Armed security officers wearing balaclavas led Nasser Abul, blindfolded and shackled, into a courtroom in downtown Kuwait City on July 19. Accused of crimes against the state, he answered the judge’s questions from a wood-and-metal cage in the courtroom. His mother, watching the proceedings, hoped her 26-year-old eldest son would finally be released after nearly two months in detention. The judiciary has refused to grant her wish.
Abul found himself in jail because of a few Tweets. Twitter was wildly popular in Kuwait even before protests began in Tunis and Cairo, and its use in Kuwait surged as the Arab Spring provided daily inspiration for news updates and commentary. Between January and March, people in Kuwait wrote over 3.69 million Tweets -- more than any other country in the Middle East, according to a June report by the Dubai School of Government.
Kuwaitis’ prolific Twitter use makes sense in a country known for allowing greater freedom of expression than nearly any other country in the Middle East. But as the government steps up internet surveillance, Abul’s arbitrary and seemingly indefinite detention reflects broader willingness to cast such commitments aside in times of regional instability. Like many Kuwaitis, Abul posted on events in nearby Bahrain. Some postings criticized and mocked the ruling families of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. But he provoked the wrong people when he criticized the Gulf monarchs’ club and their efforts to stifle dissent.
Security forces questioned several other Tweeters in recent months, according to local activists, and threatened Mohammad al-Jassim, a well-known blogger, that they would shut down his blog if he kept up his criticism. Jassim was jailed last year for 45 days and faced charges (later dropped) for insulting the Prime Minister. In June, authorities also detained another Kuwaiti man, Lawrence al-Rashidi, for posting a YouTube video in which he read a poem insulting the emir.
Meanwhile, Abul faced physical abuse at the hands of government authorities, and has spent a nightmarish two months in detention with no end in sight. It began on June 7 when Kuwait’s state security department called Abul and ordered him to come in for questioning. When he arrived, officers questioned him and detained him overnight. His lawyer said the officers beat him, shone bright lights in his cell to prevent him from sleeping, and insulted him repeatedly, mocking him for being a Shiite. The next day, they transferred him to Kuwait’s state security prison. For the next several weeks, Abul was only allowed to see his lawyer and family when he went to court.
Days after Abul was detained, Sheikh Abdullah Mohammed bin Ahmed Al Fateh Al Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family, publicly thanked Kuwait’s state security office for investigating and detaining him. The sheikh said he intended to file a private libel and slander suit against Abul on the royal family’s behalf.
Kuwait’s efforts to insulate itself from regional political currents go beyond harassing and arresting those whose comments question the ruling elite. Government forces have also tightly controlled political protests. In February and March, riot police violently dispersed demonstrations calling for the rights of Bidun, longtime stateless residents of Kuwait, severely beating and injuring demonstrators and throwing smoke bombs into the private homes to which they fled. And during the last two weeks, when protesters gathered in Kuwait City to demand the expulsion of Syria’s ambassador, the government threatened to deport any non-citizens who were involved. At the demonstrations, police turned away all would-be demonstrators who were not Kuwaiti, though over half of the people who live and work in Kuwait aren’t citizens.
During a time of regional instability, some commentators have mistakenly called the Gulf region (minus Bahrain) an oasis of calm. No doubt the billions in petrodollars -- and the generous welfare states they fund -- have helped buy popular quiescence. But the calm also stems from these governments’ willingness to repress even the most nascent signs of criticism. In April, the United Arab Emirates jailed five democracy activists, charging them with insulting the country’s top officials. Just last week, a Dubai interior ministry official said that the government would be closely monitoring the internet for signs of unrest. In June, Qatar’s cabinet approved a new media law that allows the government broad authority to punish journalists for what they write about “friendly countries.”
In Kuwait, the recent attacks on people who have done nothing more than express opinions only discredit the government as paranoid, defensive, and woefully out-of-touch with the calls for democratic reform sweeping the region. Instead of policing the internet for any sign of discord, the Kuwaiti authorities should release Abul and give him and others the freedom to speak, and Tweet, their minds.
Priyanka Motaparthy is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.