On Tuesday 16 February, Kuwaitis active on social media platforms were quick to raise their voices in outrage, calling for the release of a citizen who was sentenced to 10 years in prison – three of which she has already spent behind bars. This came following tweets that were deemed offensive to the country's top leaders.
The “@q8Feminists” (or ‘Kuwaiti Feminists’) – a Twitter account followed by about two thousand people – was the first to introduce the call by launching the hashtag #Freedom_For_Ibtihal_Shalal_Anzi in the early hours of Tuesday, February the 16th, quickly topping the list of trending topics in the country.
Alongside the hashtag, Twitter users circulated tweets dating back to 2016, from the account of “Ibtihal alshallal” (@alshallal_i). The account contains harsh criticism of officials and authority figures in Kuwait, especially the late Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, as well as heads of government and security institutions. In one of the tweets dated January 28th, 2016, the account owner described the late Emir as a “prince of shadows” or the “prince of the astray” and his rule as “corrupt”.
Raseef22 was not able to separately verify the allegations, but it was noted that the last tweet on the account dates back to the 29th of the same month. It states: “In the nation of institutions, oh you and him, I write my opinion, which does not bind anyone but me, and only through it, my affiliation is determined! Do not raise its significance, may God condemn you!” This tweet could be considered a response to the incitement of citizens for authorities to take action against the account user following her criticism.
Kuwaiti and Arab tweeters pledged their full solidarity with Ibtihal against the “unreasonable” ruling made “because of one word”. Some considered this ruling as “very frightening” and alarming for a society “built on free expression”.
Some of Kuwait’s prominent and famous figures also tweeted the hashtag. Lawyer and former member of the National Assembly of Kuwait Abdul Hamid Dashti took part in the nationwide plea and stated through his verified account: “A Kuwaiti woman has been sentenced for 10 years because of tweets, and she has served three of them so far. Leave your humanity and religion aside, at least have some chivalry! This is a lady.”
"Premeditated murder is a crime, and tweeting is a crime?"... Kuwaitis call for #FreedomForIbtihalShalalAnzi, sentenced to 10 years in prison for tweets describing the late Emir, as a "Prince of Darkness" and his rule as "corrupt"
He went on to add in another tweet: “The nation of institutions, humanity, and democracy; the nation of liberties and free expression of opinion; the nation of fair judiciary, and, and etc... But if you utter a letter or say a word [opposing it], you will be sentenced to 73 years of imprisonment and will be made homeless!”
As for the Kuwaiti writer Saud Alasfoor, he said: “No to imprisonment because of a word... Whatever this word may be and whoever had said it. #Freedom_For_Ibtihal_Shalal_Anzi and the rest of those in prison because of a tweet or statement.”
Many rejected how some are touching upon the reason for the harsh sentence, considering that no act would justify imprisoning a person for all these years just because of an opinion. They also stressed that prisons should be for “murderers, criminals, rapists and harassers”, and not for those stating their opinions.
Abdulrahman tweeted: “Ten years of imprisonment because of an opinion. Do not ask about the reason! Ask yourself, is it normal to justify imprisonment for those stating their opinions? Is it normal to justify killing and raping women? Is it normal to justify the extermination of the Bedouins in the nation of humanitarianism? Please tweet in defense of the essence of humanity, not in defense of authoritarian educational thinking!”
Commentators ridiculed the fact that this was happening in a country dubbed “the nation of humanity/humanitarianism”. In a sarcastic tone, Abdul Aziz Al-Daghim also wrote: “The strange irony is that premeditated murder is a 'crime' in the country of humanity, and tweeting is a 'crime'.” He then calls back on the news of how the verdict of a defendant accused of killing his sister was amended to only two years of imprisonment, after the name of the crime was changed to a minor “offence of battery” that led to death.
On the other hand, some attacked the call for Ibtihal’s release, saying that “disobeying our rulers and wronging them” does not count as an expression of opinion.
In #Kuwait... they sing the praises of the “nation of institutions, humanity, and democracy… but if you utter a letter or say a word, you will be sentenced to 73 years in prison and will be made homeless!"
No Freedom of Expression for Citizens and Residents
Kuwait counts as one of the most closely monitored Arab countries when it comes to dealing with expressing opinions on the Internet. There has been a number of recurrent arrests and trials based on recent social media posts, especially residents and citizens who criticized and/or mocked the country's measures to combat the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.
There are several domestic laws that punish any transgressions on the stature of an Emir and classify it as a cybercrime. For example, Article (6) of the Information Technology Crimes Law in Kuwait provides for “imprisonment and fines for insulting religion and its symbols, and for criticizing the Emir on the Internet,” while Article (25) of the Domestic National Security Law includes imposing prison terms of up to five years for every person who publicly insults the Emir of the country.
These articles, among other laws that legislate restricting freedoms and prosecuting dissidents, mainly stem from the Arab Convention for Combating Cyber Crimes, which the Arab League approved in December 2010.
The contradiction in the articles within the Kuwaiti constitution counts as a reason for this contention, as Article (36), for example, states that “freedom of opinion and scientific research is guaranteed, and every person has the right to express his opinion and publish it verbally, in writing, or otherwise, in accordance with the terms and conditions stipulated by the law,” whereas Article (54) of the constitution stresses that “the Emir is the head of state, and his person is inviolable.”
It should be noted that the former representative of the National Assembly of Kuwait Saleh Al-Mulla was the last of those accused of “insulting the stature of the Emir" in the country at the end of last year, while the satirical human rights activist Mohammed Al-Ajmi – better known by the blog name of ‘Abo3asam’ – was one of the latest people arrested for tweets deemed to be “in contempt of the Islamic religion”.