Kuwait Arrests Opposition MP for Criticizing Government Two Years Ago

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Al-Akhbar Management

Published Sunday, January 11, 2015

Kuwait authorities arrested a former liberal cabinet minister as he attempted to leave the country Saturday, after being sentenced to a week in jail over an article criticizing the government, his lawyer said.

Saad al-Ajmi, information minister between 1999-2000, was detained at the airport as he was leaving for a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia with his wife and daughter, his lawyer al-Humaidi al-Subaie said on Twitter.

He said Ajmi, a professor at Kuwait University and contributor to several Gulf newspapers, was sentenced Thursday for an article published by the pro-opposition al-Aan electronic newsletter about two years ago about government corruption.

The court also passed the same sentence on writer Zayed al-Zaid, who co-owned al-Aan with Ajmi, on a complaint by Finance Minister Anas al-Saleh, the lawyer said.

There was no immediate report whether Zaid had also been arrested.

The lawyer said the verdicts were issued in absentia and that neither he nor his clients were informed of the case or the ruling.

The verdict was sent for immediate implementation although such a process normally takes several weeks, he added.

Subaie plans to challenge the ruling on Sunday.

In September, Kuwait revoked the citizenship of 18 activists, including Ajmi, spokesman of the nationalist opposition Popular Action Movement, in a political move by the government, which vowed to crackdown on people deemed to be undermining state stability.

The action is not uncommon in Kuwait where people who live without citizenship rights are unable to access services such as healthcare and education.

The news comes after Kuwaiti authorities detained a former liberal opposition lawmaker Saleh al-Mulla for allegedly insulting the Gulf state's emir and criticizing a visit by the Egyptian president.

Mulla was an MP for several years before he boycotted elections in December 2012 in protest at the government's amendment of Kuwait's electoral law.

Mulla has been in detention since then and is due for trial on Sunday.

Moreover, Kuwait's supreme court sentenced last Monday an opposition activist to another 20 months in jail on charges of insulting the ruler and challenging his authority on Twitter, as well as "misusing a cell phone."

The monarchy's courts have handed down prison sentences to several opposition activists and former MPs for social media remarks deemed insulting to the emir.

Prominent opposition leader Musallam al-Barrak is also facing charges of insulting the emir and undermining his status. His lawyers are working on getting him acquitted.

Barrak, a former MP, was accused of making remarks in a speech at an October 2012 opposition rally deemed disrespectful to the emir and questioning his authority.

The lower court sentenced him to five years in jail in 2013 but the verdict was scrapped by the appeals court over flawed legal procedures.

The court set February 22 to issue its verdict.

The monarchy’s constitution describes the emir as "immune and inviolable." Criticizing the emir is therefore illegal and considered a state security offense, with those found guilty faced with up to five years behind bars.

International rights campaigners accuse the Kuwaiti government of restricting the freedom of expression since the eruption of pro-reform protests in 2012, which led to the cabinet's resignation.

According to Human Rights Watch's 2014 world report, Kuwaiti authorities prosecuted in 2013 dozens of people who expressed critical views of the government – via social media or during the protests.

In October, Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at HRW, commented on the crackdown in Kuwait, saying "the Kuwaiti authorities seem to think they can use the cover of the nationality law to target their critics and deter dissent."

"But Kuwait's real message of official intimidation has rung out loud and clear," he said.

"While Kuwait continues to strip people of citizenship for no good reason, its reputation as a tolerant country will continue to nosedive," Houry added.

Kuwait is usually portrayed to have more political freedom than other Gulf Arab states, with a lively press and an elected parliament, but the country has banned public gatherings of more than 20 people without a permit.

Kuwait's Information Ministry has also cancelled the licenses of a local newspaper and a television channel.

Kuwait has seen many opposition-led demonstrations in protest against the changes to the electoral law, which opposition groups claimed allowed the government to influence election results and elect a rubber-stamp assembly.

The Sabah family has ruled Kuwait for over 250 years. The emir, crown prince, prime minister and key cabinet ministers all hail from the ruling family.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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