But in November, a trial court found Jasim guilty of libel and slander based upon an article criticizing the prime minister, and sentenced Jasim to a year in jail, which an appeals court later reduced to three months. ِHe was released on Monday, January 24, after Kuwait's court of cassation,  overturned the ruling against him.

"Laws that jail people for insulting government officials have no place in the 21st century, and no place in Kuwait," Whitson said. "Kuwaiti authorities should be working to ban criminal libel suits, not putting citizens in jail for healthy political debate."

The rights to free speech and peaceful assembly are protected under international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Kuwait in 1996. Some members of the Kuwaiti parliament have called for amendment to the country's criminal code by repealing all measures that make peaceful political expression crimes.

International law allows individuals much greater freedom to criticize public officials, and does not apply the same libel threshold for public officials as for private individuals. The freedom to criticize officials, and even accuse them of wrongdoing, is a necessary part of holding officials accountable for their actions and supporting public debate, Human Rights Watch noted.

The country signaled a significant commitment to reform during 2010 in two areas of critical concern - protections for the rights of expatriate workers and of the Bidun, or stateless people who claim Kuwaiti citizenship, Human Rights Watch said. The government pledged to abolish its repressive immigration sponsorship system and to pass a new labor law for the protection of domestic workers. It also promised to resolve the plight of stateless persons in Kuwait within the next five years. Human Rights Watch said the pledges were a positive step and urged prompt action in 2011.

"Sponsorship reform should allow all workers to quit jobs without fearing criminal penalties or police detention," Whitson said. "Moreover, the government should act without delay to pass a labor law for domestic workers, who have long remained the most vulnerable to abuse, despite their essential role in Kuwait's homes."

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