By Ahmed Hagagy
KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwaiti prosecutors have charged an opposition leader with insulting the Gulf state's ruler, a defense lawyer said on Wednesday, in a case likely to fuel tension before a parliamentary election on December 1.
Musallam al-Barrak, an outspoken former member of parliament was picked up from his home on Monday night, two weeks after an opposition rally at which he made rare critical remarks about the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah.
Prosecutors have charged Barrak with encroaching on the pillars of the emirate, insulting the emir and infringing his authorities, said the lawyer, who asked not to be named.
He said prosecutors had ordered Barrak held for 10 days pending investigation and transferred him to the central prison.
While Kuwait allows more free speech than some of its neighbors, the constitution says the emir is "immune and inviolable". Insulting him carries a penalty of up to five years in jail.
At the rally, Barrak had appealed directly to the 83-year-old Sheikh Sabah to avoid "autocratic rule".
Three other former lawmakers were earlier detained on similar charges, questioned and freed on bail pending trial, scheduled to start on November 13.
A Kuwaiti government source said Barrak had violated laws enshrined in the constitution.
"They outline the rights and responsibilities of all Kuwaiti citizens, including former MP Mr al-Barrak, whose arrest was predictable, having broken our country's libel laws," he said.
Although Kuwait avoided the upheavals seen in other Arab nations last year, tensions have escalated in parliament between the majority opposition bloc, made up of Islamists and tribal figures, and the cabinet, dominated by the al-Sabah family.
The rift widened after the emir ordered changes to electoral rules, prompting the opposition to announce a boycott of the polls and to organize one of the biggest protests in Kuwait's recent history, bringing tens of thousands onto the streets.
At least 29 people and 11 policemen were wounded at the October 21 demonstration, which security forces tried to break up with tear gas and stun grenades. Police also detained more than 15 people, most of whom were later freed, activists said.
The government has since banned gatherings of more than 20 people and pushed ahead with preparations for the election.
The Information Minister told a news conference candidate registration began on Wednesday under new rules that allow each voter to pick only one candidate instead of four previously.
The minister said that under the changes, which also include setting up an election commission, each candidate will get a slot to discuss his or her platform on state television.
Kuwait has a more open political system than other Gulf states, allowing some parliamentary scrutiny over government decisions. But the emir retains most levers of power, including appointing the prime minister and dissolving parliament.
Kuwaiti lawyer and opposition activist Mohammed Abdulqader al-Jassem told Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which jointly intervened last year to help Bahrain quell unrest led by its Shi'ite majority, to stay out of Kuwait's affairs.
"If Kuwait's 'democracy' failed to move to your countries over the past five decades, the movement for change, marches and demonstrations and protests may be easier, and it will not take a long time," he wrote on his website in a message to Saudi King Abdullah and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.
His posting won a swift rebuke from the Foreign Ministry, which called it "unacceptable interference" in the affairs of the two neighbors and said it went against Kuwait's interests.
(Reporting by Ahmed Hagagy; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Alistair Lyon)