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Muzzle on dissent in Gulf faces backlash in Kuwait

Showdown between the government and opposition continues as Al Barrak remains at large

Image Credit: EPA
epa03663283 Kuwaiti opposition politician Musallam al-Barrak (C) is seen at his home after he was sentenced to five years in jail for insulting the ruler of the oil-rich Gulf state, in Kuwait City, Kuwait, 15 April 2013. The opposition had on 14 April warned of "grave consequences" if al-Barrak, a former member of parliament, was convicted, threatening to hold protest marches and engage in civil disobedience. Al-Barrak's defence team vowed to appeal the verdict, saying that it was "invalid". EPA/STR
Gulf News

Kuwait City: Outside a palm-shaded villa in suburban Kuwait City, government security forces are taunted and defied each night by supporters of a former lawmaker ordered to prison for insulting the emir of this nation.

For decades, Kuwait’s ruling Al Sabah family has allowed the most politically vibrant culture in the Gulf.

Opposition lawmakers have had a powerful forum in parliament, including making calls to investigate alleged government corruption and summoning officials to parliament to be questioned on policies.

Tension, however, spiked late last year after the emir ordered that voting procedures be changed. Opposition groups and others, who claimed the new rules were designed to strengthen pro-establishment candidates, decided to boycott the December 1 parliamentary elections.

It was during a pre-election rally organised by the opposition that former lawmaker, Musallam Al Barrak, lashed out at the emir, saying he was trying to turn the country into an “autocracy.” He complained that the election changes were made by decree rather than after a debate in parliament.

The emir, Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, was selected by the ruling family in 2006 after an internal power struggle following the death of his predecessor.

Al Barrak’s comments led to Monday’s conviction for insulting the emir and his five-year prison sentence.

Al Barrak, however, has refused to go quietly.

Thousands of backers — mainly members of his powerful Mutairi tribe — have gathered each night outside his house and have vowed to protect him with their lives. Just hours after the sentence was issued, Al Barrak stood confidently in front of his admirers and police were unwilling to challenge the crowd and take him into custody.

“This sentence will never stop us from waging our war against corruption,” Al Barrak said. “We will fight tooth and nail until we take back the dignity of our nation.”

Then, one by one, backers read verbatim the speech that led to the charges in a clear show of defiance against the emir and the legal codes.

Al Barrak’s towering reputation among his tribe — some call him the “the conscience of the nation” for his battles with the ruling family — gives him more clout than bloggers and online activists also sentenced on similar charges of offending the emir. His defiance could embolden rights groups and others to rally harder against future cases.

Social media sites have been dominated by the standoff for days.

Parliament member Saleh Ashour wrote on his Twitter account: “To stop things from spinning out of control, please turn yourself in.”

“You created this fate for yourself,” he added. “You have to now face it.”

Abdullah Zaman, an activist and host of a political show, tweeted: “Is what’s taking place today a fight for reform, or a fight for the protection of one person?”

Al Barrak’s supporters were enraged when police broke into his house before dawn on Wednesday to find that he had already slipped away.

Hours before the arrest attempt, police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse crowds of Al Barrak supporters in a breakaway protest march from his villa. Kuwait’s Information Ministry acknowledged that police entered his house, but strongly denied claims that “personnel attacked ladies and children.”

The Interior Ministry issued a strongly worded statement late Thursday warning that “any form of riot, violence, instigating of riots and violence” would meet a “resolute and firm response.”

Al Barrak has played the role of radical before. In 2011, he was a central figure in a political revolt targeting Prime Minister Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah that brought down the government.

He has cultivated an image as a supporter of expanded rights, but he also has favoured strict interpretations of Islam that run counter to Kuwait’s relatively open society. He has joined lawmakers in bringing gender segregation to schools and universities and in a failed bid to allow the death sentence for anyone convicted of insulting Islam.For now, the showdown continues.

“I hope he turns himself in,” said Interior Minister Ahmad Al Humoud Al Sabah. “He should respect the law and surrender, and then appeal the sentence.”

Earlier this week, however, a website of the Information Ministry was hacked with the message: “Freedom to those imprisoned for their opinions.”