The Arab Spring and Lèse-Majesté

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Kuwaiti opposition leader and former MP Mussallam al-Barrak (C), gestures as he leaves the Palace of Justice in Kuwait City on 11 February 2013. (Photo: AFP - Yasser Al-Zayyat)

By: Shahira Saloum

Published Sunday, February 17, 2013

Despite its failings and opportunism, the Arab Spring has emboldened subjects against rulers and brought down all that was sacred. In efforts to protect their realms, Gulf rulers are prepared to mete out punishment to any who dare commit the crime of crimes: “defaming the majesty of the emir, sultan, or king.”

Today, when speaking about “offending the majesty of the Emir,” attention turns toward Kuwait, where dozens have been charged with the offense, including several former MPs.

While the oil-rich principality could be one of the most democratic of Gulf states, all who criticize its ruler – whether in an article, Tweet, or speech – could face either a fine or a ten-year prison sentence. This is mandated by article 54 of the constitution: “The Amir is the Head of the State. His person is immune and inviolable.”

On 5 February 2013, three former Kuwaiti opposition MPs – Khaled al-Tahus, Falah al-Sawwagh, and Bader al-Dahum – were sentenced to three years in prison. Their colleague Musallam al-Barrak is still on trial, facing accusations of “defaming the majesty of the Amir, offending the stalwart of the principality, and challenging the power of the prince.”

All of the accused had made public statements at opposition rallies that harshly criticized the emir. A closer look at their words shows that they criticized his work, not his person.

Barrak delivered a speech titled “Enough Absurdity” at Irada Square in Kuwait City. Addressing the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, he said, “We do not fear your jails or your obedience...and we will not allow your autocratic rule.”

Upon hearing this, the audience started chanting, “We won't allow you,” joined by Barrak. Those words led to his arrest, since they encouraged the people to rise up against their emir. The former MP maintained that he has no regrets and, if given another chance, he would repeat the same words again.

In addition to the former MPs, several activists are also on trial for challenging the emir on social media sites. At the beginning of February, Mohammed Eid al-Ajami was sentenced to five years for insulting the emir on Twitter.

Around one month ago, Rashed al-Hajeri was fined 5,000 Kuwaiti Dinar, about $18,000, for “insulting the stalwart of the principality” on Twitter. Before that, Lawrence al-Rashidi was sentenced to ten years in prison for publishing poems on the Internet that criticized the emir and the Kuwaiti regime.

Not far from Kuwait in the Sultanate of Oman, the Court of Appeals upheld an indictment against six people for comments made on social media sites that were considered insults to Sultan Qaboos. Their sentences range from 12 to 18 months and they must each pay a fine of 1,000 Omani Rial, or $2,600.

The harshest sentences related to affronting the emir were in Qatar, where authorities sentenced the poet Mohammed al-Ajami, aka Ibn al-Dhib, to life in prison for “incitement to overthrow the regime and defaming the prince” in his “Jasmine Poem.”

“We are all Tunisia against the repressive elite,” he wrote.

Speaking to Al-Akhbar, Anwar al-Rasheed, secretary general of the Gulf Forum for Civil Society Organizations, believes that the defamation accusation is a natural reaction to the calls by young Gulf citizens for change and reform. “The ruler resorts to such accusations every time the voices of freedom are raised,” he said.

“Defaming the Majesty of the Sheikh”

In the conservative society of Saudi Arabia, the question of defamation revolves more so around clerics than the king. Saudi lawyer Ziad Dwidar told Al-Akhbar that Islamic Sharia is the Kingdom’s constitution. There is something akin to a law of criminal procedure, but it does not include “defamation of the royal self.”

“There are specific legal texts related to speaking ill of the king, a minister, or any personality. If the expressions used can be considered slanderous to their person or honor, the concerned party will be persecuted. But this is up to the discretion of the judge and falls within regular libel and slander laws,” he said.

In late April 2012, Egyptian lawyer Ahmad al-Jizawi was arrested by Saudi authorities at the Jeddah airport on drug-related charges. His arrest angered Egyptians who believed that Jizawi was arrested for “insulting the royal self.”

Egyptian activists launched a Twitter hashtag in Arabic, “To hell with your royal self your majesty.” This led the Saudi ambassador in Cairo to say, mockingly, “I have never heard of an accusation called the royal self except in Egypt when I was young and it was in reference to King Farouk.”

Head of the Liberal Saudi Network Suad al-Shammari told Al-Akhbar, “We [the Saudis] have to deal with an issue that is no less important than defaming the royal self. It is slandering clerics and sheikhs who issue their fatwas and accuse people of heresy if they do not abide by their backward opinions, which have nothing to do with religion.”

Shammari mentioned the case of Raef Badawi, accused of offending the “divine self” on his website. She stressed that his case was political and they could not prove any of the accusations.

She also reminded Al-Akhbar of another case involving a Saudi citizen, Mohammed Salama, who criticized clerics on Twitter and was accused of offending the Prophet Mohammad.

“What we did to those sheikhs, was to overthrow their prestige and sanctity,” she said. “We emboldened the young generation against them. This is enough.”

However, despite the absence of the crime of “defaming the royal self” in Saudi Arabia, legal sources in the Kingdom explained to Al-Akhbar that this does not mean that kings or princes cannot be slandered. When something like this happens, the person “could be arrested and jailed without due process.”

The legal source sarcastically added that, in Saudi society, “90 percent do not dare defame the royal self. The remaining 10 percent, if they do, will deny it in court.”

In nearby Jordan, the law sentences all those who defame the “royal self” with up to three years in prison.

In Morocco, anyone offending the king in a private setting can be jailed for up to one year. The sentence is three years if the statements are made in public and five years if it’s both private and public. The violations include “publishing satirical cartoons, spreading malicious rumors, and replacing or changing the sequence in the [state] slogan: God, nation, and king.”

The defamation does not stop at kings, princes, or sultans. Arab presidents are also considered holy. In Lebanon, for example, anyone who defames the president can be investigated by the Public Prosecution.

International Charges

The harshest punishment in the world for defamation is in Thailand, whose constitution mandates a sentence of up to 15 years for defaming the “royal self.” Just last month, Voice of Taksin editor Somyot Pruksakasemsuk was sentenced on such a charge.

In 2005, a court in Warsaw, Poland fined a newspaper publisher for insulting the Pope. In Holland, a citizen was forced to pay 400 Euros for calling the queen a “cancer whore.”

Spanish laws also mandate two-year prison sentences for defaming the royal self. However, other kingdoms’ constitutions contain similar accusations, but they are rarely implemented, such as the Kingdom of Denmark.

It should be noted that the Indian constitution stipulates a sentence of up to seven years, in addition to a fine, for anyone who “intends or seeks to threaten or insult the President of the Republic in any form.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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