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Kuwaiti activist flees to UK after conviction over Saudi criticism

Inventor and activist Salman al-Khalidi speaks to MEE after being sentenced for critical tweets about Gulf neighbours
Salman al-Khalidi, a Kuwaiti activist and inventor seeking political asylum in the UK, poses for a picture in London's Hyde Park (Supplied)

Salman al-Khalidi has come to the UK as the country experiences the hottest temperatures since records began - but having spent most of his life in Kuwait, he’s used to an arid desert climate. 

“Of course, it’s not as hot as Kuwait,” he tells Middle East Eye. “I am very much enjoying my life here in the UK. It’s very peaceful.” 

The 23-year-old Kuwaiti inventor is living in temporary accommodation in a coastal town in southern England. The accommodation was provided by the UK Home Office, which is currently processing his request for political asylum. 

On 21 May, Khalidi fled Qatar - where he was studying business administration at Lusail University - for the UK, after being notified of his imminent arrest back home in Kuwait. 

Days after arriving in the UK, he was sentenced in absentia to five years in jail for “insulting Saudi Arabia and spreading false news”.

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“People told me that if I was in Qatar when the Kuwaiti court sentenced me, Qatar would send me to Kuwait because of GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] protocols,” he says. “The Qatari public would sell me, so I left.”

Khashoggi tweets draw ire

Khalidi describes himself as an activist, who uses social media to express views about domestic and global human rights issues. 

This included the plight of Palestinians and the death of Middle East Eye and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of a Saudi hit squad in Istanbul in October 2018.

“I tweeted about Khashoggi… I attached proof from the Turkish and US governments about how the Saudis are responsible,” he says.

Khalidi is convinced these tweets explain why, in December last year, he was told by officials at the Salwa border crossing between Qatar and Saudi Arabia that he was not welcome for at least 25 years. He was never officially given a reason as to the refusal. 

Kuwaiti activist sentenced to five years in prison for tweets 'insulting' Saudi Arabia
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The Geneva-based Euro Med Human Rights Monitor reviewed the content of Khalidi’s Twitter feed in a report last month, following his sentencing.

“Khalidi addressed internal and external issues, such as the case of the Bedoons in Kuwait,” Anas Jerjawi, chief operating officer at Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor told Middle East Eye. 

“He was active on the field and through his Twitter account in defending their rights and calling on the authorities to settle their legal status and end their suffering.”

Jerjawi adds that Khalidi shared his anger about the murder of Khashoggi in several tweets, which drew the ire of pro-Saudi social media accounts. 

“The Euro-Med Monitor team recorded a wave of attacks by dozens of Saudi Twitter accounts against activist Khalidi, including accusations of lying and ignorance.

“Those accounts incited Khalidi’s prosecution due to his opinion on the Khashoggi case.”

Crackdown on Saudi and UAE critics

The inventor is the latest among several Kuwaitis to fall foul of a vaguely worded 1960 penal code which makes it illegal to criticise the rulers of neighbouring countries. 

Campaigners believe the controversial 2015 cybercrime law has been utilised in recent years, along with the penal code, to prosecute social media activists critical of Gulf states. 

In 2015, Abdul Rahman al-Ajmi was sentenced to four years by Kuwaiti authorities for insulting Saudi Arabia, among other charges of incitement to overthrow the government, and insulting Kuwait’s emir.

Three years later, Abdullah al-Saleh was sentenced to five years for criticising the UAE’s role in the region, and a further five years for speaking out against the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar at the time. 

'The Kuwaiti government is sacrificing these citizens to carry out the orders of Saudi Arabia'

- Salman al-Khalidi, exiled Kuwaiti inventor

“This is a dangerous trend that is enabled by vague state security provisions in Kuwait’s penal code, in addition to its 2014 law on communications and 2015 cybercrime law,” says Ramzi Kaiss, legal and policy officer at MENA Rights Group, which raised Khalidi's case to the UN last month.

“The sentencing of Salman certainly sends a chilling message that any criticism of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states may be met with imprisonment.”

Khalidi is keen to stress his love for his country, which he has represented at 46 scientific and business conferences and competitions around the world, including in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, the UK and the UAE.

“The problem is because of Saudi Arabia, not because of Kuwait,” he says. 

“Kuwait is a small country and they don’t want to upset the bigger countries, Saudi and the UAE. The Kuwaiti government is sacrificing these citizens to carry out the orders of Saudi Arabia.”

'Nobody can silence me any more'

Now Khalidi awaits his “big interview” with UK authorities, when he will find out the status of his political asylum request. 

“We hope [the UK] will treat him with humanity when looking into his asylum request and consider the harsh sentence issued against him in Kuwait,” says Jerjawi. 

“We expect the British authorities to raise the case with the Kuwaiti authorities and push to overturn the verdict against al-Khalidi or at least have him retried away from broad and unfair charges.” 

Asked by MEE whether it would raise Khalidi’s case with Kuwaiti authorities, a Foreign Commonwealth, Development Office spokesperson said: “The UK and Kuwait have a strong and trusted relationship with regular dialogue across the spectrum of bilateral issues, including human rights.” 

'The sentencing of Salman certainly sends a chilling message that any criticism of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states may be met with imprisonment'

- Ramzi Kaiss, MENA Rights Group

They added that the FCDO does not comment on individual cases, and were any potential extradition request to be received, it would be “sent to Westminster Magistrates’ Court which will consider many aspects of the case, including any human rights considerations, and decide whether the request should be refused”. 

Khalidi says the process with the UK government has been smooth so far, but that he took issue with Ukrainian refugees receiving priority in the progress of their applications. 

“It’s unfair that Ukrainians have priority, because others also have danger. I am in grave danger.” 

But he says he is content with the safety and security of his new hometown, which is filled with tourists and locals enjoying the sun.

“I am safe here and nobody can silence me any more.”

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