Middle East

Kuwait clamps down on Gulf critics

screen shot of Abo Asam's twitter profile Image copyright other
Image caption Abo Asam is a well known in Kuwait for his satirical tweets

In late January, Kuwaiti satirist Muhammad al-Ajmi was leaving home when his vehicle was surrounded by five cars. He described to the BBC how more than 10 men - some armed - handcuffed and blindfolded him, and bundled him into the back of a car.

Hours later, his family received a phone call telling them that he was being detained by state security.

The 26-year-old has become well-known for his daring satire. He has more than 150,000 followers on Twitter, where he is known by the name of Abo Asam.

His willingness to put the spotlight on political and religious figures has seen him detained on a number of occasions.

This time, the public prosecutor told him his detention was based on a complaint from the Saudi Foreign Ministry about tweets he had posted over the previous three months.

The charges included offending the Saudi royal family and harming the image of human rights in Saudi Arabia.

Image copyright other
Image caption The tweet 'King Abdullah opens a centre for religious dialogue and Saudi Arabia sentences the rights activist Mikhlif al-Shammari to two years in prison and 200 lashes on the charge of contacting other sects' offended the Saudis and led to Abo Asam's recent arrest

Mr Al-Ajmi is not an isolated case. In recent months Kuwait has arrested several people deemed to have made offensive remarks about other Gulf states.

This is being seen as an indication of closer cooperation between Kuwait and its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in matters of state security.

But while the other GCC states take a tough line on domestic critics, Kuwait's Emir recently announced a "zero-tolerance" policy concerning criticism aimed at other countries and their rulers, which are perceived to be harmful to Kuwait's foreign relations.

'Threat to ties'

Rights groups have criticised arrests on similar charges in recent months for what they perceive as the heavy-handed tactics of Kuwaiti state security.

The journalist Hamid Buyabis is currently being detained on a UAE complaint about tweets allegedly insulting the crown prince of Dubai.

The head of the opposition Civil Democratic Movement Tariq al-Mutairi was briefly detained earlier in March at the request of the Saudi Foreign Ministry.

Mr Al-Ajmi has expressed concern that the cases are based on an article of the state security law which carries a life sentence for anyone charged with committing an act exposing Kuwait to the threat of war, or causing it to cut diplomatic ties with another country.

"Do the opinions and words of a person who does not have an official position cause diplomatic ties to be cut?" he has asked.

He also told the BBC: "I don't have a problem with the Saudi authorities lodging a case of slander against me, but my opinions are not a matter of state security, which involves mobilising troops or carrying out or inciting an act of aggression."

The deputy Speaker of Kuwait's National Assembly, Mubarak al-Khrinej, told the BBC that the arrests are in accordance with Kuwaiti domestic law, which prohibits criticism or harmful comments against leaders or officials of other countries.

But he says that he is strongly in favour of the GCC security agreement, at a time when Kuwait and the Gulf are surrounded by regional threats.

Mr Al-Khrinej says Kuwait's freedoms remain "protected and guaranteed for all", but stressed the importance of security above all else: "What is the point of democracy and freedom if you do not have security?"

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