Musallam al-Barrack Defies Regime at Appeals Court

Musallam al-Barrack, in a potent display of his political power, was able to attend a court hearing today and avoid arrest after being granted bail on KD5000. At the court hearing, the Judge was faced with barrack’s supporters who marched on the Palace of Justice with him, as well as 35 lawyers who showed up to defend him. In the end, the judge granted bail and adjourned the trial until May 13.

Barrack is walking a fine line – in court he denied that his speech insulted the Emir, but also said that if he had another chance he would say the same thing again. His lawyer, Mohammad al-Jassem said that sending him to prison would threaten his life, and sought more time to prepare a defense along with Barrack’s other attorneys. Al-Jassem is himself an activist who has been the target of attacks and legal action by the regime, including a few months ago when he urged other Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and the UAE to stay out of Kuwait’s internal affairs in an open letter posted on his blog.

To this point, Barrack has been successful in his defiance of the regime to the extent that he has been able to avoid being arrested on several attepts, including two where he refused to surrender on procedural grounds and once where he avoided arrest when his home was raided. After that raid he returned to his diwaniyya later amid cheering crowds that included tribesmen who were firing automatic weapons into the air in cheering him on. Amid this atmosphere the court hearing today was destined to be a showdown. Perhaps the regime hoped that Barrack would avoid attending the hearing and that an arrest warrant could be issued, but if this was the course of action that they sought he outmanuvered them by showing up and pressuring the judge to release him.

However, it is important to recognize that Barrack has defied the regime and to this extent succeeded because he has put them in a difficult position and has a great degree of international and local support. However, in a certain sense the fact that he has been able to escape arrest at this point is a sign of the breakdown of the judiciary’s independence. The regime has until this point allowed Barrack to escape arrest, but the numerous Twitter users who have been arrested and sentenced to similar sentences have not been so lucky. It is important that every case, in addition to Barrack’s receives the same degree of attention so that these violations of the protections guaranteed in Kuwait’s constitution by the regime will be prevented from continuing.

The Kuwaiti Government’s Hypocritical Foreign Policy

A look at the website of KUNA, the Kuwaiti state news agency, includes many articles about Kuwait’s support for human rights and international institutions – though given the recent actions of the government, this does not appear to extend to Kuwait itself. These articles are an example of the government appearing to support reform and democratization while stalling and attempting to clamp down on dissent in Kuwait.

The government of Kuwait has urged that Sri Lanka take additional steps to improve its human rights record. Human rights in Sri Lanka is indeed a serious issue, as the country has only recently emerged from a civil war and the current government has frequently faced criticism over its human rights record. Indeed, the candidate who President Rajapska defeated in 2010, Retired General Sareth Fonseka, was recently released from prison in July after being prosecuted following the election – allegedly for corruption. This is an important issue that should be addressed, but is supporting human rights in Sri Lanka while arresting members of the royal family who tweeted in favor of the opposition, and also arresting Musallam Al-Barrack for mildly criticizing the Emir, and going after Mohammad Abdul Qader al-Jasem for a blog post urging Saudi Arabia and the UAE to stay out of Kuwait’s affairs.

The Kuwaiti Ambassador to Bahrain met with the Deputy Prime Minister of Bahrain to discuss relations between the two countries – it is worth noting that both of them clamped down on dissent when faced with protests. Meanwhile, at the United Nations, Kuwait urged nations to strengthen support for UN peacekeeping efforts. Perhaps they view these peacekeeping operations as being in line with the involvement of Jordan in the crackdown on demonstrations. Kuwait also urged Japan to ratify the UN Convention on Handicapped Rights and to improve the treatment of the disabled within their society. There’s more – the Ministry of Information has announced it is participating in the Sharjah Book Fair, at an event where, according to Kuna, readers expressed interest in Kuwait’s political system.

What all this adds up to is a government that is focusing on improving its image elsewhere in the world while ignoring the situation at home. They are trying to improve their image (clumsily) while doing little to nothing in the way of real reform. This is why the opposition is set to boycott the December 1st elections, and why next Sunday we may see a rally the likes of which has not been seen in the history of modern Kuwait.

Protests in Kuwait Come Closer to Boiling Point

More protests are scheduled in Kuwait for this Sunday, November 11th, following protests last Sunday that were repressed by security forces with stun grenades and tear gas. The choice of November 11th is pointed – it is the anniversary of Kuwait’s constitution, which has recently been threatened by the actions of the Emir and his government. This Sunday’s protest is a joint rally that will take place at Erada Square, which is opposite parliament, and is a designated area for protests. Recently many protests have spread beyond Erada Square, giving the authorities a pretext to crack down on them.

These protests come as the Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, seems to still be out of touch with the demands of the people. He said that the constitutional court might be called upon to decide the fate of his recent decree that reduced the number of votes that Kuwaiti citizens have from four to one for the elections that are scheduled to be held on December 1st.

The opposition’s movement to boycott these elections has been gaining momentum recently, as evidenced by the fact that an account created by Mohammad Qasem, founder of the Public Committee for the Election Boycott gained 20,000 Twitter followers within 24 hours of its creation.

The Emir claimed that he keeps an equal distance between supporters and opponents, and would abide by any decision by the constitutional court regarding his decree on the electoral process. However, this sidesteps a very important issue – why is it that that Emir, simply by issuing a decree, was able to rearrange the entire process of selecting members of the National Assembly in a way that might more probably be favorable to his supporters? Also, how can he keep his distance from both sides at a time when he has vowed to crack down on demonstrations which he referred to as “chaotic rallies.”

There have been more ominous developments in Kuwait recently, a country which for a long time was considered more open than its neighbors in the Gulf. The Interior Ministry stated that it would seek to crack down on social media to “safeguard the cohesiveness of the population and society.” Also, recently-freed former MP Musallam al-Barrack confirmed Jordanian involvement in the crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators.

As of now the protests have remained moderate and few have called for the fall of the regime. However, if the government continues its repression and ignores the demands of the people it is questionable how long this will remain the case. It seems that the Kuwaiti government is, much like the Jordanian government, making pledges of reform while continuing with more of the same unaccountable government and manipulated elections for legislative bodies that remain relatively powerless.

Update 1: Turmoil in Kuwait?

Update: Mohammad Abdul Qader al-Jassem, the attorney for opposition leader and former MP Musallam al-Barrak, who is discussed below, was condemned by the Foreign Ministry of Kuwait in a statement. The foreign ministry said that it would be taking action against him. Al-Jassem has been detained multiple times, and was most recently released from detention in 2011.

In two days, on November 4th the Kuwaiti opposition plans rallies to protest recent changes in the election law for the upcoming parliamentary elections on December 1st (which the opposition has vowed to boycott). The government has responded by taking steps to repress protests and criminalize dissent. These include arresting prominent leaders of the opposition, such as former MP Musallam al-Barrak, who was recently arrested on bail, as well as imposing restrictions that prohibit more than twenty people from gathering at any one time.

It’s sad that Kuwait has come to this. While never perfect, the country was – until the recent political crisis – in many ways more open than some of its neighbors. It had the first real parliament of any state in the Gulf region, a fifty member National Assembly that has not hesitated to criticize the government when its members saw fit, despite the continued prohibition of formal political parties. Even as the al-Sabah family has dominated the executive branch (and the constitution prohibits criticism of the Emir) parliament has not hesitated to assert itself, particularly in recent years. Indeed the genesis of the current political crisis stems from the growing willingness of parliament to assert itself and to question ministers.

The current Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, was heavily involved in running the country’s affairs since he became Prime Minister in 2003, and subsequently assumed the throne in January 2006 amidst a succession crisis. Since assuming the throne, the emir has dissolved parliament four times, resulting in elections most recently in February 2012, and an upcoming election on December 1st. The four most recent elections, including the upcoming one, were all triggered by the refusal by the government to be held accountable.

The current political crisis started when a scandal emerged regarding payments to 16 out of 50 members of the National Assembly in return for supporting government policies. In November 2011, the parliament sought to question the then-Prime Minister, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah (a relative of the Emir) regarding the scandal, but the Constitutional Court blocked this, leading on November 16th to the occupation of parliament by protesters, including opposition members of the national assembly.

Following this, the Prime Minister resigned and was replaced by another member of the al-Sabah family, Jaber al-Mubarak al-Hamad al-Sabah, and parliament was dissolved and elections were held in February 2012, in which Islamists won 34 out of 50 seats. Following a period of tension between the new parliament and the government as the new parliament sought to assert its authority, the constitutional court ruled in June that the parliament should be dissolved and the previous parliament reinstated. Subsequently, members of the reinstated parliament boycotted its sessions and the Emir ordered another dissolution in October with elections held in December. The election is scheduled to go forward but the opposition is vowing to boycott.

A major source of tension is the recent attempt by the government to reverse changes to the electoral law that were made in 2006, which divided the country into five constituencies and gave citizens four votes. The government wanted to return to a one-vote per constituency system but this was blocked by the constitutional court. The opposition remains committed to boycotting the election and protests have recently accelerated, with the government responding by attempting to clamp down on dissent.
Recently the government has used teargas against peaceful protesters, banned gatherings of more than 20 people, and arrested leading figures of the opposition such as Musallam al-Barrack, who was recently released on bail after being arrested for urging the Emir not to rule autocratically.

Perhaps it is a sign of the government’s attitude that al-Barrack’s lawyer, Mohammad Abdul Qader al-Jasem (also an opposition activist), was recently criticized by the Foreign Ministry for “unacceptable interference.” The ministry said it was considering legal action against him. Meanwhile, al-Jassem was banned (along with his immediate family) from entering the UAE or Saudi Arabia. What was al-Jassem’s crime? He wrote a column saying that Saudi Arabia and the UAE needed to stay out of Kuwait’s internal affairs.