In the last two days, Kuwaiti courts have issued back-to-back 2-year jail sentences to Twitter users for allegedly insulting Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah. The first verdict was issued on Sunday against 26-year old Rashid Saleh al-Anzi over a Tweet he made to his 5,700 followers in October, that the court said, “stabbed the rights and powers” of the Emir. Al-Anzi has been sentenced to two years in prison and is expected to appeal.
The second verdict, issued on Monday, handed an identical 2-year jail sentence to Internet activist Ayyad al-Harbi, who has over 13,000 followers on Twitter, two months after his arrest and subsequent release on bail. Al-Harbi’s lawyer, Mohammed al-Humidi, has stated his intention to file an appeal. "We've been taken by surprise because Kuwait has always been known internationally and in the Arab world as a democracy-loving country," Humidi told Reuters. "People are used to democracy, but suddenly we see the constitution being undermined."
In both cases, it is worth noting, the sentencing was based on the individual's perceived intent to insult the Emir, rather than actual insults directed at him. On Twitter, users are showing their solidarity with the two activists using the #insulttheemir hashtag.
These two sentences caught the attention of the U.S. State Department, which has announced that they’ve raised the issue with the Kuwaiti government urged them to respect freedom of speech. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said:
“We call on the government of Kuwait to adhere to its tradition of respect for freedom of assembly, association, and expression…You know how strongly we feel about locking people up for their use of Twitter.”
The sentences are part of a broader crackdown on Kuwaiti citizens who use social media to criticize the government and the ruling family. The Kuwaiti government began to lay the regulatory groundwork for tighter controls on social media in May of last year, when Information Minister, Minister Sheikh Mohammad al-Mubarak Al-Sabah announced plans to pass a set of new laws in order to “safeguard the cohesiveness of the population and society.” In June 2012, a man was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he was convicted of endangering state security by insulting the Prophet Mohammad and the Sunni Muslim rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on social media. Last August, authorities detained Sheikh Meshaal al-Malik Al Sabah, a member of the ruling family, over remarks on Twitter in which he accused authorities of corruption and called for political reform.
Kuwait enjoys a reputation as one of the more liberal Gulf states, where public protest about local issues is tolerated by the government and the ruling family. In neighboring Bahrain, the government took the remarkable step of in November of last year. In the same week, a civil court sentenced an online activist to a six-month prison term on charges of insulting the King in a Twitter post, and several Twitter users have been arrested since, including Said Yousif al-Muhafda, head of documentation for the Bahrain Center of Human Rights, and four men in their twenties who were arrested in October 2012.
EFF is deeply concerned to see Kuwait joining in on the growing trend of governments prosecuting their citizens for criticizing leaders over social media. The conviction and 2-year sentences handed to al-Harbi and al-Anzi are a clear violation of their rights to freedom of expression. We look forward their appeals and we will continue to follow the situation closely as it develops.