3 sitting Islamist MPs convicted – Barrak handed 9 years behind bars

Waleed Al-Tabtabaei, Jamaan Al-Harbash and Mohammad Al-Mutair

KUWAIT: In one of the toughest rulings in Kuwait’s judicial history, the appeals court yesterday handed 67 opposition activists – including three sitting lawmakers and several ex-MPs – harsh jail terms for storming the National Assembly building six years ago. Among the main sentences, the court handed prominent opposition leader and former MP Musallam Al-Barrak nine years in jail. Barrak was released from prison in April after serving a two-year sentence for insulting HH the Amir at a public rally.

It also sentenced three serving lawmakers to jail – Waleed Al-Tabtabaei and Jamaan Al-Harbash to seven years in jail each and Mohammad Al-Mutair to one year in prison. All of them are prominent Islamists. There were brief but defiant comments from the three lawmakers who received the jail terms. The court also sentenced leading former opposition MPs Faisal Al-Mislem, Khaled Al-Tahous, Mubarak Al-Waalan, Salem Al-Namlan and Fahd Al-Khanna to seven years in prison. All the jail terms are effective immediately.

The court overturned a ruling by the criminal court a couple of years ago that acquitted all the 70 defendants, saying that the opposition activists did not intend to storm the parliament building and had no bad intentions. But the appeals court saw sufficient evidence to condemn 67 of the defendants, acquitting two and dropping charges against former MP Falah Al-Sawwagh, who died last year.

The storming of parliament took place on Nov 16, 2011 at the height of anti-government street demonstrations led by Islamists, nationalist and liberal opposition groups to protest corruption allegations against former prime minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, who was forced to step down two weeks after the incident.

During the trial, the defendants did not deny that they entered the Assembly building after a noisy demonstration outside the building on Gulf Street, but insisted that they fled a police crackdown and wanted to avoid clashes with the security forces. The criminal court accepted their explanations and acquitted them, but the appeals court convicted them of several charges brought by the public prosecution. The ruling is not final, as it can be challenged before the court of cassation, whose rulings are final. Defense lawyers said they will start filing challenges against the judgments from today.

Security forces immediately began rounding up the convicts, and according to unconfirmed reports, at least nine people have already been arrested. Lawyer Mohammed Al-Humaidi, who represents seven defendants other than Barrak, confirmed that police had begun arresting some of the defendants, who also include secular nationalists. Lama Al-Fadala, a sister of one of the defendants, said the sentence came as a shock. “The defendants weren’t given an opportunity to defend themselves in front of court, which is worrying,” she said.

But several other convicts decided to surrender voluntarily. One of them is MP Harbash, who wrote on his Twitter account that he was on his way to give himself up, saying that he is proud that he is going to jail “not as a thief or after receiving a bribe, but for performing his duty as an elected MP”. Harbash’s eldest son, Abdullah, was given a similar jail term, along with a number of opposition youth leaders like Tareq Al-Mutairi. They were convicted of using force and violence against Assembly guards, entering a building with the intent to commit a crime and taking part in a gathering inside the Assembly.

In addition, Barrak and another convict were accused of instigating police to refuse orders. Although, Harbash decided to surrender, it was not immediately known whether the three convicted lawmakers lose their parliamentary immunity or not. Legal expert Faisal Al-Kandari said the immunity will remain until the court of cassation issues its ruling.

Following the harsh sentences, several lawmakers called for issuing a public pardon for all prisoners jailed for expressing an opinion. Leading constitutional expert Mohammad Al-Moqate said on Twitter that he believes the sentences are too harsh and the appeals court ruling has deviated after the criminal court acquitted the defendants. MP Abdulwahab Al-Babtain said a pardon should be issued as the country is passing through very delicate regional developments.

Compared to the rest of the Mideast, Islamists and secularists may seem like a strange combination to be lumped together. But in Kuwait, both sides rallied together in Nov 2011, when protesters angry about corruption allegations stormed the parliament. The protesters briefly entered the parliament chamber amid attempts by opposition lawmakers to bring the prime minister for questioning over claims that government officials transferred state funds to accounts outside the country.
“I think a lot of Kuwaitis will be concerned that this will just feed into instability,” said Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Diwan, whose institute is predominantly funded through a government-subsidized think tank in the United Arab Emirates, called the arrests “concerning”. She contrasted that against a recent call by HH the Amir for unity. “That question will be raised now whether that unity can be achieved at a time where we have the jailing of a large number of opposition and youth activists,” Diwan said.

By B Izzak and Agencies