'Politicised' court cases anger Kuwaiti Bedouin

By Bill Law
Gulf analyst

  • Published
Former Kuwait MP Musallam al-Barrak facing up to five years in jailImage source, Arab Times
Image caption,
Former Kuwait MP Barrak is facing up to five years in jail for 'insulting' the emir

The sentencing in Kuwait of three former MPs and the ongoing case against another has angered the leaders of several of the gulf country's Bedouin tribes.

The Bedouin represent approximately 50% of the indigenous population and have become increasingly vocal about their anger at electoral reforms pushed through last year that they say favour pro-government politicians.

Bedouin and other opposition MPs made good on a threat to boycott last December's election after the emir approved a new voting system. Many voters joined the boycott making turnout the lowest in a Kuwaiti election.

A former MP and leading opposition figure Musallam al-Barrak told the BBC that "tribal leaders are moving away from the al-Sabahs".

"They see a failed government, they see bribery, they see wealth in a country where the infrastructure is not growing."

Mr Barrak, who is a member of one of the largest tribes, the Mutari added: "This is not just a tribal issue, this is a problem for the whole society but what is happening with the tribes is significant. It takes the debate into a new political dimension."

Christopher Davidson a Gulf expert and author of After The Sheikhs described the Kuwaiti Bedouin tribes as the "third player" in the opposition movement.

"The Islamist opposition is well placed, young Kuwaitis are using social media and now the Bedouin are coming out against the ruling family."

Noting Bedouin unhappiness with a lack of services, ongoing corruption and what they see as growing state repression, Mr Davidson said: "The al-Sabahs are breaking the social contract with the tribes... tribal discontent has always been there but nothing close to this as ever happened before."

'Early days'

Others argue that Musallam al-Barrak and his supporters are over-playing the strength of opposition to the ruling family.

David Roberts the director of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar notes: "These are early days. While undoubtedly substantial, the protesters have never had the numbers in the streets they claim to have."

"The opposition made a big mistake boycotting parliament. They've lost the power to challenge and block legislation."

Mr Roberts added: "They are left with the street protests as Mr Barrak overestimated his ability to derail the elections."

Mr Barrak's comments to the BBC follow the sentencing last week of three other former-MPs - Falah al-Sawwagh, Bader al-Dahoum and Khaled al-Tahous - to three years for statements they made about Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah in October.

The three men are reported to have spoken at a diwaniya, a traditional social gathering, where they warned that any changes made to the electoral system might lead to widespread protests.

On Sunday a court of appeal suspended their sentences and the three were released on bail and ordered to return to court on 10 March.

Like the others Mr Barrak has been charged under article 25 of the country's penal code which until last year had been very rarely used.

Under the clause, insulting the Emir or criticising him in public is a state security offense punishable by up to five years in jail.

The former MP told the BBC that the language of the article was not clear.

"Anything you say can be taken as a criticism of the emir because it doesn't say what actually constitutes criticism."

Although Kuwait allows more freedom of speech than some other Gulf states, the emir is considered "immune and inviolable" in the constitution.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Supporters of former MPs take to the streets near Kuwait City 6 February 2013

So far, the courts have given jail terms of between two and five years to at least three opposition tweeters for allegedly insulting the emir. Many more are on trial on similar charges.

'Politicising the judiciary'

Observers say that as criticism of the emir grows the courts are at risk of becoming politicised.

Jamie Ingram a Middle East specialist with Jane's Defence Weekly said: "I'd be very surprised if court decisions, including the most recent one to suspend charges against the three ex-MPs, are not influenced [by the government]."

Former opposition MP Khaled al-Sultan warned that "politicising the judiciary" might trigger a violent response for which the government would be responsible.

However, the ministry of information insisted last week following the conviction of the three former MPA that Kuwait had a "transparent and independent judicial system", in which all citizens receive a fair trial.

But Mr Barrak described the case against him and the conviction of the others as proof that the judiciary was "clearly politicised".

"The law is being used in a bid to silence dissent in Kuwait," he said.

Last week, following the earlier verdict, thousands of Kuwaitis took to the streets in protest and a senior Bedouin leader condemned the decision, reportedly warning that Kuwait was in danger of becoming another Egypt or Yemen.

Christopher Davidson argues that with every arrest and every conviction of opposition activists and politicians "the window of opportunity for the emir to retreat to a constitutional monarchy is narrowing".

"The al-Sabahs are the most vulnerable of the six Gulf monarchies and we may be seeing the beginning of the end for them."

However citing Kuwait's parliament and its partial democracy he added: "The irony is that of all of those monarchies Kuwait is the only one with the flexibility to be able to reform. So the al-Sabahs may survive after all".

An online activist who asked not to be named told the BBC that the conviction of Mr Barrak would ignite further street protests: "Everyone is waiting for a spectacular moment. If he is convicted Kuwait will explode in a bad way against the Emir."

Mr Barrak told the BBC: "The people will not accept a politicised decision. Their reaction will match the process. If it is not proper, their reaction will not be good."

Asked if he was concerned about facing a lengthy jail sentence, Mr Barrak replied: "I am not worried at all. It is the fate I chose so let it be. The movement will only grow bigger. Democracy is what the people want."

He appeared in court on Monday amidst what was described as extremely tight security measures. Another court date was set for 11 March.