1999 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 4.5
Civil Liberties: 5
Political Rights: 4


An ongoing struggle between the government and parliament continued to hinder legislative progress, particularly on badly needed economic reform. Meanwhile, Kuwaiti women took their fight for political rights to their country's highest court in 2000.

The Al-Sabah family has ruled Kuwait since 1756. Under a special treaty, Kuwait ceded control of its foreign affairs and defense to Britain in 1899. The emirate gained full independence in 1961, and the 1962 constitution assigns broad executive powers to the emir, currently Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, who rules through an appointed prime minister and cabinet. The government shares power with the parliament, or national assembly, which is subject to dissolution or suspension by decree.

The legislative process has been paralyzed in recent years by a struggle between the government, which wants to reform the economic and financial sectors to offset dependence on oil revenues, and largely Islamist opposition parliamentarians, who oppose any perceived "Westernization" or measures that would endanger social spending. Sheikh Jaber dissolved parliament in May 1999 following a crisis that ensued when members of parliament threatened a no-confidence vote against the Islamic affairs minister over 120,000 misprinted copies of the Koran. Kuwaitis elected a new parliament in July. Another crisis erupted in February 2000 when the emir cancelled government penalties against two newspapers for publishing a "fabricated" emiri decree. MPs accused the cabinet of abusing its power, asserting that only the courts have the right to sanction newspapers. In December, the housing affairs minister was subject to a no-confidence vote over government measures to cut benefits that offer Kuwaitis homes under very generous loan terms.

Analysts have recently noted a conservative Islamist backlash in Kuwait characterized by attempts to impose stricter religious codes and limit foreign social influences. More women are covering themselves with the hijab, or traditional veil, while hardliners try to ban social events like public concerts. In June, parliament voted to allow the establishment of private universities, but required that they be segregated by sex. In October, mounting criticism from Islamists over the government's "liberal" media policy led to the resignation of the information minister. In rare instances, attacks have occurred against video shops, newspapers, and expatriate workers. A woman was brutally beaten in April for not wearing the hijab, leading some liberal MPs and journalists to warn of "Algerian-style violence." However, Islamist groups in Kuwait are traditionally peaceful, and most condemned the incident.

A 1999 emiri decree granting women the right to vote was narrowly defeated by parliament last November. Currently, the electorate includes only Kuwaiti men over age 21 and those who have been naturalized for 20 years. In March 2000, several women's rights activists sued the interior ministry demanding full political rights. While most of the cases were thrown out of administrative court, one was referred to the constitutional court in May. A decision is expected in January 2001.

Economists routinely express concern about the sustainability of Kuwait's cradle-to-grave welfare state. Some 95 percent of working Kuwaitis draw monthly tax-free salaries from the state, while an estimated 55 percent of the workforce is "underemployed," or placed in menial state jobs for the sake of employment statistics. A surge in oil prices in 2000 boosted the country's financial situation but provided little incentive to reform. Opposed to austerity measures that would place an economic burden on citizens, MPs sometimes launch investigations into alleged mismanagement and corruption by ministers in order to block government initiatives to cut the fiscal deficit, privatize state-run industries, and promote foreign investment.

In January, Alaa Hussein, the Kuwaiti appointed by Iraq to head Kuwait's interim government after the 1990 Iraqi invasion, was arrested upon his arrival in the country after ten years in exile. He had been sentenced to death in absentia for treason by a special state security court in 1993. A criminal court upheld the death sentence in May, as did an appeals court in July. Hussein has a final appeal to the court of cassation pending. In September, the United Nations Security Council awarded Kuwait $15.9 billion in compensation for lost oil production during the seven-month Iraqi occupation.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Kuwaitis cannot change their government democratically. Political parties are illegal, although de facto groupings are tolerated. Under the 1962 constitution, the national assembly has limited power to approve the emir's choice of crown prince. The emir holds executive authority and rules through an appointed prime minister (usually the crown prince) and an appointed council of ministers. Legislative authority is shared by the emir and the national assembly, which is subject to dissolution by decree. Women, citizens naturalized for less than 20 years, members of the armed forces, the police, and other interior ministry personnel may not vote or seek election to the national assembly. In 1999, several national assembly candidates were prosecuted for defamation of government officials during an election campaign marked by widespread verbal attacks against the government for alleged corruption. About 30 tribal leaders were also prosecuted for holding illegal primary elections.

Parliament has waged an aggressive campaign against government corruption in recent years. In May, the assembly demanded that the government provide reports three times a year about several high-profile graft cases that have emerged in the past ten years involving hundreds of millions of dollars and a number of senior officials. The demand is not binding on the government, which enjoys immunity from prosecution, and it is unclear as yet whether ministers will comply.

The emir appoints all judges, and renewal of many judicial appointments is subject to government approval. One court system tries both civil and criminal cases. Sharia (Islamic law) courts for Sunnis and Shia handle family law cases. Defendants have the right to appeal verdicts and to be represented by legal counsel, which the courts provide in criminal cases. Suspects may be detained for four days before being brought before an investigating official. People convicted of collaboration with Iraq during the 1990-1991 occupation remain incarcerated. Most of those tried in the Martial Law Court in 1991 and the Special State Security Court, which was abolished in 1995, did not receive fair trials. The UN Human Rights Committee issued a report in July expressing concern over the large number of offenses for which Kuwaiti courts can impose the death penalty, including vaguely defined offenses related to national security and also drug-related crimes.

The Printing and Publications Law and the penal code may both be used to restrict freedom of expression, and although prepublication censorship was abolished in 1992, journalists practice self-censorship. Direct criticism of the emir or of relations with other states, material deemed offensive to religion, incitement to violence, hatred, or dissent, and news that "affects the value of the national currency" are punishable by imprisonment and/or fines. The government announced plans in September to amend press laws to reduce penalties against journalists and to make it more difficult for authorities to shut down newspapers. Enforcement of restrictions is arbitrary. Newspapers are privately owned and frequently criticize government policies and officials. Two women were sentenced to prison in January for using "indecent language" and ridiculing religion in books they authored, but their sentences were converted to fines by an appeals court in March. Broadcasting is completely state-owned. Citizens have access to foreign programs through satellite dishes, which are widely available.


Public gatherings require government approval. Informal, family-based, almost exclusively male social gatherings called diwaniyas provide a forum for political discussion. The law gives the government full authority to regulate, ban, or license any society and prohibits clubs and associations from engaging in political activities. The government denies formal recognition to human rights nongovernmental organizations and restricts their ability to organize publicly. However, some informal gatherings by human rights activists are tolerated. The parliamentary human rights committee has complained of government interference with their visits to prisons.

Women face discrimination in legal and social matters. Sharia courts give a woman's testimony lesser weight than that of a man; women must have permission of a male relative to obtain a passport; and only men are able to confer citizenship on children. Women are also legally disadvantaged in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. The penal code provides relative impunity for men who commit violent crimes against women. Seven men were acquitted in June of attacking a female student for not wearing the hijab. An appeals court later sentenced four of them to a year in prison. An apparent increase in conservative Islamic sentiment may mean greater restrictions for women. Kuwait University announced plans in November to impose stricter dress codes on women. Women are prohibited from certain professions, such as the judiciary, but the field of possibility is widening. In December, the interior ministry announced that it would begin training women as police officers. At year's end, the constitutional court was considering an amendment to the election law that would grant women the right to vote.

Islam is the state religion, and both Sunnis and Shia worship freely. The government recognizes the Christian community of more than 150,000, including Roman and Greek Catholics, National Evangelicals (Protestants), Greek and Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Maronites. Leaders of these churches describe the government as tolerant. Hindus, Sikhs, Bahais, and Buddhists may not build places of worship, but may worship privately without interference. They number more than 60,000. A ban on organized, non-Muslim religious education is not widely enforced. In April, a gunman, presumably a Sunni extremist, opened fire on a Shiite religious center.

Some 120,000 bidoon, or stateless people, are considered illegal residents and denied citizenship and civil rights, including the right to travel, to register births, deaths, and marriages, and to confer Kuwaiti citizenship on their children. An estimated 240,000 live outside Kuwait because the state does not permit them to return. In October 1999, the interior ministry initiated a nine-month program during which bidoon who renounced Kuwaiti nationality could apply for five-year residency permits and other benefits. Almost immediately following the June 27, 2000 deadline, deportation procedures began against people deemed in violation of nationality and alien residence laws. A committee was established in July to handle cases of bidoon ordered deported. Some 37,000 bidoon reportedly became eligible for citizenship under amendments to the nationality law in May. In October, the government provisionally agreed to grant citizenship to 1,000 bidoon and their families.

The government maintains financial control over unions through subsidies that account for 90 percent of some union budgets. Only one union is permitted per industry or profession, and only one labor federation, the pro-government Kuwaiti Trade Union Federation, exists. Workers may strike, but no law protects them from resulting legal or administrative action. Roughly 100,000 foreigners who work as domestic servants are not protected under labor law and are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse by employers. In March, India announced that because of such abuses, it would no longer issue immigration clearances to Indian nationals seeking domestic employment in Kuwait.

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