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Kuwait: Room for free speech dwindles

Address Rights of Stateless Residents
February 4, 2014

(Kuwait City) – Kuwait’s government should amend national laws that officials are using to crack down on free speech, Human Rights Watch said today in connection with the release of its World Report 2014. The government should also follow through on promises to comprehensively address citizenship claims of stateless residents, known as Bidun.

Over the past year, officials have escalated prosecution of people critical of the government. In 2013 the authorities brought cases against at least 29 people who expressed critical views on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other social media platforms, and at protests. Human Rights Watch knows of nine cases in 2012.

“Kuwaiti authorities have come down hard on free speech over the past year,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The government should let Kuwait’s people speak and write freely, and keep its promises to address Bidun citizenship claims.”

In the 667-page world report, its 24th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. Syria’s widespread killings of civilians elicited horror but few steps by world leaders to stop it, Human Rights Watch said. A reinvigorated doctrine of “responsibility to protect” seems to have prevented some mass atrocities in Africa. Majorities in power in Egypt and other countries have suppressed dissent and minority rights. And Edward Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance programs reverberated around the globe.

Prosecutors brought most of the speech cases under the vaguely worded article 25 of Kuwait’s 1970 penal code, which prescribes up to five years in prison for anyone who publicly “objects to the rights and authorities of the emir or faults him.” Prosecutors have also used the vaguely worded article 111, with sentences of up to one year for anyone who “mocks God, the prophets and messengers, or the honor of his messengers and their wives.”

In July, during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, the Kuwaiti ruler, Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber Al Sabah, pardoned all those jailed under article 25. However, the authorities subsequently brought charges against at least three more people, indicating that government policy hasn’t changed. In October, the court upheld a 10-year sentence on multiple counts in one such case.

In 2013, stateless people held numerous demonstrations to demand citizenship. The Interior Ministry violently dispersed several protests, with Security forces beating and detained protesters and threatening to deny citizenship applications. Article 12 of the 1979 Public Gatherings Law bars non-Kuwaitis from participating in public gatherings.

Kuwait is home to at least 105,702 Bidun, many descended from nomadic people who failed to register for citizenship before a 1960 deadline. Successive administrative committees for decades have avoided resolving their citizenship claims. In March 2011, the government granted Bidun some benefits and services, but some Bidun told Human Rights Watch in 2013 of administrative hurdles to accessing these benefits.

In March, the parliament passed a law to naturalize 4,000 “foreigners” by the end of the year, but as of November, no Bidun had been naturalized.

Migrant workers make up 2 million of Kuwait’s population of 2.9 million. In March, the government announced that it would reduce the number of expatriate workers by 100,000 every year for 10 years, to halve the number of foreign workers. Kuwait has adopted mechanisms facilitating quick, non-judicial deportations, including following a migrant’s first major traffic violation.

After not using the death penalty since 2007, Kuwait executed five prisoners during 2013.

ENDS

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