KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwait's ruler said on Tuesday he was pardoning all the people convicted of insulting him, after a year-long crackdown on politically sensitive comments about Gulf Arab state's leadership.
Dozens of Kuwaitis have been charged with insulting Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, especially online, and those convicted for a variety of offences against the ruler have been sentenced to up to 11 years in jail.
People charged have included political activists of both sexes, as well as prominent opposition politicians. Some have already been acquitted by the court of appeal.
"On the occasion of the last 10 days of Ramadan, I am pleased to grant ... amnesty to all those convicted of offending the emir," Sheikh Sabah said in a speech on state television, adding that the pardon was effective immediately.
It is traditional for rulers in the region to pardon convicts during the holy Muslim fasting month.
Although Kuwait allows more dissent than other Gulf Arab states, the emir is described as "immune and inviolable" in the constitution and is protected from criticism by the penal code.
International rights groups have said Kuwait could not claim to be a beacon of freedom in the Gulf if it sent people to jail for remarks deemed offensive to the emir, and have urged the country to amend its penal code.
The issue became particularly sensitive in October when Sheikh Sabah used emergency powers to change the voting system used in parliamentary elections.
Opposition politicians said the changes would prevent them from winning a majority in parliament, while the emir said the new rules would ensure Kuwait's security and stability.
Anger over the new voting system brought thousands of Kuwaitis onto the street last year in some of the largest demonstrations in the oil producer's history, although the wealthy country has avoided mass Arab Spring-style unrest.
At the time, opposition politician Musallam al-Barrak was charged with insulting Sheikh Sabah in a fiery speech in which he called on the emir to avoid "authoritarian rule." He was sentenced to five years in jail but his case is being retried.
Kuwait has held two elections under the new voting system and the street protest movement has faded. A new parliament was elected on Saturday which is expected to be more cooperative with the government than some previous assemblies.
"By the will of God, we are heading towards a new phase of this legislative term, where the country will witness a promising launch towards progress...and development," Sheikh Sabah said in Tuesday's speech.