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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Kuwaiti Dissidents Pardoned – Political Crisis Continues

Kuwaiti Dissidents Pardoned
Former Kuwaiti MP Musallam al-Barrak is surrounded by supporters upon his arrival from Turkey in Kuwait City, on November 17, 2021, following the pardon decree by the Emir of Kuwait.
Yasser Al-Zayyat / AFP

In November 2021 Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Jaber Al Sabah, Kuwait’s emir, issued two long-awaited decrees, pardoning and reducing sentences of thirty-five political dissidents who were convicted on various charges connected to the storming of the parliament building during the 2011 protests. It led to the release of prisoners and the return of key opposition figures who were living in self-imposed exile in Turkey to avoid harsh prison sentences in Kuwait. 

In addition, thirteen members of the “Abdali Cell’, a group that was convicted of spying for Iran and Hezbollah, as well as plotting against the state, were granted amnesty. Despite the fact that the two groups came as a – politically driven – package deal, they were not connected. Here we will only deal with the pardon of the dissidents, as the Abdali-story is a different, and very complex one in and of itself. 

The pardon came after a year of heightened political crisis, during which legislative work came to a standstill, the government resigned, came back reshuffled and the emir postponed parliament meetings for a month, a right he has under the constitution. Is this now all coming to an end with the pardon? 

Not at all. The pardon is just one of many issues between parliament and government and is rather a result of the underlying problem: an elected parliament versus an appointed government, where the main posts stay within the royal family and where the emir has the ultimate power to dissolve the parliament. This semi-democratic system (if one can even call it that) works if the parliament is largely on the side of the government, not so much if not. 

Partly because previous elections were boycotted by the opposition, from 2013 until 2016 the parliaments were of pro-government signature and had passed a range of laws restricting civil liberties and imposing harsh punishments on what are seen as political offenses. In other words: after the turmoil of 2011-2012, the government imposed harsh laws as a way of silencing the voices of dissent throughout the country.

The December 2020 elections were no longer boycotted by the opposition, which led to a significant gain for traditionalist (Islamist and tribal) anti-elite populism. This new opposition-led parliament made clear from the start that they would fight the aforementioned restrictive laws and prioritised the pardon of the individuals labelled as ‘dissidents”, (after years of talk without action). 

The government, on the other hand, needed support from the parliament to pass laws that would enable fiscal reforms to aid the country in reaching a more financially stable state – that being just one of many important subjects that need addressing. Result: the legislative and the executive held each other hostage from the day this parliament was inaugurated and the pardon became the elephant in the room.

In Kuwait, there are two ways to issue a pardon: either by Emiri decree, or in the form of a law passed by parliament. The first has limited legal effect as it leaves the original conviction untouched. The second, would scrap the conviction altogether and give the pardoned a clean slate; This is important because, under a law introduced in 2016, those convicted of lèse majesté (an offence against the dignity of the reigning sovereign) are barred from running for parliament. A “soft” Emiri pardon would trigger that law, whereas with a “hard” pardon, a parliamentarian would not be barred. 

Negotiations

Dissidents and opposition MP’s were divided:  some wanted to start negotiating about an Emiri pardon and thus were seeking some sort of reconciliation with the government (possibly thinking they would deal with the lèse majesté law later), others insisted on a parliamentarian pardon. The latter was very unlikely to happen, as it might ultimately have triggered the emir to dissolve the parliament, a step that has been taken before when the parliament deviated too much from government interests. In the first camp there were figures like Musallam al Barrak, in the second Faisal al Muslim, both, at the time, residing in Turkey. 

In October 2021 the emir finally asked a committee consisting of the parliament speaker,  the prime minister (both of whom have been targeted by MPs) and the head of the supreme judicial council to formulate terms and conditions of a decree. 

On the side of the parliament, three MP’s were involved in the negotiations, the most prominent being Obaid al-Wasmi, a well-known and popular opposition figure. He was allegedly given the green light by Musallam al-Barrak to start the negotiations. In November the pardon was a fact, and al-Barrak and his fellow dissidents returned to Kuwait. 

Upon their return, they picked up the rhetoric where they had left off years ago: criticising the executives for their inactivity, corruption and mismanagement. Musallam al-Barrak for example kicked off his press-conference, declaring that he would not rest until things changed, that Kuwait is a rich country and that its citizens deserve better. But people heard it all before. The question is: ًwill they indeed get anything better this time?

This remains to be seen. As previously stated, the amnesty of the dissidents was just one out of many issues that needed to be tackled between parliament and government. It might even turn out that the latter played it smart by giving into the Emiri pardon while holding its ground to other demands, such as the remaining issue of amnesty for many other political activists who are still in jail, convicted for expressing their political opinion on social media. They too must be pardoned, demanded the parliament. 

A general amnesty was on the table, but the committee (mainly consisting of pro-government MP’s) tasked to lay down the rules and conditions for this amnesty has suspended its meetings after speeches were delivered by hard-line opposition figures who mentioned the Emir in an unfavourable way. So, there is a new amnesty battle and with it another reason for a political impasse. 

Distraction

While talking about pardoning people for violations of laws, like the aforementioned lèse majesté law and the cybercrime law, the laws themselves are kept in place. It is a smart tactic to draw all attention to the act of pardoning a handful of high-profile dissidents; With a minimum of legal impact and a maximum of media attention, it distracts from the bigger issues. It is after all easier to pardon some violators than to scrap the law they violated.  

Furthermore, in the process of soft versus hard pardon discussions, the opposition (that was never a unified block to start with) has broken into deeply divided factions of hard-line opposition and moderate opposition. The above-mentioned influential opposition figure MP Obaid al-Wasmi for example, is being accused of making excessive compromises with the government without consulting with the rest of the opposition. His recent greeting of the (pro-government and very contentious) speaker of the parliament caused outrage and led to accusations of him flipping sides. These developments were not welcome for a government with a divide and conquer strategy.

This is where Kuwait politics finds itself. So far, post-pardon politics are just like pre-pardon politics: personal interests, egos, and plotting and scheming continue to dictate the political agenda. And the people? They feel that neither the lawmakers nor the government care about them.   

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