Kuwaiti editors arrested after alleged insult is posted on Web forum

New York, August 22, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned by the arrest of two Kuwaiti journalists by the state security services in Kuwait City on Saturday.

State security officers arrested Bashar al-Sayegh, an editor for the daily newspaper Al-Jarida, by order of the general prosecutor’s office, said Hussein al-Abdallah, the journalist’s attorney. Jassim al-Qames, another editor at the paper, told CPJ he photographed the arrest, prompting the officers to detain and beat him. Al-Qames was released on Sunday without charge.

Al-Abdallah said the prosecutor’s office accused al-Sayegh of insulting the emir of Kuwait in violation of both the penal code and the press law. Al-Sayegh was freed Tuesday without bail after he appeared before the prosecutor’s office the previous day for investigation, according to al-Abdallah. The charge carries a five-year prison sentence.

The prosecutor’s office has not yet determined whether to take al-Sayegh to court or drop the criminal case, al-Abdallah said. Al-Sayegh was not mistreated by the state security officers, he said.

The accusation stems from a comment made by a person on an open forum in the Al-Ommah news Web site hosted by al-Sayegh. The journalist removed the comment several hours after it was made, according to Al-Jarida. A CPJ source described the offending post as a 250-word criticism of Emir Sheik Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah’s leadership abilities and frequent travel out of the country.  Al-Jarida Deputy Editor-in-Chief Saoud al-Anezi told CPJ that the person behind the comment, identified as Nayef Abdullah al-Ajmi, was arrested on Tuesday.

“It is very unsettling that an editor can be bundled into a car by security forces outside his office for a third-party comment posted on a Web site, and that his colleague can be locked up for trying to photograph the arrest,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “These heavy-handed measures against the press undermine Kuwait’s reputation as a country that tolerates critical media.”

Acting Interior Undersecretary Maj. Gen. Ahmad Al-Rujaib held a press conference on Tuesday at the Interior Ministry in Kuwait City to address the arrests of both journalists. Al-Rujaib said that al-Sayegh’s arrest was carried out lawfully and that the state security officers identified themselves and presented him with an arrest warrant, the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) reported. The journalists disputed that account, saying the officers presented no identification or warrant at the time of arrest.

Al-Rujaib said that al-Qames was arrested because he was “obstructing security personnel while carrying out their duties,” according to the news agency. He denied that al-Qames was mistreated and said accounts of the incident were exaggerated, KUNA reported.

CPJ was unable to reach al-Rujaib on the phone.  

Several cars carrying state security officers in civilian clothing descended on al-Sayegh and al-Qames as they were leaving the paper’s premises on Fahd al-Salem Street on Saturday night, the paper reported. Al-Qames told CPJ that he photographed the officers arresting al-Sayegh. They wanted him to turn over his camera but he refused, he said, adding that six officers forced him into one of the cars in front of many passersby.

The two journalists were taken to the state security building in Kuwait City, al-Qames said in a detailed account published by the paper. During the car ride and while he was being questioned by the state security officers, al-Qames said he was struck repeatedly in the face and one hand. The officers asked him why he took the photographs and why he resisted arrest. Al-Qames told CPJ the officers did not show any form of identification when arresting him.

Al-Qames was blindfolded as he was transferred back and forth from the investigation building to a prison building.  The officers made him sign his statement with his thumb print as he was blindfolded at the time. The following day al-Qames signed a pledge saying he will not resist state security officers or obstruct their work and that he promises to appear before the security services if he’s summoned before being released.