A top Kuwaiti court has released on bail 44 people who had been convicted and imprisoned after protesting and calling for the country’s prime minister to resign in 2011—prosecutions that smacked of intimidation and retaliation for criticizing authorities. A detainee’s family member and a defense lawyer confirmed to Human Rights Watch that they had been released Sunday night.
The protesters had been sentenced to between one and nine years in prison.
During the 2011 demonstration, protesters reportedly entered Kuwait’s parliament building as hundreds of people demonstrated outside, calling for Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah to step down over allegations that members of parliament had been paid bribes to support the government. The prime minister and his government ultimately resigned.
A court cleared the protesters of all charges in 2013, but prosecutors appealed to the Court of appeals, which found 67 people guilty in a mass conviction on November 27, 2017.
The vast majority of defendants received sentences for using force against police, but the court also found 65 people guilty of participating in an unlicensed public assembly or gathering, and 16 of crimes that appear to violate free speech rights, including insulting the emir and offending police. The court sentenced one defendant to an additional two years on charges of insulting the emir and offending police alone. Since their convictions, some of the detainees staged hunger strikes to protest their detention, and family members have held public protests outside of Kuwait’s parliament.
Kuwaiti authorities have long restricted the rights to freedom of assembly and expression. Parliament should repeal laws that criminalize peaceful assembly and expression.
The next court date in this case has been set for March 4, and Kuwait’s judiciary should take the opportunity to vacate any convictions that punished peaceful speech or assembly and demonstrate that there is room for the peaceful criticism of authorities in Kuwait.