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Inside Story

Crossing the Gulf's red lines?

As dissenting voices are silenced in the region, we ask if this is suppression of speech or the legitimate use of law.

Last Modified: 22 Apr 2013 11:43
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The voice of protest is growing ever stronger across Gulf states, as activists gain confidence from the Arab uprising, But Gulf rulers are maintaining an equally strong response in the name of national security and stability.

"The head of the [Kuwaiti] state, his person is immune and invulnerable by the Article 54 of the Kuwaiti Constitution. Mr al-Barrak passed that line, we have a judicial system ... and he is supposed to face that.  Mr al-Barrak instead ... chose to stay at home, and bring all the media, and tried to justify his decision .... I think it is time that Mr al-Barrak should go and face the law. Mr al-Barrak chose that he will go to the street battle, and that’s why what we saw was disorder, violence, demonstrations … and this is not acceptable." 

- Fahad Shulemi, Kuwaiti security analyst 

Kuwaiti opposition leader Mussallam al-Barrak has been sentenced to five years in prison for insulting the country's Emir.

The former legislator told a rally: "We will not allow you, your highness, to take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy ... we no longer fear your prisons and your riot batons." 

Kuwait has seen a series of mass demonstrations against the ruling family, protests that, by their very nature, risk offending their leaders, testing the boundaries of what is tolerated and what is not.
 
It is a mood prevailing in many Gulf nations.

Qatari poet Muhammad Rashid al-Ajami was jailed for life in November for reciting a poem critical of Qatar's leadership - his sentence was later reduced to 15 years on appeal.

Last month, the co-founders of a civil and political rights association in Saudi Arabia were handed jail terms of five and 10 years. Earlier this month, a court in Abu Dhabi sentenced a Twitter activist to 10 months in jail. And last week, a human rights defender and blogger was arrested and detained in Oman.

The first annual report by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights was published just last month, focusing on freedom of association and expression.
 
It explained how many human rights defenders were subject to physical assault and verbal abuse. Violations varied from country to country, but ranged from arbitrary arrest and detention to harassment and intimidation. The report added that internet sites, personal blogs and social media accounts were hijacked or blocked.

"Under international law ... residents of a country are free to criticise the king, are free even to insult the king, that is a fundamental human right that sadly Kuwaiti law still does not recognise …. The Kuwaiti government still insists on prosecuting people because their speech is deemed insulting to the king .... The Arab people will no longer zip their lips, and sit silent and not insult their king and not insult their governments because they know they are free to speak their political opinions, against anyone, including the king. 

- Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch

These measures have been used to discourage dissent. But there have also been incentives to keep people happy.

In February 2011, just days after Hosni Mubarak had been toppled from power in Egypt, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah announced a huge increase in domestic public spending.
 
The Kingdom planned to spend $37bn on housing, wage increases, unemployment benefits and other programmes.
 
The Emir of Qatar announced a similar move in September 2011. Public sector workers enjoyed a 60 percent pay rise, while military personnel saw a hike of 120 percent.
  
And last year, Oman pledged to boost state spending by more than a quarter over four years, from $111bn to $143bn .
 
That was to tackle rising unemployment that had triggered unrest months earlier.
 
The cynics have suggested that these are all efforts by Gulf monarchies to silence their people, and to head-off the possibility of an Arab Spring breaking out in their own back yards.

So, can the voice of protest be heard in the Gulf? Are governments suppressing freedom of speech, or are their measures a legitimate way to impose the law of the land? 

To discuss this, Inside Story, with presenter Ghida Fakhry is joined by guests: Fahad Shulemi, a former army colonel from Kuwait, who is now a security analyst; Najeeb Al-Nuaimi, a lawyer for the jailed Qatari poet, and also Qatar's former justice minister; and Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch.

"Gulf governments have praised the reformation of the Arab world, they put all their money, everything, media, and they were saying, the same rulers, that there are standing up for the freedom of speech, they are standing up to have the Arab world really free, and democracy, and elected governments. They, on the other hand, forgot that they have people sitting and living in their countries who are listening and watching." 

- Najeeb Al-Nuami, lawyer for jailed Qatari poet and former justice minister

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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