(Beirut) – Kuwaiti authorities should drop all charges and not contest the appeal of a prisoner with mental disabilities who was convicted of insulting the emir. Muhammad Eid Abdulmohsen al-Mekhial, 39, is serving a five-year sentence for insulting the emir, Islam, and Interior Ministry staff.

In November 2012, al-Mekhial called Kuwait’s national public emergency phone number about 38 times over the course of one day, spewing expletives about religion, politics, and the phone operator, in an episode one of his doctors described as consistent with his disabilities. Officials arrested him a month later and charged him with speech crimes and misusing his phone.

“The Kuwaiti government is so fixated on suppressing free speech that prosecutors are even willing to ignore severe mental disability to make its point,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Keeping al-Mekhial in prison is an embarrassment and a blot on Kuwait’s human rights record.”

On April 22, 2014, Human Rights Watch interviewed the former head of the psychiatric department at the Kuwait Psychological Medicine Hospital, where al-Mekhial was a repeat patient, about the case. She had treated him in late 2010.

Kuwait’s court of first instance sentenced al-Mekhial to five years in prison on February 3, 2013. He appealed the conviction on April 30, at which point the deputy attorney general for criminal affairs and international cooperation referred him to a medical committee appointed by Kuwaiti authorities for examination. The committee concluded that he could be convicted of the alleged crimes.

Based on the transcripts of 20 of the calls, al-Mekhial used obscene language to insult the emir, Islam, and the operator who answered the call, without inciting violence or hatred. Al-Mekhial had been diagnosed with a serious mental disability, al-Mutairi, the head of the psychiatric department at the Kuwait Psychological Medicine Hospital, told Human Rights Watch.

According to the minutes of his initial interrogation by state security officers and later the public prosecutor, al-Mekhial first said that he could not remember the events of the day in question because he had been drunk. After officials played him the recordings, he admitted to making the calls but said that he had not been conscious of committing any crimes and was in psychiatric treatment.

Al-Mekhial was charged with four crimes: insulting the emir, Interior Ministry staff, and Islam, and misusing his phone in doing so. The first three crimes all represent violations of the right to free speech. That right can only be limited by governments in very specific circumstances including when the speech incites to violence or when it threatens the security of the state.

A committee of three court-appointed psychiatrists who examined al-Mekhial and reviewed his case issued their report on May 23, 2013. They concluded that based on al-Mekhial’s medical history, tests they administered, and interviews with him, he has “aggressive personality disorder” and “psychosis resulting from taking narcotic substances.”

Nonetheless, the medical committee ruled that al-Mekhial was able to stand trial, and that his mental health was irrelevant to the conviction because he was able to remember details of his calls and the subsequent arrest, and was able to admit to the alleged crime. The committee ruled that none of the diagnoses caused him to commit the alleged crimes.

On October 29, 2013, al-Mekhial’s lawyer requested a review of his client by another psychiatric committee. He told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors had not acted on his request. He is now seeking an appeal with regards to al-Mekhial’s sentence.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Arab Charter on Human Rights, Kuwait is required to protect the rights to freedom of opinion and expression. 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 is a need for “uninhibited expression” in public debate concerning public figures.

Under Kuwaiti law, offending the emir is a defamation charge, punishable by a prison sentence of up to five years. The UN Human Rights Committee 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.

Al-Mekhial was also convicted under the prohibition on mocking or belittling religion in the Kuwait Penal Code. The Human Rights Committee has said that apart from very limited exceptions, prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the ICCPR.