KUWAIT CITY – In Kuwait, activists have been gathering nightly to peacefully demonstrate against their government — something that elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula would see protesters tear-gassed, beaten, arrested and sentenced to prison.
The rallies, just across the street from Kuwait's National Assembly, show the unique political system in this tiny, oil-rich nation, where its emir rules absolutely but lawmakers and citizens can criticize officials and call them to account.
Those demonstrating warn that system is now at risk with a pending court case against dozens of politicians, activists and others stemming from the country's 2011 Arab Spring protests.
While being initially acquitted, a shock court decision in November resurrected the case against them, a month after Kuwait's emir warned the country's national unity is at stake amid regional turmoil.
"Kuwait remains unique in the Gulf in that the case is still debated openly and families and supporters are permitted to demonstrate," said Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. "But punishment for stepping outside laws against expression that have become more onerous are testing the Gulf's most inclusive political system."
The case against nearly 70 defendants takes root in the chaos that swept the wider Mideast with the 2011 Arab Spring protests. In Kuwait, ruling emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah ordered 1,000 dinar ($3,559) grants and free food coupons for every Kuwaiti. That came on top of Kuwait's cradle-to-grave entitlements for it citizens, which the OPEC member is able to afford because it holds the world's sixth-largest known oil reserves — despite being smaller than the U.S. state of New Jersey.
But allegations swirled at the time that some lawmakers had been bribed $350 million by the government to sway their votes, along with rumors that they were involved in embezzling state funds. Kuwait's then-Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al Sabah, Sheikh Sabah's nephew who was also accused in the allegations, survived a no-confidence vote.
Amid strikes and confrontations with police, protesters briefly entered parliament on Nov. 16, 2011, waving flags and singing the country's national anthem.
The activists were initially charged after the storming of the parliament but a lower court in 2013 ruled they had no criminal intent during the incident. However, a surprise appeals court ruling last November sentenced dozens of defendants to prison terms of as much as nine years.
Among those sentenced was Musallam al-Barrack, an opposition leader who only left prison in April after serving a two-year sentence on separate charges. Serving lawmakers Waleed Tabtabaie, Jamaan Herbish and Mohamad al-Mutair, all well-known Islamists, also received prison terms.
In recent weeks, those detained have staged short hunger strikes and have formed a political bloc behind bars.
On Sunday, a court ruling freed 44 defendants in the case on bail after over 80 days in prison. Another 25 remain at large.
In the meantime, their families have been protesting regularly outside of Kuwait's National Assembly. They hold signs or listen to speakers as relaxed Kuwaiti police officers watch nearby. The white lights of the parliament gleam from across the street, which protesters say also illuminates their struggle.
"This is a very painful feeling, that as a good person you are thrown in jail while corrupt people are out there," said Sanad Rashid al-Fadala, the father of defendant Rashid al-Fadala. "I feel sorry for our beloved country that it has reached this state."
Kuwait's Information Ministry did not respond to requests for comment on the case. The 88-year-old Sheikh Sabah, who unsuccessfully has tried to mediate a dispute between Qatar and Arab nations, warned in October that Kuwait must "protect our national unity and ward off the risks of sedition."
While anti-government protests are illegal across other Gulf Arab states, Kuwait long has stood out among its neighbors for its representational politics. In the 1930s, as Kuwait's economy drifted away from pearl diving and shipping to its whole-hearted embrace of oil, Kuwait's merchant families pushed for an elected municipal council.
After Kuwait gained its independence in 1961, the country's constitution empowered its elected National Assembly to hold no-confidence votes to remove ministers with a simple majority — including the prime minister.
Lawmakers also publicly question ministers, giving the parliament authority beyond those of legislative and consultative councils in other Arab sheikhdoms.
While Kuwait's rulers alternately closed or limited parliament's power in subsequent decades, Iraq's invasion in 1990 and the subsequent 1991 U.S.-led Gulf War to liberate it reinvigorated the legislative body.
"Kuwait is a treasure that still makes the mouths of the greedy water and it cannot be protected except by mutual understandings both internally and externally," former Kuwaiti government official Ismail al-Shatti wrote in 2003.
That has included receiving the protection of the United States. Kuwait hosts some 13,500 American troops, many at Camp Arifjan south of Kuwait City that is also home to the forward command of U.S. Army Central.
In the years since the Gulf War, however, the power of opposition lawmakers in Kuwait's parliament has waned. The opposition boycotted Kuwait's 2013 parliamentary election, but won seats in 2016 in the 50-member parliament. They've pushed for renewed questioning of government ministers, who include members of Kuwait's ruling Al Sabah family.
But the opposition itself faces challenges for its wide-ranging mix, including liberals, Islamists and Kuwait's minority Shiites. Al-Barrack's earlier prison sentence was for insulting the emir. But that hasn't stopped all criticism, including at a recent protest, held the same week as an international donor summit for Iraq in Kuwait City.
"Why are we holding a donor conference for Iraq when they came and destroyed our country?" asked Bader al-Dahoom, a former lawmaker, at a recent rally.
For now, defendants in the case await a scheduled March 4 hearing. And their protests continue.
"What are they charging them with?" asked one defendant's mother. "Patriotism?"
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