Kuwait’s authorities must guarantee freedom of expression, Amnesty International said after a court in the capital convicted a man for messages posted on the micro-blogging site Twitter.
Hamad al-Naqi, a member of the country’s Shi’a Muslim minority, was sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labour for messages on Twitter that criticized the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and other messages deemed “insulting” to Islam.
Amnesty International believes Hamad al-Naqi is a prisoner of conscience and that he should be released immediately and unconditionally.
“Criticizing religion is a protected form of expression and should not be criminalized,” said Ann Harrison, Amnesty International’s Deputy Middle East and North Africa Programme Director.
“Nor should individuals be subject to imprisonment for insulting heads of state or other public figures or institutions. The Kuwaiti authorities should take urgent steps to review the law so that no one can be imprisoned solely for expressing their view about religion or public figures where they are not inciting hatred or violence.”
Held since his arrest on 27 March 2012 in Kuwait Central Prison, al-Naqi has been denied bail. His lawyer Khalid al-Shatti has said that he intends to appeal the conviction.
Al-Shatti told Amnesty International that he was not permitted to be present during the investigative stages of his client’s trial and he was not allowed to have a copy of the case file.
Al-Naqi has previously said that his Twitter account was hacked and that he did not send the offending messages.
Under Article 15 of Kuwait’s National Security Law, broadcasting statements – which includes tweeting – that are construed as endangering state security are punishable with a minimum of three years’ imprisonment. Several other social networkers in Kuwait are facing prosecution for expressing opinions in blogs and on Twitter.
One of the offending tweets was deemed “blasphemous” – a criminal offence in Kuwait – for insulting the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad and his wife.
After the messages were sent, members of Kuwait’s majority Sunni community who lodged a complaint against him had demanded that Hamad al-Naqi be sentenced to death for “blasphemy”.
Al-Shatti told Amnesty International that the death penalty could not be applied in his client’s case because current law calls for a prison sentence as the maximum punishment.
In April this year, the Kuwaiti parliament voted to amend the law on insult to religion and blasphemy making the offences of “insulting God, his prophets and his messengers” subject to the death penalty unless the perpetrator publicly repented. Repeated offences would also lead to an automatic death sentence.
On Wednesday, the amendment was rejected by the Amir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed Al Sabah. The bill will now return to parliament where it could still become law if two-thirds of MPs voted for it again.
“Had this amendment passed into law, it would have been a flagrant violation of international human rights law,” said Ann Harrison.
“We urge Kuwait’s parliament not to try to pass it again.”
Under international law, “religious” offences do not fall under the category of “most serious crimes”, the minimum threshold for applying capital punishment. Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception, as a violation of the right to life and as the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.