A Kuwaiti court recently convicted 22 Shia citizens and an Iranian national of offenses based on accusations of espionage and the intention to undertake “hostile acts” on behalf of Iran and Hezbollah, reportedly leading to an escalation of sectarian tensions in Kuwait. The charges came after security forces raided several farmhouses along the Iraqi border and allegedly uncovered the largest stockpile of hidden weapons in Kuwait’s history. Many of those convicted as part of what the government has called the “Abdali Cell” maintain their innocence, recanting confessions they claim were obtained through torture by Kuwaiti security forces. According to Amnesty International, the authorities violated the defendants’ due process rights and subjected them to a variety of different forms of abuse, including sexual assault.
The country’s minority Shia community has historically supported the Kuwaiti monarchy, allowing them to achieve a level of societal integration not seen in many of the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Nevertheless, discrimination and unrest in nearby countries, such as Bahrain, have increasingly threatened Kuwait’s comparably high degree of cross-sectarian integration. As noted by University of Qatar professor Justin Gengler, the government’s suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain, which is regularly mischaracterized by state-owned media outlets as a conflict between the country’s Shia and Sunni communities, has partially driven “the poisonous sectarian and other factional conflicts that have since escaped beyond the Arab Gulf to consume a greater part of the Middle East and North Africa.”
In this way, the Bahraini government’s sectarian narrative of the pro-democracy movement has not only obscured the fact that nearly all facets of Bahraini society participated in the 2011 protests, it has also contributed to a parallel increase in anti-Shia discourse throughout the GCC. Writing after the Government of Saudi Arabia executed Shia cleric and reform activist Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016, Saudi scholar Toby Jones observed that “Saudi rulers framed everything from domestic protests to intervention in Yemen in sectarian terms and in the process sought not only to demonize a minority group, but also to undermine the appeal of political reform and protest.” Likewise in Kuwait, many members of the country’s Shia minority now fear that cases like that of the “Abdali Cell” are similarly motivated, and that the authorities are increasingly willing to use torture and harsh sentences to target its Shia minority. As one Kuwaiti newspaper editor described the reaction to the arrests: “The Shi’ites say: this is against us.”
In the aftermath of the 2011 uprising in Bahrain – and the government’s violent reaction – it is especially imperative that countries like Kuwait uphold their international commitments to refrain from arbitrary detention, torture, and discrimination in all its forms.
Jesse Schatz is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB.