Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, although these rights were violated. The courts convicted more than one dozen individuals for expressing their opinions, particularly on social media. The law also imposes penalties on persons who create or send “immoral” messages and gives unspecified authorities the power to suspend communication services to individuals on national security grounds.
Freedom of Expression: The Press and Publications Law establishes topics that are off limits for publication and discussion, and builds on the precedent set by the penalty law. Topics banned for publication include religion, in particular Islam; criticizing the emir; insulting members of the judiciary or displaying disdain for the constitution; compromising classified information; insulting an individual or his or her religion; and publishing information that could lead to devaluing of the currency or creating false worries about the economy. The government generally restricted freedom of speech in instances purportedly related to national security.
Local activists reported they were regularly contacted by state security services and Ministry of Information officials if they published opinions deemed contrary to the government view. Activists also reported being contacted through the Kuwaiti Embassy when they were residing abroad. In October the foreign minister stated he had directed “Kuwait’s diplomatic missions [abroad] to firmly pursue people offending Kuwait or its leaders.” Government authorities did not always take immediate action in the cases of social media posts to which they objected made by citizens while overseas, but under the law the government may take action once the author returns to the country. Under existing law there is broad latitude in the interpretation of what constitutes a crime when voicing dissent against the emir or the government, and activists can face up to seven years in prison for each count of the offense.
In July the Court of Cassation upheld the Court of Appeals’ verdict sentencing 13 citizens to jail for two years for publicly repeating an antigovernment speech (which was deemed offensive to the emir) by parliamentary opposition leader Musallam al-Barrak. In April the Court of Appeals sentenced another 17 citizens to two years in prison for repeating the same speech. In both cases the sentences were suspended, but the defendants were placed on probation for three years.
In contrast to previous years, the courts sentenced political activists to harsher prison sentences for charges of speaking out against the emir, government, religion, or neighboring states. In one case a citizen was sentenced to 70 years in prison for voicing his antigovernment opinion on social media, and in another case a citizen received 30 years. Both citizens fled the country before the verdict was handed down.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. All print media were privately owned, although the media’s independence was limited. The government did not permit non-Islamic religious publishing companies, although several churches published religious materials solely for their congregations’ use. The law allows for large fines and up to 10 years in prison for persons who use any means (including media) to subvert the emirate. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry may ban any media organization at the request of the Ministry of Information. Media organizations can challenge media bans in the administrative courts. Newspaper publishers must obtain an operating license from the Ministry of Information. Broadcast media, made up of both government and privately owned stations, are subject to the same laws as print media.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Ministry of Information censored all imported books, commercial films, periodicals, videotapes, CDs, DVDs, and other materials per the guidelines enumerated for speech and media. Media outlets exhibited a range of opinions on topics relating to social problems, but all apparently self-censored, avoiding critical discussion on topics such as the emir, foreign policy, and religion, to avoid criminal charges or fines or to keep their licenses. Discussions of certain sensitive topics, such as the role of women in society and sex, were also self-censored. Authorities censored most English-language educational materials that mentioned the Holocaust and required education material either to refer to Israel as “Occupied Palestine” or to remove such references entirely, although authorities did not censor these topics in news media. Widely available satellite dishes and virtual private networks allowed unfiltered media access.
Throughout the year publishers reportedly received pressure from the Ministry of Information, resulting in the publishers often restricting which books are available in the country. The Ministry of Information received approximately 3,400 books for review and banned more than 700 due to content violating religious, political, and public morality guidelines. One author appealed to lift the ban on his book; the appeal was pending at year’s end. According to the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs reviewed books of a religious nature.
Libel/Slander Laws: The law mandates jail terms for anyone who “defames religion,” and any Muslim citizen or resident may file criminal charges against a person the complainant believes has defamed Islam. Any citizen may file a complaint with the authorities against anyone the citizen believes defamed the ruling family or harmed public morals.
National Security: The law forbids publication or transmission of any information deemed subversive to the constitutional system on national security grounds. The government prosecuted online bloggers and social media outlets under the cybercrime law, the Printing and Publishing Law, and the National Security Law.
The cybercrime law criminalizes certain online activity, to include illegal access to information technology systems; unauthorized access to confidential information; blackmail; use of the internet for terrorist activity; money laundering; and utilizing the internet for human trafficking. Newspaper reports indicated that nearly 2,000 cybersecurity cases were filed under this law.
The government’s E-Licensing program requires bloggers and websites that provide news in the country to register with the Ministry of Information and apply for a license or be fined. The ministry has issued approximately 500 licenses to individuals and organizations this since the implementation of the law in 2016. No fines were issued during the year.
The government continued to monitor internet communications, such as blogs and discussion groups, for defamation and generalized security reasons. The Ministry of Communications blocked websites considered to “incite terrorism and instability” and required internet service providers to block websites that “violate [the country’s] customs and traditions.” The government prosecuted and punished individuals for the expression of political or religious views via the internet, including by email and social media, based on existing laws related to libel, national unity, and national security. The government prosecuted some online bloggers under the Printing and Publishing Law and the National Security Law.
The government filtered the internet primarily to block pornography and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) material, and sites critical of Islam.
The Internet World Statistics site reported an internet access rate of 99.8 percent in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
The law provides for the freedoms of opinion and research, but self-censorship limited academic freedom, and the law prohibits academics from criticizing the emir or Islam.
The Ministry of Interior reserved the right to approve or reject public events and those it considered politically or morally inappropriate.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution provides for freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government restricted the right of noncitizens to demonstrate.
Officials sometimes also restricted the location of planned protests to designated public spaces, citing public safety and traffic concerns. In September a group of activists peacefully assembled and protested the censorship of books in front of the Ministry of Information. Activists reported that they had applied in advance, notifying the authorities of their planned protest, but had not received a response. The initial rally dispersed peacefully when members of police requested activists to move to a different venue. A second protest was organized and the authorities gave permission for the rally away from the Ministry of Information. In the past courts have tried and sentenced participants in unlicensed demonstrations to prison terms and deported noncitizens for participating in rallies.
The Bidoon are stateless Arabs who are recognized by the authorities but not granted citizenship. Bidoon activists have reported that if they try to assemble peacefully or organize campaigns to gain equal rights, authorities regularly harass them. Some Bidoon activists indicated they were detained for questioning by authorities each time they planned campaigns or protests.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government placed restrictions on this right. The law prohibits officially registered groups from engaging in political activities.
The government used its power to register associations as a means of political influence. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor can reject an NGO’s application if it deems the NGO does not provide a public service. Most charity closings resulted from improper reporting of fundraising activities, which included not getting permission from the ministry or failing to submit annual financial reports. Dozens of unlicensed civic groups, clubs, and unofficial NGOs had no legal status, and many of those chose not to register due to bureaucratic inconvenience or inability to meet the minimum 50-member threshold. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor continued to reject some new license requests, contending established NGOs already provided services similar to those the petitioners proposed. Members of licensed NGOs must obtain permission from the ministry to attend international conferences as official representatives of their organization.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution generally provides for freedom of internal movement, but numerous laws constrain foreign travel.
The government generally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other individuals of concern.
Because there is no path to citizenship, all workers are considered foreign residents and not labelled as migrants.
Foreign Travel: Bidoon and foreign workers faced problems with, or restrictions on, foreign travel. The government restricted the ability of some Bidoon to travel abroad by not issuing travel documents, although it permitted some Bidoon to travel overseas for medical treatment and education, and to visit Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj (Islamic pilgrimage). The Ministry of Interior has not issued “Article 17” passports (temporary travel documents that do not confer nationality) to Bidoon except on humanitarian grounds since 2014.
The law also permits travel bans on citizens and nonnationals accused or suspected of violating the law, including nonpayment of debts, and it allows other citizens to petition authorities to impose one. This provision resulted in delays and difficulties for citizens and foreigners leaving the country.
Citizenship: By law the government is prohibited from revoking the citizenship of an individual who was born a citizen unless that individual has obtained a second nationality, which is against the law. Additionally, the law permits the government to revoke the citizenship of naturalized citizens for cause, including a felony conviction and, subsequently, deport them. The government has justified the revocation of citizenship by citing a 1959 nationality law that permits withdrawal of citizenship from naturalized Kuwaitis who acquired citizenship dishonestly or threatened to “undermine the economic or social structure of the country.” Additionally, if a person loses citizenship, all family members whose status derives from that person also lose their citizenship and all associated rights. Children born of citizen mothers and noncitizen fathers are not granted citizenship. Children born of noncitizen mothers and Kuwaiti fathers are granted citizenship.
In May the Court of Cassation affirmed that it is not permissible to withdraw citizenship from any citizen without a legitimate reason, stressing that a final court ruling must justify the withdrawal of the citizenship of any citizen. There were, however, cases in which natural born citizens had their citizenship revoked, even when courts found it illegal.
Persons who had their citizenship revoked, and any family members dependent on that individual for their citizenship status, became stateless individuals. Authorities can seize the passports and civil identification cards of persons who lose their citizenship and enter a “block” on their names in government databases. This “block” prevented former citizens from traveling or accessing free health care and other government services reserved for citizens. A Council of Ministers committee created in 2017 to review citizenship revocations since 1991, received 200 appeals and sent their recommendations for 70 of those to the Council of Ministers. Seven families had their citizenship restored, while the other 63 were rejected. There were no known revocations of citizenship during the year.
The law prohibits the granting of citizenship to non-Muslims, but it allows non-Muslim male citizens to transmit citizenship to their descendants. According to the law, children derive citizenship solely from the father; children born to citizen mothers and nonnational fathers do not inherit citizenship. Female citizens may sponsor their nonnational children (regardless of age) and husbands for residency permits, and they may petition for naturalization for their children if the mother becomes divorced or widowed from a noncitizen husband.
The government may deny a citizenship application by a Bidoon resident based on security or criminal violations committed by the individual’s family members. Additionally, if a person loses citizenship, all family members whose status was derived from that person also lose their citizenship and all associated rights.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status. There is no system for providing protection to refugees, and the government did not grant refugee status or asylum during the year. UNHCR recognized approximately 1,650 registered asylum seekers and refugees in the country.
During the year the country suspended an agreement allowing refugees to be resettled in Turkey, Jordan, and Sudan, among others. The decision followed protests, notably in Sudan, over this policy.
Freedom of Movement: During the year UNHCR reported that hundreds of Syrian refugees remained at the deportation center since, according to UNHCR, they could not be sent back to Syria without the refugees’ approval. Holding refugees at the deportation center for long periods has exacerbated an already difficult situation at the overcrowded facility.
Employment: Most asylum seekers and refugees were from Iraq, Somalia, and Syria, and many were either employed or supported by human rights groups pending resolution of their UNHCR asylum requests and resettlement. Many reported being increasingly fearful of losing their job, residency status, or both.
Access to Basic Services: Due to populist antiexpatriate sentiments in the country, the government enacted policies making healthcare and education more expensive for foreign workers than for citizens. Human rights organizations reported the immediate effect of this policy was that many foreign workers and their families receiving medical treatment chose to be discharged from hospitals rather than receive treatment they could no longer afford. Compounded by stagnant wages, an increasing cost of living, and a lack of job security, more persons–even legally employed workers, especially from conflict zones–began seeking asylum and resettlement in Europe, America, and Australia.
According to the latest government figures, there were approximately 88,000 Bidoon in the country, while in Human Rights Watch estimated the Bidoon population at more than 100,000 in 2018. The law does not provide noncitizens, including Bidoon, a clear or defined opportunity to gain nationality. The judicial system’s lack of authority to rule on the status of stateless persons further complicated the process for obtaining citizenship, leaving Bidoon with no access to the judiciary to present evidence and plead their case for citizenship.
The naturalization process for Bidoon is not transparent, and decisions appeared arbitrary. The Central Agency for Illegal Residents, tasked with monitoring Bidoon affairs, had more than 88,000 registered Bidoon under review. Although Bidoon are entitled to government benefits including five-year renewable residency, free healthcare and education, and ration cards, community members have alleged it was difficult for them to avail of those services due to bureaucratic red tape.
According to Bidoon advocates and government officials, many Bidoon were unable to provide documentation proving ties to the country sufficient to qualify for citizenship. The government alleged that the vast majority of Bidoon concealed their “true” nationalities and were not actually stateless. Agency officials have extended incentive benefits to Bidoon who disclose an alternate nationality, including priority employment after citizens, and the ability to obtain a driver’s license. As of March approximately 12,700 Bidoon admitted holding other nationalities.
Bidoon leaders alleged that when some members of the Bidoon community attempted to obtain government services from the central agency, officials would routinely deceive them by promising to provide the necessary paperwork if Bidoon agreed to sign a blank piece of paper. Later, Bidoon reported, the agency would write a letter on the signed paper purportedly “confessing” the Bidoon’s “true” nationality such as Saudi, Iraqi, Syrian, Iranian, or Jordanian, which rendered them ineligible for recognition or benefits as Bidoon.
According to UNHCR some Bidoon underwent DNA testing to “prove” their Kuwaiti nationality by virtue of blood relation to a Kuwaiti citizen. Bidoon are required to submit DNA samples confirming paternity to become naturalized, a practice critics said leaves them vulnerable to denial of citizenship based on DNA testing.
The government discriminated against Bidoon in some areas. Some Bidoon and international NGOs reported that the government did not uniformly grant some government services and subsidies to Bidoon, including education, employment, medical care, and the issuance of civil documents, such as birth, marriage, and death certificates. Since the government treats them as illegal immigrants, Bidoon do not have property rights.
Bidoon advocates reported that many Bidoon families were unable to obtain birth certificates for their children due to extensive administrative requirements, which restricted the children’s ability to obtain government-issued identification cards, access adequate medical care, attend school, and be counted in official statistics.
Many adult Bidoon lacked identification cards due to the many administrative hurdles they face, preventing them from engaging in lawful employment or obtaining travel documents. This restriction resulted in some Bidoon children not receiving an education and working as street vendors to help support their families. Many Bidoon children who attended school enrolled in substandard private institutions as citizens were given priority to attend public school.
The government amended the existing law on military service to allow the sons of soldiers who served in the military for 30 years and the sons of soldiers killed or missing in action to be eligible to join the military. According to the head of the Interior and Defense Parliamentary Committee, more than 25,000 Bidoons are awaiting enlistment.