(Kuwait City)– A criminal court conviction of three former members of Kuwait’s parliament for “offending the emir” violates their right to freedom of expression. On February 5, 2013, the court found the defendants guilty, based on speeches they gave at a gathering in October 2012, and sentenced all three to three years in prison. The defendants have appealed their sentences, one of their lawyers told Human Rights Watch.
Since October, the Public Prosecution Office has charged nearly 25 people, including online activists, with offending the emir, the defendants, their lawyers, and human rights activists told Human Rights Watch. Criminal courts have sentenced at least six of them, including the three former members of parliament, to prison terms. A decision in another case is expected on February 11. The government should drop charges against those charged or convicted of crimes solely for exercising their rights to free expression and amend its criminal code to remove the crime of offending the emir, Human Rights Watch said.
“Sending politicians to prison for criticizing the ruler is at odds with official claims that Kuwait is a beacon of freedom in the Gulf,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The appeals court should overturn the convictions imposed for peaceful speech-related crimes.”
Authorities charged the three men, Khalid al-Tahoos, Badir al-Dahoom, and Falah al-Sawagh, after they spoke at a gathering in the house of a former member of parliament on October 10.
Al-Tahoos told Human Rights Watch in December that authorities brought the charges against him for a sentence in his speech: “I said that the political situation was very critical and I said that his highness needs to intervene to put an end to the violations of the constitution that are committed by the [government]. Then I said, ‘Your highness, there is a hairbetween you and the people. Don’t cut it.’” Local activists told Human Rights Watch that al-Dahoom and al-Sawagh also gave speeches that authorities deemed offensive to the emir.
On October 18, the Public Prosecution Office summoned and charged the three under article 25 of the Penal Code of 1970, which sets a maximum of five years in prison for anyone who publicly “objects to the rights and authorities of the emir or faults him.” The three men were held for five days in the State Security building in South Surra, then released on bail of 5,000 Kuwaiti Dinars ($17,700) each.
The lawyer, Muhammad al-Jamee’, told Human Rights Watch the men had not yet been ordered to begin serving the sentences. According to a copy of the ruling published by local newspapers on February 7, the court said that “the [three former members of parliament] directed their speech to the emir publicly and in a challenging manner… and pitched him to the rank of an average person.”
The court said it was “satisfied, as shown clearly, that the defendants had bad intention and their goal is not reform as they claim… but to fault and offend the power of the emir and they knew the content of those expressions.” However in the ruling the court did not specify the expressions the defendants had used in their speeches that the court found had violated the law.
The political crisis in Kuwait began in June, when the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, suspended parliament for a month, followed by a Constitutional Court’s decision to dissolve the parliament. In October, the emir amended the country’s electoral law and set December 1 to elect a new parliament. Opposition groups – including Islamists, liberals, nationalists, and tribal groups – organized a number of gatherings protesting the electoral law amendments and boycotted the December elections, contending that the parliament should make any changes in the electoral law.
In addition to the sentences issued on February 6, a criminal court decision is expected to rule on February 11 in the case of Mussalam al-Barak, a former member of parliament and a leading figure in opposition groups. He was arrested on October 29 after he gave a speech at a demonstration on October 20 in which he said, “Your Highness, we will not let you govern autocratically.” The Public Prosecution Office also charged al-Barak with offending the emir. He was released a few days later on a 10,000 Kuwait Dinars (US$35,450) and forbidden to leave the country.
“We, in Kuwait, have been enjoying the freedom of expression for years,” al-Barak told Human Rights Watch in December. “It is guaranteed by our constitution and people are using their right to express what they feel about their government. But now the government is coming to suppress it by prosecuting those who speak out and post remarks on Twitter [against its policies and actions].”
On January 6, a criminal court sentenced Rashed al-Enezi, an online activist, to two years in prison for offending the emir in dozens of Twitter remarks posted in 2012. He is serving his sentence, and the court of appeal is reviewing his case. He faces the same charge in two other cases related to remarks on Twitter and another charge of “illegal gathering and storming the building [of the parliament]” during a demonstration in November 2011, he told Human Rights Watch in December.
On January 7, a criminal court sentenced Ayad al-Harbi to two years in prison, also for offending the emir on Twitter. On February 3, a criminal court sentenced Muhammad al-Mikhyal to five years in prison for a similar crime, local human rights activists told Human Rights Watch.
Kuwait ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees the right to freedom of expression and assembly, in 1996. Article 19 of the ICCPR protects the right to freedom of expression, including “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which provides the definitive interpretation of the covenant, has stated that, “All public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition” and that there should be substantial leeway to allow “uninhibited expression” about these public figures in public debate. The Committee suggests that defamation of public figures should not be a criminal offense and that imprisonment for defamation would never be an appropriate penalty.
“Authorities should suspend and then abolish laws that criminalize peaceful criticism of public officials because they violate international human rights standards,” Houry said.