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Kuwait uses terror laws to arrest journalist for questioning leadership 30, June 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait.
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Kuwait is one of the most politically and democratically advanced countries in the Middle East. They also have one of the freest presses in the region. Long established newspapers like the Kuwait Times are broadly free to discuss all manner of topics even if, for example, criticising the ruling family is wholly out of bounds. Kuwaitis are proud of their proto-democratic institutions even if they are frequently infuriated by their inaction and inability to get things done and their robust press is similarly a source of some pride.

However there is currently a severe test of Kuwait’s relatively free press. Mohammed Al Jassem is a former editor of a Kuwait daily newspaper (Al Watan – The Nation) and the founding editor of the Arabic versions of Foreign Policy and Newsweek. He is also one of Kuwait’s most famous journalists and has a habit of criticising the Prime Minister, a nephew of the Emir. This is, essentially, the extent of his charges.

The Prime Minister is no stranger to criticism and has been the subject of various attempts to make him answer questions in Parliament; the so-called ‘grillings’. Yet Al Jassem’s criticisms have struck a very raw nerve. He accuses the PM of being some kind of conduit for Iranian power and influence to grow in Kuwait. He is also accused of exhorting the PM to resign in a private meeting.

The Al Sabahs reacted furiously to these allegations. They rained down slander and defamation cases on Al Jassem who was sentenced to 6 months in jail in one example. Under appeal he was rearrested under the auspices of an Internal Security Law and charged with “instigating the overthrow of the regime and “inciting to dismantle the foundations of Kuwaiti society.””

Along with using this terrorism-type law to arrest him he has been treated, according to the Washington Post, as a terrorist; being hooded when brought into court and handcuffed and confined to a courtroom cage. Perhaps most worryingly, local press has been banned from covering his trial.

The Iranian issue is extremely sensitive throughout the Gulf. The smaller and richer GCC states fear Iran in various ways. Directly, Iran poses a serious military threat, yet this is significantly mitigated by the presence of U.S. forces in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and in the Gulf waters. The more pressing concern, therefore, is the notion of Iranian ‘5th columnists’ at large in GCC states. Bahrain with a Shia majority and Saudi with a significant minority in their resource-rich Eastern provinces have more acute fears than Kuwait yet many are still concerned. Salafi MPs in Kuwait have been drawing attention, much like al Jassem, to what they see as the worrying growth of Iran’s influence in Kuwait. Some MPs were arrested in 2008 when they praised/celebrated the death of Imad Mugniyah, the assassinated Hezbollah leader. Other MPs have ominously warmed that there are Iranian ‘sleeper cells’ throughout the Gulf.

Whilst concerns of the growth of Iran’s soft power are to some degree understandable, notions of legions of Iran sponsored sleepers or indeed that the PM is somehow spreading Iranian influence, are not credible.

Nevertheless, Al Jassem’s comments, striking with force such a profound nerve in Kuwait and the Gulf more generally, will prove a serious challenge to Kuwait’s vaunted relative press freedom. I expect Al Jassem to be sentenced to jail for, say, 15 years only to be released after 6 months as well as possibly being exiled.