KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwaiti police used teargas and smoke bombs on Wednesday to disperse thousands of protesters marching on a prison where an opposition leader is being held on charges of insulting the emir, witnesses said.
The unrest comes amid rising tension caused by changes to the election law which the opposition had condemned as an attempt to give pro-government candidates an advantage in parliamentary elections on December 1. The opposition are boycotting the poll.
Defense lawyers said on Wednesday prosecutors had charged Musallam al-Barrack on three counts related to a speech in which he made critical remarks about the 83-year-old emir, and ordered him held for 10 days pending further questioning.
Thousands later marched towards the prison demanding Barrak’s release. Some carried a poster showing Barrak behind bars. “Set free the conscience of the nation, Musallam al-Barrak,” a caption read.
Police ordered the crowd to disperse and then used teargas and smoke bombs.
Although Kuwait has avoided the upheavals seen in other Arab nations last year, tensions have escalated in parliament between the majority opposition bloc, made up of Islamists and tribal figures, and the cabinet, dominated by the al-Sabah family.
The Interior Ministry said security forces dispersed rioters who had blocked streets and assaulted police with stones and bottles, according to a statement carried by the state news agency KUNA.
It said members of special forces also were charged by drivers who tried to run them over, injuring five in two separate incidents. The ministry said it made some arrests and warned further protests would be dealt with harshly.
There were further reports of further violence said to have been caused by security forces trying to storm an area outside Kuwait city, where members of Barrak’s al-Mutair tribe live, but it was not immediately possible to verify the reports.
Police on Tuesday blocked a crowd of 1,500 people who tried to hold a protest in solidarity with Barrak at the Palace of Justice, forcing the demonstrators to move to a square near the parliament building.
Barrak, an outspoken former member of parliament, was picked up from his home on Monday, two weeks after an opposition rally at which he made rare critical remarks about the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. At the rally, Barrak had appealed to Sheikh Sabah to avoid “autocratic rule”.
Prosecutors have charged him with encroaching on the pillars of the emirate, insulting the emir and infringing his authority, said a defense lawyer who asked not to be named.
He said prosecutors had ordered Barrak held for 10 days pending investigation and transferred him to the central prison.
Kuwait allows more free speech than some of its neighbors, but the constitution says the emir is “immune and inviolable”. Insulting him carries a penalty of up to five years in jail.
Three other former lawmakers were earlier detained on similar charges, questioned and freed on bail pending trial, scheduled to start on November 13.
When the emir ordered changes to electoral rules, the opposition announced a boycott of the election and organized one of the biggest protests in Kuwait’s recent history, bringing tens of thousands onto the streets.
At least 29 people and 11 policemen were wounded at the October 21 demonstration, which security forces tried to break up with teargas and stun grenades. Police also detained more than 15 people, most of whom were later freed, activists said.
The government has since banned gatherings of more than 20 people and pushed ahead with preparations for the election.
The Information Minister told a news conference that candidate registration began on Wednesday under new rules that allow each voter to pick one candidate instead of four, as previously.
The minister said that under the changes, which also include setting up an election commission, each candidate will get a slot to discuss his or her platform on state television.
Kuwait has a more open political system than other Gulf states, allowing some parliamentary scrutiny over government decisions. But the emir retains most levers of power, including appointing the prime minister and dissolving parliament.
Kuwaiti lawyer and opposition activist Mohammed Abdulqader al-Jassem said Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which jointly intervened last year to help Bahrain quell unrest led by its Shi‘ite majority, should stay out of Kuwait’s affairs.
“If Kuwait’s ‘democracy’ failed to move to your countries over the past five decades, the movement for change, marches and demonstrations and protests may be easier, and it will not take a long time,” he wrote on his website in a message to Saudi King Abdullah and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.
His posting won a swift rebuke from the Foreign Ministry, which called it “unacceptable interference” in the affairs of the two neighbors and said it went against Kuwait’s interests.
Reporting by Ahmed Hagagy; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Michael Roddy