Conflict & Justice

Kuwaiti activists arrested and sentenced for tweeting


Kuwaiti opposition supporters block a major road in Kuwait City on November 30, 2012, during a demonstration against a decision by Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah to amend the electoral law. The regime has been harsher on activists lately, and has begun jailing outspoken Twitter users and internet activists.



Two men have been jailed in Kuwait for insulting the Emir on Twitter, say human rights workers on the ground. On Monday, the country's lower court sentenced Ayyad al-Harbi to two years in prison, the second such ruling in as many days. 

Al-Harbi, who Al Jazeera reports has over 13,000 Twitter followers, criticized the regime. The historically peaceful Gulf country has lately been cracking down on dissent, especially on social media sites and blogs.

Al-Harbi, a journalist, was arrested in October for slander and spreading false news, shortly after protests sprung up against the Emir's emergency shift in voting laws. 

Another man, Rashid Saleh al-Anzi, was also sentenced to two years prison time on Sunday, according to Reuters, also for tweets sent in October.

Both men will appeal their sentences, their lawyers said to Reuters. 

"We've been taken by surprise because Kuwait has always been known internationally and in the Arab world as a democracy-loving country," said al-Harbi's lawyer, Mohammed al-Humidi. "People are used to democracy, but suddenly we see the constitution being undermined." 

Criticism of the Emir or the government of Kuwait is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. And although its rare, this isn't the first time outspoken social media users have seen time behind bars. 

In June 2011, popular Twitter user Nasser Abul was sentenced to ten years in prison after allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed, as well as the leaders of both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on Twitter.

More from GlobalPost: Ayyad al-Harbi, Kuwaiti journalist, gets two years in prison for Twitter comment

He was the first person arrested for tweets in Kuwait, and the subsequent controversy even had members of parliament tweeting that the arrest was a "flagrant violation of freedom of expression." Abul was released in September after an international outcry by human rights groups. 

Al Jazeera reports that even members of the ruling family aren't safe from persecution over voicing opinions online.

"Authorities detained Sheikh Meshaal al-Malik Al Sabah, a member of the ruling family, over remarks on Twitter in which he accused authorities of corruption and called for political reform," rights activists said after his arrest in July 2012.

The US State Department is concerned about Kuwait's foray into censorship, and spokesperson Victoria Nuland spoke to reporters yesterday about the arrests and trials in Kuwait.

"We call on the government of Kuwait to adhere to its tradition of respect for freedom of assembly, association and expression," Nuland said. "You know how strongly we feel about locking people up for their use of Twitter," she added, according to Al Arabiya

Kuwait is a historically open society, with lax speech laws, compared to its neighbors. Freedom House's annual Freedom of the Press report listed Kuwait as "Partly Free," the only Gulf country that isn't listed as "Not Free." 

The country is also home to a significant number of American troops and a hefty portion of the world's oil reserves.