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On June 10, a Kuwaiti court sentenced Huda al-Ajmi, a 37-year-old teacher, to 11 years in prison: five years for “offending the emir,” five for “publicly instigating a coup,” and a year for insulting the Shia Muslim faith.

The conviction stems from tweets posted by @ajaweed, her Twitter account, though she said she didn’t post them.

This was only one of at least 35 prosecutions against people, including online activists, for offending the emir since October 2012. This represents a new and worrying trend. Kuwait used to be viewed as the most tolerant of free speech in the region, a standard that is being quickly eroded.

Kuwaiti social media activists have been rallying behind the other cases over the last months, but did not support al-Ajmi in this one. Many said that her tweets went beyond what the law would or should protect as free speech.

In fact at least some of her convictions clearly violate free speech conventions, and the others are open to debate. The blatant violation of international law is the five-year sentence for offending the emir. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says any restrictions on speech can only be for legitimate reasons and only to the extent strictly necessary. Kuwait agreed to be bound by these legal standards when it acceded to the treaty in 1996.

Kuwait’s crime of offending the emir is essentially a defamation charge. The UN Human Rights Committee, international experts who provide an authoritative interpretation of the covenant, has stated categorically that “imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty” in defamation cases, because it will always be disproportionate.

Furthermore, the committee says that defamation or insult laws should not protect heads of state from criticism. There should be no laws criminalizing insulting the rulers of the country.

The sentence for attempting to “publicly instigate a coup against the Kuwaiti regime” was for alleged tweets, such as “Very soon, inshallah, we will make a coup on Al-Sabah, dogs of Iran,” referring to Kuwait’s ruling family. But international law especially protects speech critical of the government or advocating a change of government.

In fact, the Human Rights Committee has said that a government has to be very specific if it contends that speech constitutes a threat. It has to establish a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the threat. A “coup” could be violent, but it could also mean simply a change in government.

The Kuwait Court of First Instance did not show that the tweets were likely to incite violence. Instead it simply said that al-Ajmi willfully disseminated her views publicly.

The last charge against al-Ajmi raises the most issues of concern. Here are a few of the tweets in question:

“Shia don’t deserve anything but burning chambers, like those Hitler used for the Jews.”

“Shia are dogs of the earth, their Mahdi [12th imam] is a pimp running his business in his cave. Al-Sabah are faggots.”

“Soon there will be a big explosion in one of Shia areas in Kuwait… be patient.”

Al-Ajmi was convicted under the prohibition on mocking or belittling religion in the Kuwait Penal Code. The court said her statements had no other purpose than to belittle the Shia faith. The verdict did not say that the statements amounted to an incitement to violence against the Shia community.

Two members of the Human Rights Committee, in a concurring opinion in a case involving racist speech, said there may be limited circumstances in which a country can limit hate speech even if it does not amount to incitement to violence — for example in cases in which there is a broader social or historical pattern of incitement. But they also said the restriction must be proportional to its aim, and the penalty must be in proportion as well.

Was a prison sentence necessary in this case, or would a fine achieve the same goal of stopping the author from publishing bigoted tweets? Were the tweets with violent language actually aiming at inciting violence and should there be a difference between words of violence and language that is simply offensive?

Unless the courts and other authorities in Kuwait are ready to carry out a serious balancing act between the fundamental right to free expression and legitimate aims to protect communities from hate speech and violence, they are not upholding the international standards by which they are bound.

There is good reason, though, why some of the Kuwait bloggers were uncomfortable about the anti-Shia comments. The brutal killing of four Shia in Egypt recently after a drumbeat of anti-Shia rhetoric from Sunni religious figures shows that sectarian tensions in the region are inflamed and dangerous.

Cases like this crystalize the idea that free speech includes the freedom to be offensive, and that any restrictions on free speech, especially those that send people to prison, must be very clearly set out and be proportionate. As Voltaire is reputed to have said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.”

Anything short of this attitude means that the fight in Kuwait has already been lost.

Belkis Wille is the Yemen and Kuwait researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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