A Kuwaiti opposition youth activist has been given the maximum sentence of five years in prison for insulting the 'inviolable' emir on Twitter in the third case of its kind since January, following a crackdown on free speech in the country.
Mohammad Eid al-Ajmi will likely appeal his case, despite the fact that his sentence took “immediate effect,” said lawyer Mohammad al-Humaidi, director of the Kuwait Society for Human Rights.
The sentencing was the latest in a series of similar prosecutions for criticizing the 'immune' emir on social media.
Last month, the same court sentenced Ayyad al Harbi and Rashed al Enezi to two years in jail each on similar charges of defaming the emir of Kuwait, the third such case in less than two months. Both are awaiting appeals court rulings.
Enezi did not mention the emir by name in the tweet, but the court said that it was clear who he intended to insult.
A large number of youth activists in Kuwait are on trial on charges similar to the three most recent indictments, and more verdicts are expected in the forthcoming weeks, Humaidi said.
On Tuesday, a verdict will be issued on three different former opposition MPs who criticized the emir at a public rally in October last year. At the time, tensions between authorities and the opposition had flared ahead of a parliamentary election, which the opposition said was illegitimate.
The opposition claimed that voting rules introduced by Sheikh Sabah’s emergency decree in October would tip the December elections in favor of pro-government candidates. Security forces used stun grenades and tear gas to disperse at least three large rallies in support of an imprisoned opposition candidate.
Kuwait is one of several Middle East states that censors social media. In November 2012, the United Arab Emirates also adopted hard-hitting cyber laws, saying that posts damaging to the stature of the state or its institutions would result in a prison sentence. The UAE also banned “information, news, caricatures or any other kind of pictures” that authorities deemed threatening to security or “public order.”
And in November 2012, a Qatari poet was sentenced to life in prison when he wrote and published a poem that encouraged Qataris to overthrow the country's ruling system; he is also appealing his case.
On Monday, the Telegraph reported that the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, said that investigations into comments on networks such as Twitter would have a “chilling effect” on free speech within Britain. Prosecutions in the country involving social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook have increased nearly ninefold in the last four years.
According to the Kuwaiti constitution, the emir is “immune and inviolable,” and it is illegal to criticize him. The country has been increasing crackdowns on those using social media to voice discontent with the emir since last April, as part of new policies announced by Kuwaiti Information Minister Shaikh Mohammad Al Mubarak Al Sabah: “The government is now in the process of establishing laws that will allow government entities to regulate the use of the different new media outlets such as Twitter in order to safeguard the cohesiveness of the population and society,” he said.
That same month, Kuwait also voted in favor of a legal amendment which could make insulting God and the Prophet Mohammad punishable by death. The amendment was approved last December.
“We call on the government to expand freedoms and adhere to the international [human rights] conventions it has signed,” Humadi said. Kuwait is a US ally and a major regional oil producer.
In November, Amnesty International criticized the country for its charges against opposition leader Musallam al-Barrak for “undermining the status of the emir.”
His arrest and prosecution were described as “outrageous,” and “yet another manifestation of the increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly in Kuwait,” said Ann Harrison, Deputy Director for Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program.
The “Kuwaiti royal family wields enormous power,” Human Rights Watch said last November.