Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah
Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah AFP file

Human Rights Watch on Tuesday urged Kuwait to drop charges against individuals accused of offending the emir, a day after a former MP was handed a jail term for insulting the Gulf state's ruler.

"The Kuwaiti authorities should drop criminal charges against dozens of online activists, journalists, and politicians for legitimately exercising their rights to freedom of expression," HRW said in a statement.

The New York-based group also said the authorities in the oil-rich country should withdraw charges and overturn the sentences for at least 10 individuals already convicted in such cases, AFP reported.

On Monday, the lower court sentenced key opposition leader and former MP Mussallam al-Barrak to five years in prison for "insulting" Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah during a public rally on October 15.

Thousands of Kuwaitis demonstrated late Monday to protest the sentence, which defense lawyers have described as illegal.

"No one should ever be prosecuted solely for expressing peaceful criticism," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.

"The Kuwaiti authorities should not be jailing opposition activists and journalists on charges of ‘offending the emir’ but instead scrapping the criminal code provision that makes this a crime, and upholding their international obligation to protect free speech," she said, according to AFP.

Kuwait has clamped down on opposition activists, sending dozens to court for allegedly insulting the emir following a political crisis that began a year ago after dissolving an opposition-dominated parliament.