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(Beirut) – The Kuwaiti authorities should drop criminal charges against dozens of online activists, journalists, and politicians for legitimately exercising their rights to freedom of expression. The authorities should also withdraw charges and overturn the sentences for at least 10 people already convicted in such cases, as recently as April 15, 2013.

Since a political crisis in June 2012, authorities have charged dozens of politicians, online activists, and journalists with “offending” the emir, Kuwait’s head of state, Human Rights Watch has learned from the defendants, their lawyers, and human rights activists.

“No one should ever be prosecuted solely for expressing peaceful criticism,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Kuwaiti authorities should immediately drop all charges against government critics and others for peacefully exercising their right to free speech.”

On April 15, a criminal court sentenced Mussalam al-Barak, a former member of parliament and a leading opposition figure, to five years in prison for “offending the emir.” The court found that he did so in a speech at a demonstration on October 20, in which he said, apparently addressing the emir, “Your Highness, we will not let you govern autocratically.”

On March 31, a criminal court sentenced an online activist, Hamed al-Khalidi, to two years in prison on the same charge for several Twitter postings in August. In one tweet, he said, “if he passes away, I will go to the street dressed in orange [the color used by critics and opponents of the Kuwaiti government],” according to court documents obtained by Human Rights Watch. The court acknowledged that al-Khalidi “did not mention the emir directly” but held that he “knew about the elements of the crime” and had a “willingness” to commit “the crime.”

On March 7, a criminal court sentenced another online activist, Sagar al-Hashash, to two years in prison on the same charge for comments on Twitter in October and in an article on his blog, “To His Highness the Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad.” Al-Hashash is serving his prison term, although he has filed an appeal that has yet to be heard.

On February 5, a criminal court imposed three year prison sentences on three former members of Kuwait’s parliament on the same charges for speeches at a public gathering in October. They filed appeals and are free on bail.

On January 6, a criminal court sentenced an online activist, Rashed al-Enzi, to two years in prison on the same charge for several Twitter postings on October 23, 2012. One read: “The coward escapes after orders something that might destabilize security and this is case today, the coward fled after issuing its order.” He is also in prison, though he has filed an appeal. During an appeal hearing on February 13, 2013, that Human Rights Watch attended and observed, al-Enzi told the court that his tweet concerned a security official who had allegedly ordered a crackdown on demonstrators on October 23, not the emir.

Most of those charged face prosecution under article 25 of the Penal Code of 1970, which sets a maximum sentence of five years for anyone who publicly “objects to the rights and authorities of the emir or faults him.” Under article 54 of the Kuwaiti constitution, the emir is the head of state and his person is “immune and inviolable.”

“The Kuwaiti authorities should not be jailing opposition activists and journalists on charges of ‘offending the emir’ but instead scrapping the criminal code provision that makes this a crime, and upholding their international obligation to protect free speech,” Whitson said.

Since mid-2012 Kuwait has been caught in a political crisis amid deepening tension between the government and opposition. In June 2012, the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, suspended the parliament elected in February for a month, and it was then dissolved under a Constitutional Court ruling. In October, the emir amended the country’s electoral law and ordered new parliamentary elections on December 1.

The emir’s actions provoked opposition from various quarters, including Islamists, liberals, nationalists, and some clans, who contended that parliament, not the emir, should make any changes to the electoral law. They organized public meetings and called for a boycott of the December 1 election. The turnout was much smaller than for the February election. In several cases leading up to the election, the security forces used teargas and sound bombs to disperse protesters, and in late October the government briefly banned further protests.

Kuwait’s prosecuting authorities and some politicians have particularly targeted Al Youm, a privately-owned satellite TV channel. They have filed court complaints against at least a dozen journalists and other media workers at the TV station, accusing them of “offending the emir,” “violating public decency,” and “defaming” politicians, according to court filings obtained by Human Rights Watch.

In late December, the Information Ministry shut down Al Youm for allegedly failing to appoint a director to administer the station. The Administrative Court of Appeal overturned this decision in February, and the station has resumed broadcasting.

Criminal prosecution for peaceful criticism of public officials violates international human rights standards. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Kuwait ratified in 1996, 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, the treaty-monitoring body that provides the definitive interpretation of the ICCPR, 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 is consequently a need for “uninhibited expression” in public debate concerning public figures. 

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