Kuwaiti electronic crimes law threatens to further stifle freedom of expression

Press Release
January 11, 2016

Kuwaiti electronic crimes law threatens to further stifle freedom of expression

A new cybercrimes law, which is due to take effect on January 12, 2016, will add a further layer to the web of laws that already restrict the right of people in Kuwait to freedom of expression and must be urgently reviewed, said Amnesty International today.

The law includes criminalization of a range of online expression – in particular, criticism of the government, religious figureheads or foreign leaders. Dozens of people in Kuwait have already been arrested and prosecuted under other legislation for comments of this kind made on social media sites such as Twitter.

“This repressive law is the latest, flawed strand in a tangled web of legislation that is designed to stifle free speech,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program.

“Like anyone else in the world, Kuwaitis have a right to peacefully express their opinion, including by criticizing their own or other governments online without fear of imprisonment.”

The law repeats vaguely worded provisions of flawed laws dating back to 1970 and 2006 which criminalize a range of peaceful expression that could be construed as criticism of government and judicial officials, religious figures or leaders of regional governments. These laws have already been used to restrict peaceful expression in Kuwait.

With the introduction of this new law, people in Kuwait will face up to 10 years’ imprisonment for peacefully expressing their opinions over the internet.

The law addresses actions which, depending on circumstances, could be recognizably criminal acts; such as unauthorized access to an electronic network, the alteration of data, such as by way of forgery, the dissemination of unlawfully accessed information and the use of the internet for trafficking. However, the law mistakenly conflates this type of activity with peaceful expression.

The new legislation also conflicts with international law, which requires the definition of crimes to be clear and precise. It flies in the face of the UN Human Rights Council’s 2014 resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, which called upon states to ensure that they “address security concerns on the Internet in accordance with their international human rights obligations”, including the protection of freedom of expression.

“The Kuwaiti authorities must not apply this law until they have reviewed its compatibility with Kuwait’s international human rights obligations,” said Boumedouha.

“This law does not belong to the 21st century. In spirit and indeed, in letter, it is a retrograde piece of legislation that merely draws upon earlier, repressive laws. Kuwaitis deserve better.”

In December 2015, Amnesty International urged the government to revise all laws relating to freedom of expression, whether in speech, print or by electronic means, and to bring them in line with international human rights law and standards.

Amnesty International set out its concerns and recommendations relating to freedom of peaceful expression in Kuwait in its December 2015 report, The Iron Fist Policy: Criminalization of Peaceful Dissent in Kuwait.

Journalist and prisoner of conscience Ayad Khaled al-Harbi, 26, has been in prison since October 2014 in connection with, among other things, tweets deemed critical of Kuwait’s Amir and government and echoing the words of prominent government critic, Musallam al-Barrak, as well as verses of poetry criticizing Arab rulers.

Blogger Hamad al-Naqi is currently serving a 10-year prison term for posting comments on Twitter that were considered critical of the leaders of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and other messages deemed “insulting” to Islam. He is a prisoner of conscience.

Prisoner of conscience, Abdullah Fairouz, a human rights defender and political activist, is serving a five-year jail term because he posted tweets saying that those who lived in royal palaces should not be immune from prosecution.

On July 28, 2014, lawyer Khaled al-Shatti tweeted a thinly veiled condemnation of members of the armed group calling itself Islamic State. He was sentenced to one year in prison with immediate implementation by a Misdemeanors Court on December 17 for insult to religion. However, the appeals court halted the implementation of this sentence until it issued its verdict. If Khaled al-Shatti is jailed, he will be a prisoner conscience.