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Middle East and North Africa

Kuwait gives 5-year term to dissenter


A court in Kuwait on April 15, 2013 sentenced a prominent opposition politician to five years in prison for insulting the country’s ruler, a crime that leaders around the Persian Gulf are prosecuting with increasing frequency in an effort to stanch emboldened protest movements, or stop protests before they start.

In the last six months, dissidents in Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been imprisoned on charges that included either insulting or disobeying the countries’ leaders. Bahrain’s cabinet on Sunday was reported to have endorsed a penalty of five years in prison for offending the king. Other countries have passed or are considering steep fines for cybercrimes that include insulting leaders or top officials on social media.

Kuwait, which long had a reputation for some of the region’s most vibrant politics and civic life, has distinguished itself over the last year by prosecuting dozens of people accused of insulting the country’s emir, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, according to human rights advocates. On Monday, Musallam el-Barrak, one of Kuwait’s most popular opposition politicians and a former member of Parliament, was sentenced to five years in prison for comments he made during a speech at a political rally in October.

The rally was one of several by antigovernment protesters angered at a proposal by the emir to amend the country’s election law. In a thundering speech, Mr. Barrak repeated a phrase that would become a slogan of the protest movement — “We will not allow you” — and warned the ruler about “practicing autocracy.”

“It was one of the few protests I went to,” said Hamad Al-Judai, a Kuwaiti political activist. “I’m not a fan, but I had to stand up and clap. It was something different. It was a game changer.”

Activists said Mr. Barrak’s speech had broken taboos in Kuwait about publicly chastising the emir. The politician’s arrest soon after was part of a crackdown on dissent by an increasingly nervous government. Human Rights Watch has documented several convictions of activists for online postings on blogs or Twitter, including many under a penal code article that sets a five-year sentence for anyone who publicly “objects to the rights and authorities of the emir or faults him.”

Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of the group’s Middle East and North African division , said the sentencing “reflects dangerous backsliding in Kuwait, stifling the country’s lively and relatively free political debates, in a whole series of jail sentences against activists and politicians alike.”

The pace of the prosecutions in Kuwait in some ways reflects a vigorous culture of activism that predates the Arab uprisings that began more than two years ago. For years, youth groups and other opposition activists had pushed for greater accountability from the government “with new means of political action,” including street protests, according to Kristin Smith Diwan, a professor at the American University School of International Service.

As protests in places like Kuwait and Bahrain have simmered, leaders of the Persian Gulf nations have shown increasing cooperation on security matters and with what often seems like a shared playbook for stifling dissent. Their citizens have also made common cause: on Monday, activists throughout the gulf region took to Twitter, using the hashtag “Freedom for Musallam el-Barrak.”


By Kareem Fahim

Source: The New York Times

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