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HRW slams free speech crackdown

(From left) Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Director of Middle East and North Africa division Nadim Houry, Director of Kuwait’s Human Rights Society Mohammad Al- Humaidi and Yemen and Kuwait researcher with HRW, Belkis Wille hold a press conference yesterday

(From left) Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Director of Middle East and North Africa division Nadim Houry, Director of Kuwait’s Human Rights Society Mohammad Al- Humaidi and Yemen and Kuwait researcher with HRW, Belkis Wille hold a press conference yesterday

KUWAIT: A crackdown on free speech was the focus of a Human Rights Watch report released yesterday, as the watchdog accused Kuwait of escalating punishments against people critical of the government. In the 656- page World Report 2015, its 25th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries.

The Kuwait report also shed light on the continued problems of bedoons and the plight of migrant workers among human rights issues that need to be improved in Kuwait. Nadim Houry, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at HRW said that the report this year focused on how governments are dealing with security challenges and instability. “What worries us most is the terror and violation of human rights by groups like IS and others.

We also registered violations by some governments dealing with these terrorist organizations. We are happy that there is still some freedom in Kuwait and we hope that more improvements will talk place next year,” he said during a press conference yesterday at the headquarters of the Kuwait Human Right Society (KHRS). HRW released a statement urging the Kuwaiti government to take urgent steps to amend national laws that officials are using to crack down on free speech, and stop revoking citizenship to punish its critics and peaceful opponents.

Over the past year, officials have brought charges against a number of critics. The government has also revoked the citizenship of critics in three cases, leaving them stateless. “The Kuwaiti authorities seem to think that it is not enough to use lengthy jail sentences to punish critical tweets and other peaceful dissent,” said Houry.

“Now they are also twisting the entire concept of citizenship to strip critics of their nationality rights.” Belkis Wille, in-charge of the Kuwait file at HRW, appreciated having the opportunity to hold the conference to release the HRW report in Kuwait. “This opportunity is not available in neighboring countries such as Bahrain for instance, yet freedom of speech dramatically dropped in 2014 compared to the past, when Kuwait was the first in the region in this field.

The Kuwaiti government aggressively cracked down on free speech throughout 2014, using provisions of the constitution and penal code, laws on printing and publishing, public gatherings and misuse of telecommunications, as well as the national unity law of 2013,” she stated. The government put into effect a new telecommunications law in May that imposes severe penalties on people who create or send “immoral” messages, and gives unspecified authorities the power to suspend communication services on national security grounds. Any communication service provider that “contributes” to the dissemination of messages that violate these vague standards can be punished. The law provides no opportunity for judicial review, the HRW statement said.

As 2015 began, the government took further action against its critics. The recent actions, reported by human rights sources, include the arrest of a former lawmaker, Saleh Al-Mulla on Jan 6 for insulting HH the Amir and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in tweets; a warrant against Nawaf Al-Hindal, a human rights activist, on Jan 27 while he was out of the country over tweets about Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah; the arrest on Jan 28 of another activist, Mohammed Al- Ajmi for insulting King Abdullah on Twitter; and a fiveyear sentence for Abdulaziz Al-Mutairi, another activist, on Jan 29 for insulting HH the Amir on Twitter.

Over the past year, Kuwaiti authorities have stripped at least 33 people of citizenship for various reasons, including some government critics for “acts aiming to undermine the country’s security and stability, bringing harm to its institutions”. Among them were Ahmed Jabr Al-Shammari, owner of several media outlets that had defied a government ban to publish a story; Abdullah Al-Barghash, a former opposition leader in parliament; Nabil Al-Awadhi, a conservative cleric widely known for his TV talk shows; and Saad Al-Ajmi, the spokesman for Musallam Al-Barrak, a leading opposition politician. All four told Human Rights Watch that they believed their citizenship was stripped for criticizing the government and that the revocation had left them stateless.

The revocation process does not allow appeal or review. Mohammed Al-Hamidi, Director of the KHRS, said that the most serious issue of human rights violation in Kuwait is the bedoon (stateless) issue. “Although the government has many times announced they will definitely resolve this issue, it hasn’t been done. For some of them, it’s getting worse, especially children that are not provided an education. They also have many other serious problems such as unemployment, housing and freedom of speech. Reports on deporting the bedoons are not correct, as some of them were sentenced to imprisonment followed by deportation, but they were never deported and are still in the prison,” he pointed out. During 2014, Kuwait’s bedoons, more than 105,000 people historically not considered citizens, protested their stateless status, with at least seven arrested. The 1979 public gatherings law bars non-Kuwaitis from participating in public gatherings.

On Jan 29, Abdelhakim Al-Fadhli, a bedoon human rights activist, was sentenced to one year in prison followed by deportation for participation in a protest in 2014. Human Rights Watch has urged the government to create a timely and transparent mechanism to review bedoon citizenship claims that incorporates international human rights standards. The Justice Ministry took steps to block women from applying for legal researcher posts until the two-year evaluation of the first group of women admitted in 2013 is completed. Under the program, women can eventually pursue careers as judges. In April, a court struck down the Justice Ministry’s veto, opening the way for 21 women to gain admission to legal researcher posts by November

By Nawara Fattahova

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This article was published on 04/02/2015