(Beirut) – Kuwait’s Court of Cassation on June 12, 2015, upheld a six-year sentence for a blogger for tweets criticizing Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch said today.
Kuwait’s emir should set aside the prison term imposed on the blogger, Saleh al-Saeed, order his release, and drop related charges against him. Kuwait’s national assembly should also revoke laws allowing Kuwait authorities to bring charges against peaceful critics for exercising their right to free speech. Al-Saeed, who is in hiding, also faces further charges based on comments he made in tweets, his lawyer said.
“In the past, Kuwait stood out as a country that respected free speech, but the tide has turned,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Kuwait now clearly would rather curry favor with its neighbors than uphold the rights of its own citizens.”
A friend of al-Saeed told Human Rights Watch that he posted 16 tweets in October 2014 that accused Saudi Arabia of carrying out land grabs in the neutral zone between it and Kuwait to exploit the area’s oil reserves, and criticized the Kuwaiti authorities for failing to speak out.
Hani Hussain, al-Saeed’s lawyer, said that Kuwaiti authorities charged al-Saeed after the Saudi embassy in Kuwait City complained to the Foreign Affairs Ministry and demanded his prosecution. On December 30, a court of first instance convicted al-Saeed under article 4 of the country’s 1970 National Security Law, which makes it a criminal offense to commit a hostile act against a foreign country that disrupts Kuwait’s political relations with that country or exposes Kuwait to a risk of war. The court sentenced al-Saeed to four years in prison and released him on bail pending an appeal.
On February 18, 2015, an appellate court increased al-Saeed’s sentence to six years and ordered him detained until the hearing before the Court of Cassation on May 21. He went into hiding when that court issued its June 12 judgment, his lawyer said.
Hussain said that al-Saeed also faces charges under article 4 in a separate case based on another complaint by the Saudi embassy in January over tweets on the same issue. Al-Saeed is due in court in July on that case.
Prosecuting a person twice for the same alleged offense (often known as “double jeopardy”) is specifically prohibited by article 14 § 7 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). As a state party to the ICCPR, Kuwait is bound to uphold its provisions.
Since December 2014, Kuwaiti authorities have charged at least five other people with insulting Saudi Arabia or its ruling family. In January 2015, authorities arrested Nawaf al-Hindal, Mohammed al-Ajmi, and Musaed al-Musallam after they posted tweets deemed insulting to Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah. Khaled al-Shatti, 45, a former member of parliament, is awaiting judgment after standing trial on charges of offending Saudi Arabia in tweets. And Abdul-Hamid Dashti faces charges of harming Kuwait’s relations with Saudi Arabia for remarks he made on Lebanese TV criticizing Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemen conflict.
On June 13, the authorities arrested Musalam al-Barrak, 59, a former member of the Kuwaiti National Assembly and leader of the Popular Action Bloc opposition group, to serve a two-year prison sentence for insulting Kuwait’s emir that the Court of Cassation had confirmed on May 18. He was charged based on a speech he made in October 2012. Al-Barrak’s lawyer, Muhammad al-Jassem, said that 13 of al-Barrak’s relatives were also arrested, accused of hiding him to avoid arrest. Al-Barrak was placed in solitary confinement in a prison ward usually reserved for death row prisoners, and moved only after he went on a hunger strike.
As a state party to the ICCPR and the Arab Charter on Human Rights, Kuwait is obligated to protect rights to freedom of opinion and expression. Kuwait’s own constitution, in article 36, also guarantees these rights. While the ICCPR permits countries to restrict individual rights to free speech, such restrictions are permissible only when they are prescribed by law and strictly necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals, or the rights or reputations of others. According to the UN Human Rights Committee, the body responsible for authoritative interpretations of the ICCPR, a state party “must demonstrate in specific and individualized fashion the precise nature of the threat, and the necessity and proportionality of the specific action taken, in particular by establishing a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the threat.”
“Political speech is the linchpin of a free society,” Whitson said. “The way Kuwaiti authorities are hampering political comment significantly chills public discourse.”