KUWAIT CITY (AP) — A leading opposition figure, three serving lawmakers and dozens of others in Kuwait were sentenced to prison on Monday over protesters storming parliament in 2011, with one lawyer saying police had already begun rounding up those convicted to take them to prison.
The decision by Kuwait's appeals court shocked the tiny oil-rich nation — especially as a lower court initially acquitted the 70-odd defendants involved in the 2013 case. It also comes amid crackdowns in other Gulf Cooperation Council nations and as uncertainty looms over who will take power in Kuwait after its 88-year-old ruler.
"I think a lot of Kuwaitis will be concerned that this will just feed into instability and any future leadership crisis as well," said Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Court documents reviewed by The Associated Press suggested that Musallam al-Barrack, a main opposition leader who just left prison in April after serving another two-year sentence, received the harshest sentence.
Al-Barrack got a nine-year prison term in Monday's court ruling while more than 50 other defendants were given sentences ranging from one to five years. The others had their acquittals upheld.
The state-run KUNA news agency reported the court's decision, but offered only vague details without the names of those convicted.
Al-Barrack and his lawyer could not be reached for comment, nor could serving lawmakers Waleed Tabtabaie, Jamaan Herbish and Mohamad al-Mutair, all well-known Islamists.
Lawyer Mohammed al-Humaidi, who represents seven defendants other than al-Barrack, said that police had begun arresting some of the defendants, who also included secular nationalists.
Lama al-Fadala, a sister of one of the defendants, said the sentence came as a shock.
"The defendants weren't given an opportunity to defend themselves in front of court, which is worrying," she said.
Compared to the rest of the Mideast, Islamists and secularists may seem like a strange combination to be lumped together. But in Kuwait, both sides rallied together in November 2011 when protesters angry about corruption allegations stormed the parliament.
The protesters briefly entered the parliament chamber amid attempts by opposition lawmakers to bring the prime minister for questioning over claims that government officials transferred state funds to accounts outside the country. Kuwait's key affairs are run by the ruling Al Sabah family, though it has one of the region's most politically active parliaments.
It's unclear what sparked Monday's appeals court's decision, though prosecutors apparently had appealed the earlier acquittals. Kuwait's opposition, while vocal, has not called for an end of the country's hereditary rule.
Al-Barrack was released in April after serving two years in prison following a conviction of insulting the country's ruling emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah. In that case, al-Barrack had warned Sheikh Sabah in 2012 not to "drag the country into a dark abyss," and said Kuwait risked becoming an autocratic state under new electoral laws.
Since his release, however, al-Barrack has been largely absent from the country's political scene.
Kuwait is a solid U.S. ally following the 1991 American-led Gulf War that ended the Iraqi occupation there. The country hosts some 13,500 American troops, many at Camp Arifjan south of Kuwait City, which also is home to the forward command of U.S. Army Central.
Home to 4 million people, Kuwait also has the world's fifth-largest oil reserves. It's also till now avoided the clampdowns on dissent seen in other Gulf countries like Bahrain.
Diwan, whose institute is predominantly funded through a government-subsidized think tank in the United Arab Emirates, called the arrests "concerning." She contrasted that against a recent call by Sheikh Sabah for unity.
"That question will be raised now whether that unity can be achieved at a time where we have the jailing of a large number of opposition and youth activists," Diwan said.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.