A Kuwaiti court has sentenced a transgender woman to prison for “imitating the opposite sex” online, Human Rights Watch said today. Such laws violate the rights to free expression, privacy, and nondiscrimination under Kuwait’s constitution and international law. The authorities should immediately release her and quash the conviction.

The court on October 3, 2021, sentenced Maha al-Mutairi, 40, to two years in prison and a fine of 1,000 Kuwaiti dinars (USD 3,315) for “misusing phone communication” by “imitating the opposite sex” online under article 70 of the telecommunication law and article 198 of the penal code. She has been arrested multiple times since 2019 for her transgender identity, but the current conviction is apparently based on her online activities in 2021. 

“The Kuwaiti government’s monitoring, repeated arrests, and imprisonment of Maha al-Mutairi for her trans identity is a blatant violation of her basic rights,” said Rasha Younes, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Kuwaiti authorities should immediately reverse her conviction and allow her to live safely as a woman.”

Al-Mutairi told Human Rights Watch in a phone interview on October 8 that after receiving news of her conviction she went into hiding. But the police arrested her on October 11 at the hotel where she was staying. She is being held in Kuwait Central Prison, a men’s prison, in a solitary cell designated for transgender detainees.

Ibtissam al-Enezi, al-Mutairi’s lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that the court used al-Mutairi’s social media videos as evidence to convict her on grounds that she was wearing makeup, speaking about her transgender identity, allegedly making “sexual advances,” and criticizing the Kuwaiti government. Her appeals hearing is scheduled for October 31.

Al-Enezi said the prison officials have not mistreated al-Mutairi and that police had allowed her to call her lawyer. Al-Mutairi told Human Rights Watch that this was the sixth time she has been arrested due to her transgender identity and that before her current arrest she had been barred from traveling outside the country because of the cases against her.

On June 5, 2020, the authorities summoned al-Mutairi for “imitating women” – the fourth time she had faced the charge that year – after she posted a video online saying that the police had raped and beaten her while she was detained in a male prison for seven months in 2019 for “imitating the opposite sex.” The authorities released al-Mutairi on bail on June 8, 2020, without charge. She told Human Rights Watch that the police abused her during those three days in detention, including by spitting on her, verbally abusing her, and sexually assaulting her by taking turns touching her breasts. 

A 2007 Kuwaiti law amended article 198 of the penal code, criminalizing “imitating the opposite sex.” Under article 70 of the telecommunication law, a person who “misuses” telephone communication may be imprisoned for up to a year and fined up to 2,000 Kuwaiti dinars (USD 7,091).

In 2012, Human Rights Watch documented the negative effects of article 198 on the lives of transgender women, who reported multiple forms of abuse at the hands of the police while in detention. They described degrading and humiliating treatment such as being forced to strip and parade around police stations, being forced to dance for officers, sexual humiliation, verbal taunts and intimidation, solitary confinement, and emotional and physical abuse that could amount to torture.

The Kuwaiti National Assembly should repeal the 2007 amendment to article 198, and Kuwaiti authorities should investigate all allegations of police brutality including sexual violence, hold officers accountable for misconduct, and protect transgender people from violence, Human Rights Watch said. Kuwaiti authorities should also amend article 70 of the telecommunication law to remove imprisonment as a punishment for speech violations that amount to defamation as defined by law.  

Article 36 of Kuwait’s constitution guarantees freedom of opinion and expression. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Kuwait has ratified, also guarantees the right to freedom of expression and requires that any restrictions “must be constructed with care,” ensure that they do not stifle freedom of expression in practice and should not provide for “excessively punitive measures and penalties.”

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the ICCPR, has made clear that the covenant prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in upholding any of the rights protected by the treaty. As a state party to the ICCPR and the Arab Charter on Human Rights, Kuwait is required to protect the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, including for transgender people.

“Al-Mutairi’s story is one of many horrific accounts by transgender Kuwaitis whose only crime is expressing themselves publicly,” Younes said. “Kuwait should immediately release al-Mutairi, investigate her allegations of sexual violence in detention, and end its criminalization and harassment of transgender people.”

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