Protests Erupt in Kuwait Following Detention of Former MPs

Protests erupted in Kuwait on Tuesday following a court verdict in which three former MPs – Falah al-Sawwagh, Bader al-Dahoun, and Khaled al-Tahous, were sentenced to three years of hard labor for allegedly insulting the Emir at rallies opposing changes to the electoral law last year. Despite being convicted, the three MPs are not yet in custody, and in fact they attended opposition rallies. On Monday a Twitter user was jailed for five years for insulting the Emir. The verdicts are not final and are subject to appeal, and at the rallies protesters marched from the home of Sawwagh to Tahus. At the rally, former MP Musallam al-Barrak, who is facing charges similar to those faced by the three former MPs who were convicted of insulting the Emir called the verdict political and said that the opposition would have a meeting to strategize that would be held on Wednesday. Barrak said that protests would be held very day in various areas throughout Kuwait. Perhaps in a sign of things to come, Falah ben Jami, the leader of the Awazem, who are the largest Bedouin tribe in Kuwait, appared at the rally and warned that the political situation in Kuwait would deteriorate like it did in Yemen, Egypt, and Tunisia.

The regime appears to be responding to criticism by defending its actions as consistent with upholding the constitution of Kuwait. The Ministry of Information’s comments on the recent convictions present the arrests of critics of the regime as almost a constitution obligation, as though there was nothing that motivated these arrests other than a desire to defend the constitution, which happens to define the Emir’s position is inviolable. In fact, they issued a statement saying that citizens could change the constitution if they sought to do so, presenting the issue as one of constitutionalism – which would, if one ignores the measures that the regime has taken recently, including the Emir’s electoral decree changing the entire voting system – be a plausible argument, though in fact the arrests were clearly political. It was part of a growing campaign by the regime to clamp down on dissent and erode what was once the Gulf’s most open political culture.

It is important to recognize that the law under which the three former MPs were arrested – which prohibits criticism of the Emir – is not only bad policy on a philosophical sense but also in a practical sense. In Tunisia, they decided not to include a clause prohibiting blasphemy in the constitution on practical grounds – in the words of the speaker of the constituent assembly, there would not be a blasphemy clause “not because we have agreed to (allow) attacks on the sacred, but because the sacred is something very, very difficult to define.” Insulting someone’s religious beliefs is much more serious than insulting a country’s ruler, but the same principle outlined by the Tunisian Constituent Assembly Speaker applies – the problem is not just that the Emir’s position is considered to be inviolable, thus making criticism illegal, but also that the definition of criticism itself is difficult to define, and open to political manipulation.

Just as in Tunisia, where they did not include a blasphemy clause due to concerns that politicians might one day accuse those disagreeing with them of blasphemy, there is the potential that prohibiting criticism of the Emir permits those who are opposed to political reform to define criticism in their own terms, and for them to argue that any objection to actions taken by the Emir – including the electoral decree – are in violation of the constitution. The opposition MPs defined their speeches not as criticism but rather as advice. Repealing the provision in the constitution prohibiting criticism of the Emir is right not just in terms of free speech but also because it would deprive the regime of one of the tools it uses to harass anyone who criticises its decisions and policies.

Update 1: Kuwaiti Government Takes Action Against Mohammad Abdul Qader al-Jasem

Update: We have included an English translation of al-Jasem’s blog post below.

In a recent blog post, Mohammad Abdul Qader al-Jasem urged that Saudi Arabia and the UAE stay out of Kuwait’s internal affairs, and warned that protests in Kuwait could spread to those other countries as well. It is important to recall that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE dispatched forces to participate in cracking down on protests in Bahrain. The Foreign Ministry responded by threatening legal action against him, and he was banned from entering either the UAE or Saudi Arabia. This is not the first time that he has had problems with the authorities, as he has been detained before and was most recently released last year. He is also serving as the attorney for Musallam al-Barrak, the former MP who was jailed for urging the Emir not to be autocratic, and at the end of the post he urges that Barrack be freed. We have translated his blog post into English (the original post in Arabic can be found here), and it is included below:

A letter to a king and a Sheikh

Custodian of the two holy mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz
Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed AlNahyan

Peace be upon you, and God’s mercy and blessings,

I never imagined that I would talk to you through this website, so I am here to talk about what comes to mind when I think about Kuwait’s affairs. I am writing with complete freedom and I am saying what my mind and love of my country guide me to. However, these days Kuwait is reluctant because the government is trying to get rid of the relative freedom that we enjoy. It is also reluctant that your acceptance is under the influence that you are convinced that the atmosphere of political freedom in Kuwait threatens the political stability in the Gulf Cooperation Council and that it is inevitably limiting the freedom of an Arabian spring breeze.

This indifferent news is entirely accurate and could be the opposite. However, in any case, I wanted to draw your attention to an issue I believe is very important to us in Kuwait and to you in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as it is in the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

50 years passed on the “Democracy” of Kuwait, but with that, this democracy didn’t move to your cities; perhaps there were flaws with our parliamentary practices, flaws that made our democracy not subject to exportation. However, I would like to turn your attention to what is occurring in Kuwait today, such as “movements for change” which have expanded into traditional political movements and huge protests. The people have demolished all barriers to expression of opinion, and in the beginning, the government was using power and arresting people who opposed. This method may appeal to you, and perhaps for this reason, it was said that you encouraged moving forward in this new policy. This is why I found it important to point out to you that if Kuwaiti democracy has failed to move to your countries during the past five decades, the movement of change, the protests, the marches, and the demonstrations will be a lot easier and quicker. The sessions of the National Assembly of Kuwait and the Kuwaiti press is no longer alluring for follow up in the Gulf Cooperation Council; the demonstrations and protests will inevitably receive intensive follow up in the Gulf, and this will help speed up the process of transmission.

Custodian of the two holy mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz
Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed AlNahyan:

  • We in Kuwait are not in a feud with the family of Al Sabah at all. We are working, however, to preserve our rights as a people and our national wealth and dignity. Not one of us wants to bring down the regime; the change we seek is no more than constitutional. We do not have a “phobia” of our Muslim brotherhoods and tribes.
  • We in Kuwait believe that the nation is the source of authority, neither the state nor the princes.
  • We in Kuwait believe that the national wealth belongs to the people not to the king, the state, or the princes.
  • We in Kuwait believe that our ruler is just the head of state who is exercising his powers in accordance with the constitution, not a guardian ruling in the name of religion.
  • We in Kuwait believe that freedom is the value of humanity that cannot be seized by a Sheikh or a prince.
  • We in Kuwait do not accept oppression.
  • We in Kuwait do not believe in the theory of “Al-Seif w Al-Mansaf.”
  • We in Kuwait love our elders, even if we disagree with them.
  • And I don’t think that the convictions of the Saudi people or the people of the United Arab Emirates are different than previous.

In conclusion, I tell you with all love and appreciation that the demonstrations and protests do not need fifty years to spread; they might spread within weeks, and with God as our leader and guider to goodness and righteousness.

Freedom to Mussallam Al-Burrak, Freedom to Mussallam Al-Burrak, Freedom to Mussallam Al-Burrak, Freedom to Mussallam Al-Burrak!

10/30/2012

The Foreign Ministry of Kuwait responded to al-Jasem’s blog post by releasing the following statement, which was posted here in Arabic on on the website of the state news agency, KUNA. In their response they accused him of interference in the affairs of the UAE and Saudi Arabia as well as threatening Kuwait’s relations with those countries, and threatened that action would be taken against him. The statement is as follows (we translated it from the original Arabic):

Statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kuwait

Kuwait 10-30 (Kona) An insider in the ministry of foreign affairs made a statement last night saying that the ministry was extremely disappointed in the announcement that was posted online by the writer Mohammad Abdelqader Al-Jasem, who, through the internet wrote a letter directed towards the custodian of the two holy mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz (may God protect him) and to the crowned prince of Abu Dhabi, deputy supreme commander of the armed forces in the United Arab Emirates , his highness, Alsheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed AlNahyan (may God protect him.)

The ministry confirms its refusal and full rejection of the letter because it represents a misuse and prejudice of brotherly relations, both historically and fatefully in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The statement also represents the bypassing of the constants in these fraternal relations as well as showing unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of the brothers.

The source adds that the Kuwait also disagrees with what was said in the letter and at the same time it represents the serious damage of awareness in the country.

The source concluded by saying that the ministry will be taking the necessary measures with the concerned parties for what was said in the letter in order to keep their relations with their brothers.