KUWAIT TIMES: Thousands of Kuwaitis demonstrated yesterday after the criminal court sentenced prominent opposition leader and former MP Musallam Al-Barrak for five years on charges of insulting HH the Amir and undermining his authorities. An estimated 10,000 people marched from Barrak’s residence in Andalus to the nearby Central Jail in Sulaibiya, where Barrak could be taken if arrested, chanting slogans in support of the outspoken opposition figure amid a surprising total absence of police with the exception of a helicopter that hovered overhead during the protest.
Earlier in the day, the criminal court handed the maximum sentence against Barrak for making statements at a public rally on Oct 15 that were deemed offensive to the Amir. Judge Wael Al-Atiqi issued the verdict in a half-full courtroom although Barrak’s defense team walked out of the courtroom a week ago without making their final defense arguments because the judge refused to hear the testimony of defense witnesses including the prime minister.
“I did not insult the Amir. I addressed the head of the state,” Barrak told Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television in an interview. “My speech to the head of the state and addressing authorities is permitted.” Barrak later told supporters at his residence that the “ruling is illegal but I will give myself up to police if they come to pick me up”. The verdict was issued with immediate effect, which means that Barrak has to go to jail even before the appeals court looks into his challenge. Hours after the verdict was issued, a number of high ranking police officers arrived at Barrak’s residence and wanted to arrest him but his lawyers refused and demanded they produce an official court order for his arrest – which they did not have – so they left without arresting the former lawmaker.
Ahead of the procession late yesterday, around 15 former opposition MPs and prominent activists repeated the same speech for which Barrak was given the harsh prison term. “We will not let you,” they chanted, repeating part of the fiery speech Barrak addressed to the Amir. “Repeating this speech is not in support for Barrak. It is in support of justice and for the nation,” Faisal Al-Yahya, a former MP told the crowd at Barrak’s house ahead the march. Other opposition figures plan to repeat the speech everyday at Barrak’s residence before planned demonstrations.
Barrak said that the verdict was illegal because the court did not guarantee him the right to defend himself by appointing a new lawyer after his entire defense team walked out. The defense lawyers said they were going to challenge the ruling which they considered as “null and void” and said they are certain the appeals court will overturn the ruling. But until late yesterday, the appeal was not submitted and is expected to be filed today with the hope that the appeals court can set a quick date to review the case and suspend the implementation of the jail term until the case had been reviewed.
Before the court decision, the government put a special forces squad on alert and boosted police patrols. The government said Barrak was given a transparent and fair hearing. “All citizens, regardless of their position, are equal in the eyes of the law. Anyone accused of a crime in Kuwait will get a fair trial with a comprehensive legal defence and open appeals process,” the Information Ministry said in a statement.
The verdict was issued amid tight security inside and outside the Palace of Justice. Kuwaiti stocks dived over 100 points or 1.4 percent immediately after the ruling was announced but most of the losses were recovered later. Former liberal MP Abdulrahman Al-Anjari said “the ruling is purely political … far away from the principles of justice”. “Musallam Al-Barrak is not just a (member of a) tribe and a political trend, but a conscience of a nation struggling to protect its rights, freedoms and wealth,” former opposition MP Osama Al-Shaheen wrote on his Twitter account. “Consciences cannot be locked up,” he said.
The verdict came two days after the Kuwaiti opposition threatened to stage street protests and call for civil disobedience if Barrak was denied a fair trial and jailed. Independent political analyst Mohammad Al-Ajmi said he expects a serious escalation of opposition-led protests after the verdict. “I believe that escalation of protests is inevitable because of Barrak’s heavy political weight and as he is considered an important symbol for the opposition,” Ajmi said.
The opposition leader is also facing trial on several other charges including storming parliament and participating in protests. Barrak is the fourth former opposition lawmaker to be sentenced to a jail term on the charge of insulting the Amir. In February, former MPs Falah Al-Sawwagh, Bader Al-Dahoum and Khaled Al-Tahous were sentenced to three years in jail over similar charges.The appeals court however suspended the jail term even before the former lawmakers were taken to prison. Several other opposition tweeters have also been sentenced to various jail terms for writing tweets deemed offensive to the Amir. Several others are on trial.
Kuwait’s opposition has been staging protests to demand the dissolution of the parliament elected last December on the basis of an electoral law that had been amended by the Amir. The opposition charged the change was illegal and aimed at electing a rubberstamp parliament.
By B Izzak and Agencies
LWDLIK - Oh dear! Ummmm...Might I suggest that if your defence is “I did not insult the Amir. I addressed the head of the state,” then you have had very poor legal counseling indeed, Mr Barrak.