x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Kuwaiti MPs rally around decision against cleric who fled to London

Kuwait's cabinet approved yesterday the withdrawal of citizenship from Yasser al Habib, a Shiite cleric at the centre of a controversy that has stoked sectarian tension and led to a ban on public demonstrations in Kuwait.

KUWAIT CITY // Kuwait's cabinet approved yesterday the withdrawal of citizenship from Yasser al Habib, a Shiite cleric at the centre of a controversy that has stoked sectarian tension and led to a ban on public demonstrations in Kuwait. "The cabinet instructed the concerned departments to complete the legal actions to bring the man to justice for the shameful crimes he has committed," Roudhan al Roudhan, the minister of state for cabinet affairs, told the media. Al Habib was charged with slandering Muslim icons, harming national unity and fomenting sectarian tension.

The decision to withdraw the London-based cleric's nationality comes after intense pressure from Sunni Islamists to punish al Habib for insulting Aisha, one of the Prophet Mohammed's wives, at a gathering in the United Kingdom last month. "I insist that I have not committed any crime," al Habib said in a statement. "To live in peace you should not prevent anyone from expressing their opinion. I have the right to express my vision of these historical figures even if they do not admire them.

"When someone shouts loudly and angrily in Kuwait, the government will give them whatever they demand," he said. "I think that the current government has come under the control of the street." Sunni Islamist parliamentarians expressed satisfaction with the decision in parliament yesterday. Ali al Omair, a Salafi MP, said: "Though the decision is late, it is the right one. Yasser no longer belongs to this country and has become a lesson to anyone who would try and offend the wives of the Prophet or cause a problem related to state security.

"We praise the efforts exerted [yesterday] and hope this decision will solve the crisis and calm the situation in the country," Mr al Omair said. Jamaan Harbash, an Islamist member of parliament for the Islamic Constitutional Movement, said he supported the government's decision and "there is no conflict inside Kuwait between Sunni and Shia". "The disagreement is about Yasser al Habib and what he said. Our brothers in the Shiite sect have also condemned Yasser's ugly words," Mr Harbash said.

Sunni Islamists had threatened to hold a series of protests this week against the cleric, and Shiites organised a demonstration. The government banned the gatherings to ease "sectarian tensions", threatening offenders with a fine and two years in jail. In a joint statement on Sunday, 11 Sunni MPs said they would postpone the protests to give the government 24 hours to "douse tension and maintain national unity".

After receiving news of that decision yesterday, the demonstrations were called off. "It is clear that the government faced political blackmail and succumbed to the pressure by making a dangerous decision," said Saleh Ashour, a Shiite MP. "To withdraw citizenship for political or religious reasons is very dangerous." The case of al Habib ignited tension between Kuwait's Sunni majority and Shiites, who are estimated to make up between 15 per cent and 30 per cent of the population. On Sunday, Sheikh Jaber Mubarak al Sabah, the acting prime minister and minister of defence, told the press that "Kuwait cannot afford any further escalation".

"Now we have seen the knife has reached the bone and the dangers have become so close and explicit, we can no longer stay silent and we have taken all the necessary measures," Sheikh Jaber said. "We will prevent the holding of seditious seminars by all means because Kuwait's interest is above all things. Events of the past few days "confirm there is fragility in society which we must avert as much as possible". He said the measures adopted by the government were in accordance with the constitution and the law.

The government had asked the International Criminal Police to issue an arrest warrant for al Habib, local press reported this month. The cleric's website said the organisation refused the request because the case "was based on religious views and beliefs for which no one should be tried or punished". Some Shiite MPs have argued that citizenship should not withdrawn as a form of punishment. The Kuwait Society for Human Rights has said the move would be unconstitutional.

Al Habib was arrested in Kuwait in November 2003 and sentenced to one year in prison for insulting the companions of the Prophet, Amnesty International reported in 2005. The human-rights organisation said the cleric was released in February under a pardon from the emir on Kuwait's national day, but his re-arrest was ordered soon after. The public prosecutor said the release was a mistake. Al Habib went into hiding, a retrial was ordered, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia. He moved to the UK in 2004. Kuwaiti Islamists politicians have called for an inquiry into how the cleric escaped Kuwait.

jcalderwood@thenational.ae