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Thu 11 Apr 2013 08:39 AM

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Kuwaitis rally against arrests, call for reform

Hundreds of protesters demonstrate outside country's main court complex

Kuwaitis rally against arrests, call for reform
(AFP/Getty Images - for illustrative purposes only)

Hundreds of Kuwaitis held an opposition rally outside the country's main court complex late on Wednesday, calling for the release of activists charged with insulting the Gulf Arab state's ruler and for steps towards political reform.

Major oil producer Kuwait has avoided the kind of severe unrest that has rocked the Arab region over the past two years but demonstrations about local issues are common and generally tolerated.

People sat on chairs set out in front of a stage in a park and listened to speeches from activists. Police gathered outside the entrance to the court complex but kept their distance from the rally, which was peaceful.

Several people wore orange items of clothing, a mark of a protest movement that peaked towards the end of last year with a march of tens of thousands on the eve of a parliamentary election. Protests have dwindled significantly since then.

"We are looking for our rights, for our right to freedom of speech, the freedom to express your opinion," participant Ghalia al-Ajmi said. She said the rally was part of a series of gatherings aimed at educating people on such topics.

Rights groups say at least 25 people have been charged with offending Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, mainly on social media websites such as Twitter.

Several have already been sentenced to jail terms of up to five years and some of those under arrest have been housed in the court complex, known as the Justice Palace.

"We are here because we are looking to repair the electoral system. We are looking for a fully elected government," participant Nasser al-Osami said at the start of the gathering.

Many of the arrests came after a series of street protests and online debate last year over changes to an electoral law passed by the emir, who is described as "immune and inviolable" in the constitution and shielded from public criticism by the penal code.

The emir said the old voting system was flawed and that his changes were necessary for security and stability. Opposition lawmakers said the changes, made six weeks before the election, would limit their prospects and boycotted the vote.

Kuwaiti government officials say they free speech is enshrined in the constitution, but that the state must enforce the law. The country allows more freedom of expression than other Gulf Arab states.

Local media reported this week that the government has drafted a new media law which would make remarks offensive to the emir and senior ruling family members punishable by fines of up to KD300,000 ($1m). This would include comments made on social media sites as well as in traditional media, daily al-Qabas reported.

The government has not disclosed details of the draft law, which would still need parliamentary approval, but the Information Minister has said it is not meant to stifle freedom of expression, according to the state news agency KUNA.

"The law aims to maintain the stability of Kuwait's friendly ties with countries around the globe, it will add value to the media," KUNA quoted Sheikh Salman al-Sabah as saying on Tuesday.