The Middle East director of Human Rights Watch has criticised the ongoing jail sentences for Twitter users in Kuwait.
Joe Stork said in a post published on the international human rights group’s website on Sunday that the Gulf state was unfairly punishing people who made political statements.
“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 government should drop charges against those accused or convicted of crimes solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and it should amend Kuwait’s criminal code to remove the crime of ‘offending the emir’.”
Last week a Kuwaiti appeal court upheld a 20-month prison sentence for female teacher Sara al-Drees, 26, charged with offending the Emir in four comments posted on Twitter.
She is free on bail awaiting the outcome of a further appeal to the country’s highest court.
Ironically, according to HRW, the fourth tweet that offended the authorities said: “This is sort of making fool of the people and treating them with disregard, as if they are all stupid and should not oppose the government. Hear and obey even if you were oppressed in broad daylight. The people are insulted throughout their own law.”
On June 10, Huda al-Ajmi, a 37-year-old teacher, became the first female to be charged in relation to comments posted online.
She was sentenced to 11 years – the longest sentence given to someone with similar charges – including five years for offending the emir.
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.
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights permits restrictions on speech to protect the reputations of others or to protect national security, but only for a narrow purpose that is strictly necessary, it said.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, 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.
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 like this, the authorities are lowering themselves to the standards of the rest of the region,” Stork said.