x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Kuwaiti on trial for alleged royal Twitter slurs

Activist's lawyer says government is scared of social media after after arrest over tweets allegedly insulted the kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and the conservative Salafi branch of Sunni Islam.

KUWAIT CITY // A Kuwaiti lawyer has said his Shiite client is on trial for comments on his Twitter account because the government is frightened of social media's impact on the Arab world.

Nasser Abul, 26, a political activist, was arrested in June after tweets allegedly insulted the kings of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and the conservative Salafi branch of Sunni Islam.

He is accused of "state security" crimes and damaging Kuwait's relationship with "brotherly countries".

But Mr Abul's lawyer, Khalid Al Shatti, said the real reason for his prosecution is that the government fears the power of social media after the Arab Spring protests. "Nasser is a sacrificial lamb," Mr Al Shatti said. "The government knows what Twitter did" to help displace regimes in other parts of the Middle East "and they are afraid".

Mr Abul has denied posting the controversial statements and accused hackers of accessing his Twitter account and "putting the words in his mouth", Mr Al Shatti said.

He added that the criminal investigation department "lied" by arguing that it is "virtually impossible" to hack into a Twitter account.

He said Fox News tweeted that the US president, Barack Obama, had been killed when they recently fell victim to hacking.

"Whether hackers broke into his account or not, Nasser's opinion is just his opinion," Mr Al Shatti said. "This case is a violation of the law and of freedom of speech."

A verdict is expected tomorrow. If convicted, Mr Abul faces up to three years in prison.

A post that appeared on Mr Abul's Twitter account in May, provided by his lawyer, calls the Saudi king "only scum" and an "alcohol drinker". Another post compares Bahrain's ruling family with "Jews" and "pigs". One tweet compares Salafis, a Sunni sect common in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, to toilet slippers. Another said that "a Salafi is a Jew and impure".

Insulting Islam is illegal in Kuwait but Mr Al Shatti argues that Salafism is a political rather than religious movement.

A statement by Amnesty International on September 16, when the activist had been detained for 100 days, said the posts "that it could identify" in Mr Abul's name "contain derogatory comments about the targets of his criticism" but "seem not to advocate violence, racism or racial hatred".

"Amnesty International believes Nasser Abul to be a prisoner of conscience detained for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and has been calling for his unconditional release."

Shortly after Mr Abul's arrest, a member of Bahrain's ruling family said he would sue him for slander, the Arab Times in Kuwait reported. Sheikh Abdullah Mohammed Al Khalifa said he respects freedom of expression and constructive criticism but "the postings hurt the whole family at a personal level".

Ali Al Naqi, a teacher at Kuwait University who taught Mr Abul and is helping to organise demonstrations about his case, aid: "It's a political case about freedom of speech. I am also a Twitter activist. If it can happen to Nasser, it can happen to anyone."

Around 15 to 30 per cent of the Kuwait population are Shiites.

Salem Al Nashi, a spokesman for Kuwait's largest political Salafi group, the Islamic Salafi Alliance, said: "Any action has a reaction - there has to be limits. You cannot let anyone say anything against anybody. There are regulations anywhere in the world.

"In religion, if we hear or see something against Islam or Christ, this is wrong," he said, adding that Kuwait is a small country and "we have to live with each other."

jcalderwood@thenational.ae