(Beirut) – Kuwait security forces have on several occasions used what appears to be excessive force to disperse largely peaceful protesters at a series of demonstrations over participation in the country’s political process since October 2012. Some demonstrators have been wounded, and the security forces have arrested many more.
In several statements the Interior Ministry justified the use of force on the grounds that protesters had blocked traffic, thrown stones at the police, and attacked them. However, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 20 protest organizers, participants, rights activists, and witnesses, who said that demonstrations they took part in or witnessed were largely peaceful. They said that masked riot police used tear gas and sound bombs without warning to disperse demonstrations and beat protesters while arresting them for participating in “unauthorized protests.”
“There is no justification for attacking peaceful protesters,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should show they will not tolerate abuses by investigating all allegations of abuse by security forces and punishing those responsible for violating rights.”
Since mid-October, online activists and opposition groups have organized numerous demonstrations in various parts of Kuwait, protesting a decree by Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah and an election process that they said undermined their rights. The government initially banned all protests, then rescinded the decision.
The Kuwaiti authorities should respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and investigate police use of force during the demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said. If force is required to stop violence by demonstrators, security forces should use the minimum force necessary to carry out lawful objectives.
Kuwait should increase the accountability of its police forces by ending the use of masked anti-riot forces who wear no badges identifying themselves, Human Rights Watch said. While police agents may have legitimate reasons to mask their identities in limited circumstances, such as when conducting surveillance, policing demonstrations is not one of them.
The political crisis in Kuwait began in June, when the emir suspended parliament for a month. The Constitutional Court then dissolved parliament but on September 25 rejected a government motion to amend the country’s electoral law. On October 7, the emir set December 1 for an election for a new parliament.
On October 19, the emir decreed amendments to the electoral law that reduced from four to one the number of votes each voter could cast. Opposition groups, including Islamists, liberals, nationalists, and tribal elements, condemned the move saying it had violated the constitution and that the electoral law should be amended only by an elected parliament.
Security forces used force and made arrests at several demonstrations, the protesters and witnesses said. On October 15, protesters said, security forces beat protesters near parliament after some protesters tore down a barrier. Security forces used teargas and sound bombs to disperse a demonstration on October 20 in Abraj and another on that date at Tahrir tower in Kuwait City. Security forces also used teargas and sound bombs at a demonstration on November 4 in Mishrif.
On October 21, the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying it would only allow protests at al-Irada Square, across from the National Assembly (parliament) building in Kuwait City, then permitted demonstrations on November 30 and December 8, both of which ended peacefully.
Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Kuwait ratified in 1996, 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 that are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
Kuwait’s constitution guarantees the right to freedom of assembly. In 2006, the constitutional court struck down 15 of the 22 articles of the 1979 Kuwaiti Public Gathering Law, including article 4, which requires permission to hold public gatherings. However permission is still required for marches.
“Kuwait's rulers need to fully respect the right to assemble peacefully,” Goldstein said. “Declaring a gathering “unauthorized” does not give police license to beat protesters.”
For more details about security forces attacking protesters, please see below.
The October 15 Demonstration
Opposition activists and groups called for an evening gathering at al-Irada Square, near parliament, on October 15. Several thousand demonstrators gathered. While protesters were initially peaceful, accounts from some witnesses and videos examined by Human Rights Watch indicate that some demonstrators tried to break iron barricades that security forces had installed around the demonstration site. Masked security forces standing behind the barricades beat some protesters with sticks. Both protesters and police agents were injured, and on October 17 the Interior Ministry issued a statement expressing “deep regret” about the injuries on both sides.
Human Rights Watch met with four people who said they participated in the gathering and who said that despite the brief brawl, the protest remained mostly peaceful. Mohamed al-Uraiman, 25, said that he was close to one of the barricades when masked security forces beat him:
I arrived at around 6:30 p.m. and everything was fine until 9:30. The security forces had blocked three roads and the only way out was toward the beach. The demonstrators walked toward the barricades and I was not in the front row. There were some talks between the demonstrators and security forces and all of a sudden people were running away. A few moments later, one [masked riot police agent] hit my back with a stick and another hit my head. I was bleeding a lot. Some people tried to rush me out but they did not let us leave. I had no choice but walk on the beach and go behind the police barricades then take an ambulance to the Emiri Hospital. I stayed there and got five stiches.
Al-Uraiman said that he went to al-Salhiya Police Station close to midnight to file a complaint. “The policemen said that they were very busy and I should come back later, but I insisted and at 4 a.m. I filed the complaint against the security forces,” he said, adding that, as of December 19, he had not received any update from the police on the status of his case.
The October 20 Demonstration (The March of Dignity of the Nation)
On October 20, the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying it would “absolutely not allow any protests rallies, marches, meetings, and sit-ins regardless of the reasons and motives.”
That day, opposition groups gathered to protest the decree issued by the emir one day earlier that reduced the number of votes each voter could cast in the parliamentary elections. Human Rights Watch met with 12 people, including organizers, participants, and witnesses, who said that the demonstration was peaceful.
Bandar Nahar, 32, told Human Rights Watch that at 6:30 p.m. he arrived at at-Tahrir Tower, a meeting point for protesters, who marched toward the demonstration site at al-Irada Square. Nahar said he found uniformed police and masked riot police already at the scene. He said that the riot police fired tear gas and sound bombs without warning when the number of protesters at at-Tahrir Tower reached about 100. Then the security forces chased the protesters and arrested dozens, including Nahar:
They tied my hands behind my back and pushed me into one of two buses parked nearby for arrested protesters. An officer came on the bus and started beating us. When he approached me, I said, “The law does not allow you to beat me since I have already been arrested.” He got really angry and beat me for another few minutes. Then he grabbed my hands behind my back and lifted them until I felt a very sharp pain. He stopped after I screamed …. After we arrived at al-Salhiya Police Station I was taken to the Emiri Hospital and treated.
Nahar said that he was charged with “participating in an unauthorized gathering and refusing to obey the commands of security forces” and was released on bail on October 21. He said that after his release he immediately tried to file a complaint with the Public Prosecution Office but that staff there on that date refused to accept it. He filed the complaint on December 10.
The November 4 Demonstration (The March of Dignity of the Nation 2)
Online activists called for demonstrations on November 4 in several locations in Kuwait City, to demand cancellation of the emir’s decree. Security forces blocked main roads leading to Kuwait City, which forced the organizers to move the protest to an area close to the Kuwait International Fairground in Mishrif, south of Kuwait City. Eight protesters and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces used teargas and stun grenades to disperse thousands of people gathered in Mishrif.
Faris al-Balhan, 30, said that at around 9 p.m., as he and two friends were walking to his car, about 10 masked security forces in four cars assaulted and arrested them:
They asked for our IDs and they were beating us at the same time. I reacted trying to get away a few steps, but they caught me, tied my hands with handcuffs, pushed me against my car and beat me for a few minutes. After I gave them my ID they covered my eyes, put me in the back of a [GMC] Yukon and drove away.
Al-Balhan, who previously had been charged with “offending the emir” for remarks he had posted on Twitter, said he is not sure where the men took him:
They asked me why I attended the demonstrations and then asked for my iPhone password, which I refused to give. Then I was taken to a room and two masked men started beating me while a third one just stood there. After a few minutes they asked me to unlock my iPhone. I entered wrong code, which locked my iPhone for about five minutes. They beat me for almost 30 minutes because every time they asked for my passcode I entered a wrong one. Eventually I unlocked my iPhone and they stopped beating me.
Al-Balhan said that the masked security forces took his driver’s license and iPhone and at around midnight he and his friends were taken to a police station. He said that the policeman at the station initially would not accept them because there was no paperwork for the transfer but finally agreed and released them in the early morning without any charges. He said he wanted to file a complaint but was unsure which government agency arrested him.
Gatherings Prevented on December 15 and 16
Opposition groups called for an overnight sit-in on December 15 at al-Irada Square, a day before the emir inaugurated the newly elected parliament. However security forces arrived at the scene hours before protesters and prevented them from gathering. News was soon out on social media that the gathering would shift to a park near Abdul Razaq Square (locally known as “the banks square”) in downtown Kuwait City, about two miles east of al-Irada Square. Human Rights Watch monitored the gathering at Abdul Razaq Square, which ended peacefully.
The opposition groups called for another gathering at al-Irada Square in the evening of December 16. But starting early that day, Interior Ministry forces placed metal barricades around the square.
A group of about 100 people protesting the emir’s decree and the inauguration of the new parliament gathered on December in the parking lot of Qasr al-Adil (the courthouse). Masked riot police arrested at least three people: Khalid al-Deen, a member of the executive committee of al-Taqadumi (the progressive) Movement, a leftist group; Anwar al-Fikr, an al-Taqadumi member; and Hamad al-Darbas, a blogger. The prosecutors charged all three with five charges, including “participating in an illegal gathering,” “refusing to obey police orders,” and “offending the emir.” On December 19, they were released on 2,000 Kuwaiti dinars bail (US$7,000) each, pending trial.
Fahed al-Zu’bi, a friend of al-Deen’s, told Human Rights Watch he was nearby away when he heard al-Deen screaming:
The demonstrators started at around 8 in the morning near the National Library and tried to walk toward the National Assembly building but the security forces blocked us. Then we changed the venue and gathered in the parking lot of the courthouse. We were carrying orange flags and chanting the national anthem. At around 9:30 the [masked riot forces] showed up and stood about 50 meters from us and said through loudspeakers, “You have to break up this gathering because it is not authorized.”
We ended the gathering at around 11 and Khalid asked us to visit his office nearby to have some tea. I was walking about five meters ahead of Khalid when I heard him screaming. When I turned around I saw masked security forces pushing him to the ground and handcuffing him. Then they took him to a Yukon car and drove him away.
After his release, al-Deen told Human Rights Watch that the masked riot forces beat him.
I think six or seven of them pushed me to the ground and beat me with their hands and kicked. They tied my hands with tight plastic handcuffs and beat me on my face. I still have a bump just above on my right eye.
Al-Deen said after their arrests he and the others were taken to police stations in Sharq and al-Salhiya in Kuwait City, then charged at the Public Prosecution Office late that night.
The Bidun Demonstration on December 10
The Interior Ministry has repeatedly warned stateless residents, known as Bidun, not to organize protests, citing article 21 of the 1979 Public Gathering law, which bars non-Kuwaitis from participating in public gatherings. However Kuwait’s constitution guarantees “all individuals” the right to peaceful assembly.
In an unprecedented move on December 9, the governor of Jahra province permitted Bidun to organize a gathering in Taima on December 10. However the Interior Ministry overrode the governor’s decision and warned Bidun not to proceed with the protest.
Mohamed Khudhair said that he and other protesters gathered at around 3 p.m., after mid- afternoon prayer, in al-Hurriya Square in Taima:
Police forces and masked security forces supported by armored vehicles were standing about 30 meters from us. They said that the gathering was unauthorized and we should disperse. They started using sound bombs and tear gas within 10 minutes after the protest began. I went home and at around 10 p.m. I decided to go out to check things out. Shortly after I left my home I was arrested. It was a terrible experience; they pushed me to the ground, tied my hands and then pushed me into a bus. Eight people were arrested that day. We were taken to Taima Police Station and then to al-Salmiya Bureau of Investigation, where I was charged with “illegal gathering,” “assaulting police forces” and “refusing to obey police orders.” I spent one night in a small windowless cell by myself in the Public Detention Center.
Khudhair, who has four more cases related to participating in the protest against him, was released the following day on bail, pending trial.