By Molly Hofsommer
Human Rights Defenders Program
Last week Kuwait’s Court of Appeals upheld the 10-year prison sentence of blogger Hamad al Naqi, 26, for comments considered offensive to Islam and the monarchies of neighboring Gulf States Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Al Naqi, a Shia Muslim, was originally convicted in June 2012 for violations of article 15 of the National Security Law for “intentionally broadcasting news, statements, or false or malicious rumors…that harm the national interests of the state” and for defaming religion. Al Naqi claims that his Twitter accounts were hacked during the time the offensive messages were published, between February and March 2012.
Kuwait has a poor record on freedom of expression. Since protests in the region in early 2011, and in response to growing sectarian tensions between the Sunni majority and Shia minority, Kuwait has cracked down on social media activism, jailing Tweeters and activists who insult the Kuwaiti Emir or make perceived anti-regime statements on social media. Lawrence al Rasheed was sentenced to ten years for insulting the Emir in a poem. Mohamed el Melify was sentenced to seven years in prison for spreading false statements via Twitter. Activist Rashid Saleh al Anzi was sentenced to two years in prison for a Tweet that “stabbed the rights and powers of the Emir.”
Al Naqi’s conviction includes punishment for criticizing leaders of neighboring Gulf States. A similar case arose in 2010 when political activist Nasser Abul was charged with criticizing leaders of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and threatening state security on his personal Twitter feed. Abul was acquitted of the state security charges but served 111 days in prison for contempt of religion.
Al Naqi’s conviction shows that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is harmonizing security policies among member states. With Gulf nations fearing political challenges inspired by the Arab spring, GCC governments have conflated “national security” with “regime security” and in the process stifled the civil rights of its citizens. This growing cooperation was also seen when Saudi Arabia lead a Gulf military force in 2011 to help quash Bahrain¹s pro-democracy protests.
The U.N. Human Rights Committee has spoken out against anti-blasphemy laws and restrictions on criticisms of governments, such as those enacted in Kuwait, calling them incompatible with international norms and emphasizing that free expression is essential for the protection of human rights. The Committee has also stated that laws against defamation of public officials and heads of State “should not provide for more severe penalties solely on the basis of the identity of the person that may have been impugned.”
The U.S. State Department has also commented on this week’s court ruling. “We believe that when speech, including online speech, is deemed offensive, the issue is best addressed through open dialogue and honest debate. We will continue to promote such dialogue and debate around the world, including in Kuwait and other countries” said a State Department spokesperson. The State Department should continue to speak out whenever these grave abuses of human rights occur, and encourage Gulf states to respect freedom of expression and freedom of religion.