April 19, 2012
Possible Death Penalty for Blasphemy in Kuwait Puts Users of Social Media on Alert
Last week, a criminal court in Kuwait convicted writer Mohammed Al-Mulaifi of blasphemy and sentenced him to seven years of hard labor for comments he posted on Twitter. The court ruled that he had slandered an Imam and undermined the Shiite faith by saying that Kuwait “suffers from sectarian struggles and conflicts.” Al-Mulaifi is not alone. There has been a steady rise in the number of criminal prosecutions against users of social media expressing religious or political sentiments deemed offensive to Islam—and not just in Kuwait. Under current law, the punishment for blasphemy in Kuwait carries a prison term which varies depending upon the severity of the charges. But now members of Parliament—who have vowed “zero tolerance” for “serious offenses”—may follow the lead of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in making blasphemy punishable by death. On April 12, lawmakers voted in favor of an amendment that would do just that. To become law, the amendment must be voted on again in the next two weeks and then gain final approval by Kuwait’s ruler. The amendment not only poses a serious threat to freedom of expression and religion; it can also result in devastating consequences for those holding views that differ from the majority religion or belong to a minority faith. Members of Parliament who support this amendment argue that this law will help to prevent discrimination and promote freedom of religion. In fact, such laws create an atmosphere of intolerance and enable the government to decide which ideas are acceptable and which are not. Although some lawmakers have called on Parliament to exercise restraint in approving the death penalty, others are calling for the dissolution of Parliament if the amendment is not approved. Individuals such as Hamad Al-Naqi, a Kuwaiti Shiite arrested in March for using Twitter to allegedly defame Mohammad, have reason to be concerned. In our newly updated report, Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Criminalization of Defamation of Religions, Human Rights First highlights recent cases in several countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—where users of social media have been targeted, charged, and punished, sometimes with prison time, for exercising their right to freedom of expression. The surge in cases will not likely subside given the growth of social media around the world and the ambiguity in the laws being used to stifle the free exchange of ideas. Human Rights First recognizes that some of these cases involve expression that may be characterized as offensive. Nonetheless, much can and should be done to confront problems of intolerance, discrimination and violence without restricting speech. Update: On May 3rd, after the second and final round of voting, forty of the forty-six members of Kuwait’s Parliament voted for the amendment that will mandate the death penalty for any Muslim who mocks God, the Koran, Muslim prophets or Muhammad’s wives. The amendment provides that if the accused repents, the judge is to impose a sentence of at least 5 years in prison and a fine of as much as $36,000 (US). It also provides that non-Muslims who mock God will be sentenced to no less than 10 years in prison. To become law, it must now be signed by Kuwait’s ruler. According to the Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah will approve the amendment this month.