Kuwait says backs free speech but must protect ruling emir

KUWAIT Mon Feb 4, 2013 10:28am EST

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KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwait supports free speech but must act against illegal comments made about the Gulf state's ruler, the government said on Monday, after a Twitter user was jailed for five years.

A Kuwaiti court sentenced a man to prison on Sunday for insulting the emir on the social networking site, a rights lawyer and news websites said, in the latest prosecution for criticism of authorities via social media.

"Kuwait has a longstanding proud tradition of open debate and free speech," the Ministry of Information, which regulates the media, said in a statement to Reuters addressing the case.

"We are a country led by the rule of law and our constitution holds our Emir to be inviolable. If our citizens wish to amend the constitution there is a straightforward legal way to do this, but we will not selectively enforce our laws."

In recent months Kuwait has penalized several Twitter users for criticizing the emir, who is described as "immune and inviolable" in the constitution.

Kuwait allows the most dissent in the Gulf Arab region and boasts a lively press and critical political debate. But the U.S. ally and OPEC member has been clamping down on politically sensitive comments aired on the internet in recent months.

Twitter is extremely popular in the country of 3.7 million inhabitants and well-known figures can have hundreds of thousands of followers.

In January, a court sentenced two men in separate cases to jail time for insulting the emir on Twitter.

In June last year, a man was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he was convicted of endangering state security by insulting the Prophet Mohammad and the Sunni Muslim rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on social media.

Two months later, authorities detained a member of the ruling family over remarks on Twitter in which he accused authorities of corruption and called for political reform.

Kuwait has avoided the kind of mass unrest that has spread across the Arab region in the past two years but in 2012 tension escalated between authorities and opposition groups ahead of a parliamentary election.

(Reporting by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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