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(New York) - Hundreds of stateless residents of Kuwait took to the streets on February 18, 2011, to demand their rights, with dozens seeking treatment for injuries in local hospitals and dozens more detained by state security, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch called on Kuwaiti authorities to release the "Bidun" protesters or charge them with a criminal offence and bring them immediately before an independent judge.

The Kuwait government has issued repeated warnings that people should not gather in public, despite the country's commitment under international law to protect the right to peaceful assembly.

"Kuwaiti authorities should look around the neighborhood to see that violent attacks on demonstrators only fuel the protests," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should allow demonstrators to speak and assemble freely - as is their right."

Bidun protesters demonstrated on Friday, February 18 in the Taima'a, Sulaibiyya, and Ahmedi areas of Kuwait to demand government action on their claims for citizenship and resolution of their stateless status. According to local activists, between 300 and 500 people participated in the protests. Witnesses from the largest gathering, in Taima'a, told Human Rights Watch that while protestors were initially peaceful, some subsequently threw rocks at security officers, after the security forces used water cannons, teargas, smoke bombs, and concussion grenades (sound bombs) to break up the demonstration.

According to interviews with Bidun and Kuwaiti human rights activists, authorities arrested at least 120 individuals during Friday's demonstrations, and approximately 30 people sought treatment for injuries incurred during the demonstrations at a nearby hospital and a clinic. However, Interior Minister Ahmad al-Hamoud al-Sabah told Human Rights Watch that his forces had arrested only 42 people, and that the ministry planned to release some today, while it would release others after investigations into allegations of violence were complete. None of the detainees have been brought before judges.

Interior Minister al-Hamoud told Human Rights Watch that state security had ordered demonstrators to disperse because they had assembled without seeking prior permission, as required by Kuwaiti law. However, during the past six months, Kuwaiti authorities repeatedly have stated that any form of public gathering will not be permitted for reasons of "internal security." In December, state security forces violently dispersed a diwaniya, or political gathering, outside of the home of parliamentarian Juma'an al-Harbish. In January, the government threatened to deport any foreign residents in Kuwait who demonstrated in support of protests in Egypt.

More than 106,000 Bidun, or stateless persons who claim Kuwaiti nationality, live inside the country. Bidun primarily come from Bedouin, or nomadic, origins, and most say that they are stateless because they failed to apply for citizenship at the time of the country's independence.

Currently, the government obstructs the Bidun's right to civil documentation by requiring them to relinquish citizenship claims before they can receive birth, marriage, or death certificates. The government does not recognize their right to work, and Bidun children may not attend government schools. Despite the establishment of two previous administrative bodies to address their situation, the first in 1993, Bidun attempts to claim citizenship continue to be blocked, and Bidun may not press their claims to nationality before Kuwaiti courts.

"The Bidun have legitimate grievances about discrimination and government inaction, and the government should listen and address them, instead of attacking them and throwing them in jail," said Whitson. "People across the Middle East are calling for their rights, and governments that respond with repressive measures must be held to account."

Interior Minister al-Hamoud told Human Rights Watch that the government has established an administrative committee to address the Bidun situation, and that this committee will address the demands made by protesters yesterday. As Kuwait approaches the 50th anniversary of its independence and the 20th since its liberation from Iraq, the country continues to deny the Bidun essential human rights, while failing to review their citizenship claims, as a forthcoming Human Rights Watch report will detail.

Kuwait ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1996. Article 21 of the convention states that "the right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized," and that "no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others." Article 9(3) requires anyone detained on a criminal charge to be brought promptly before a judge.

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