The Emir of Kuwait has pardoned all those who have been jailed for insulting him, including social media users and youths sentenced to as much as 11 years in jail for their comments.
The Gulf state is believed to have issued prison sentences to dozens of people for insulting Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, following a clampdown on dissent that began in October.
They include the country’s first females to be convicted of such a crime.
In June, 37-year old teacher Huda al-Ajmi was sentenced to a total 11 years in jail for insulting the ruler, inciting regime change and insulting a religious sect via Twitter.
She is believed to be the first woman convicted for criticising the ruler, who is described as "immune and inviolable" in the constitution.
She was on bail awaiting an appeal of her sentence. Women are rarely jailed for political crimes in Kuwait.
At least three youths and several former opposition members and activists also are among the pardoned.
The political trials have drawn criticism from human rights groups and anger at home.
Earlier this month the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Joe Stork said Kuwait was unfairly punishing people who expressed their political opinions.
“The Kuwait authorities over the past year have prosecuted dozens of people for peaceful political statements,” Stork, who is acting in the position, said.
“The government should tolerate this kind of criticism, not persecute people who dare express it.
The tweeters have been charged under a 1970 law that allows for sentences of up to five years in prison for anyone who publicly “objects to the rights and authorities of the Emir or faults him”, according to HRW.
The organisation argues the law violates the free speech protections in international treaties to which Kuwait is a party.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), a body that monitors government compliance with the covenant, has previously said that expressing an opinion that is considered to be insulting to a public figure does not justify criminal penalty.
“All public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition… and laws should not provide for more severe penalties solely on the basis of the identity of the person that may have been impugned,” the UNHRC statement said.
However, the issue is not limited to Kuwait. Scores of people have been jailed for comments deemed offensive to authorities, particularly since the Arab Spring when rulers realised the power of social media as it was used to entice uprisings and make public comments against governments and heads of state.
“Kuwait used to have a better reputation than most other Gulf states in respecting the right to free speech. But with each case... the authorities are lowering themselves to the standards of the rest of the region,” Stork said.
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