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Kuwaiti authorities disperse opposition demonstration, arrest 16 protesters

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 29 March 2015.

Kuwaiti authorities broke up an opposition protest in Kuwait City on March 23, 2015, and detained 16 protesters, Human Rights Watch said today.

Eleven of the protesters were released on March 25 and are expected to face charges of illegal gathering. Five remain in custody and may face charges of attacking law enforcement offices in addition to the illegal gathering charges, a local activist told Human Rights Watch.

“Kuwait should respect people's freedom to demonstrate peacefully against the government,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Prosecuting people for illegal gathering is the wrong way to respond to legitimate protest.”

Special Forces detained the 16 people, among the 800 who gathered to protest in Kuwait City's Irada Square shortly before 9 a.m. on March 23, said Hakeem al-Fadhli, founder of Q8citizens, who was at the demonstration. The 16 included a human rights activist, Nawaf al-Hindal.

Authorities released him and 10 others on March 25, after indicating they would face the illegal gathering charges, said Rana al-Sadoun, founder of the National Committee for Monitoring Violations. She said she had contacted the lawyers of the people arrested, and that the lawyers said the protesters still in custody also expected to face charges of attacking law enforcement officers and refusing to obey their orders. Human Rights Watch was unable to contact the police or Interior Ministry for comment

Hadeel Bo Qrais, a human rights activist who was at the protest, said that police were there from the outset but did not intervene, even when a small group of protesters broke away and began marching toward the parliament building. The demonstrators were demanding an end to judicial corruption, new parliamentary elections, the release of prisoners held on politically motivated grounds, and an end to the government's policy of revoking some Kuwaitis' citizenship as a punishment for political opposition, Qrais said.

At around 9 p.m., Bo Qrais said two vehicles containing water cannon tanks and others containing scores of Special Forces armed with batons arrived. Some protesters threw plastic water bottles at them, but nothing more serious as far as she could see. The police shouted at the demonstrators to leave the square, and within minutes moved in to disperse them, as the protesters were trying to check with police whether the dispersal order was official. She told Human Rights Watch that she saw Special Forces officers physically threaten protesters and that they injured Sarah al-Hamar, a lawyer.

Al-Hamar, who corroborated these accounts, told Human Rights Watch she was peacefully sitting on a sidewalk in the middle of the protest when a Security Forces commander yelled at her to leave, then grabbed her by the shoulder when she didn't. A masked officer struck her leg with his baton. She said another police officer then intervened and she was able to leave and seek hospital treatment for bruises. Kuwaiti authorities should investigate whether police used excessive force against Al-Hamar, Human Rights Watch said.

Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Kuwait ratified in 1996, states that “the right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized,” and that “no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and that are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provides that officials acting in a law enforcement capacity “shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force.” Whenever the use of force is unavoidable, security forces shall “[e]xercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved.

Kuwait's constitution guarantees the right to freedom of assembly for Kuwaiti citizens. In 2006, the constitutional court struck down 15 of the 22 articles of the 1979 Kuwaiti Public Gathering Law, including article 4, which required official permission to hold public gatherings. Official permission is still required for marches. “Illegal gathering” is prohibited under law but is not clearly defined. In recent years, the authorities have used “illegal gathering” charges against people participating in public protests against the government.

“Kuwaiti authorities should fully respect the right to peaceful assembly and clarify the scope of the illegal gathering offense,” Stork said.

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