x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Writer's arrest provokes backlash

Kuwait is under increasing pressure to free a writer accused of criticising public officials, in a case that could jeopardise the country's reputation for free speech.

KUWAIT CITY // Kuwait is under increasing pressure to free a writer accused of criticising public officials, in a case that could jeopardise the country's reputation as one of the freest for journalists in the Middle East. Kuwaitis rallied in support of Mohammed al Jassem last week, adding local weight to the worldwide protest by rights groups and journalists' associations.

Ahmed al Diyayn, a writer, announced to about 700 Kuwaitis gathered in Al Andalus, outside the diwaniya of Musallam al Barrak, a parliamentarian, that a committee of lawyers, MPs, civil society leaders, media personalities and a former judge had been formed to bring the case of the 54-year-old detained writer to international attention. "They bound his arms and legs in his hospital bed," Mr al Diyayn told the crowd Wednesday. "This ? has never happened to a journalist before in Kuwait."

Mr al Jassem has been detained since May 11 on charges of attacking the regime, slighting the emir and spreading false information that harmed Kuwait's national interests. The allegations, made by Sheikh Nasser Sabah al Ahmed al Sabah, are based on the writer's published articles, blog posts and three books he wrote over the past several years in which he criticised public officials. "There is a trend to reduce the freedom of the press in Kuwait," Mr al Diyayn said. Mr al Jassem, he said, had criticised the government in his writings but not the emir, which is illegal. He said that if the author has done something wrong it should be dealt with through the press law rather than state security charges.

Mr al Jassem's lawyer, Abdullah al Ahmad, said the writer's books were all approved by the ministry of information. He read out a letter from his client thanking his supporters. He said the court order to detain Mr al Jassem expired on May 31, meaning he is now being held illegally. The author comes from an influential urban family and his sister is married to Mr al Barrak, the country's most popular tribal politician. His family ties and popularity as a writer - he is a former editor of one of the largest local newspapers, Al Watan - have united citizens from diverse segments of society in his support. Writers, politicians and lawyers of Islamist and liberal persuasions spoke in his defence during the televised rally.

Kuwait is ranked as having the freest press in the Arab world by Reporters Without Borders the French-based monitor of press freedom. Last week, the organisation expressed "deep concern" over the criminal court's decision to keep him in custody. Joe Stork, the Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last week: "Kuwait, once relatively tolerant of free speech, is increasingly punishing individuals for their political views."

Amnesty International also said this month it "considers that Mohammed al Jassem is a prisoner of conscience, held solely on account of his legitimate exercise of his right to freedom of expression". Mr al Jassem remained free on bail after receiving a six-month prison sentence on April 1 for questioning the competence of the prime minister and calling for his removal earlier this year. He handed himself in to the authorities on May 10 after learning a new arrest warrant had been filed against him.

His next court hearing is due on June 21. jcalderwood@thenational.ae