By Ahmed Hagagy
KUWAIT (Reuters) - A prominent Kuwaiti opposition politician was sentenced to five years in jail on Monday for insulting the ruling emir, his lawyer said, in a ruling expected to stoke political tension in the Gulf Arab state.
Kuwait, an OPEC member and U.S. ally across the Gulf from Washington's main regional adversary Iran, has avoided the sort of mass pro-democracy unrest seen in other Arab states. But tensions have risen between former members of parliament and the government, long dominated by the Al-Sabah family.
The Kuwaiti criminal court found Musallam al-Barrak, an outspoken former member of parliament, guilty of insulting Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah in a speech in October last year in which he appealed to the emir to avoid "autocratic rule".
The ruling, the latest manifestation of a crackdown on opposition activists, raised the prospect of a protest march later in the day. The government put a special forces squad on alert and boosted police patrols, al-Qabas daily reported.
The Kuwaiti stock market briefly dipped by 1.3 percent after the sentence but recovered soon after.
Kuwait was buffeted by large street protests last year after the emir changed voting laws, which prompted the opposition to boycott a general election in December and produced a parliament more friendly toward the government.
While Kuwait allows more freedom of speech than some other Gulf Arab states, the emir has the last say in state affairs and is deemed "immune and inviolable" in the constitution.
Monday's ruling was the latest in a series of political trials that have drawn rebuke abroad and anger at home.
"Musallam al-Barrak is not just a (member of a) tribe and a political trend, but a conscience of a nation struggling to protect its rights, freedoms and wealth," former opposition MP Osama al-Shaheen wrote on his Twitter account.
"Consciences cannot be locked up," he said.
Dozens of supporters gathered at Barrak's family guest house in Kuwait city after the verdict and his followers were considering a march, according to activists on Twitter.
Demonstrations about local issues in Kuwait often occur but violence has been rare.
Barrak's lawyer, Mohammed Abdulqader al-Jassem, said the defense team was considering filing an appeal, saying the decision was in violation of the constitution.
He said the ruling stipulated that the sentence be implemented immediately but the judge left it to the Interior Ministry to decide when to take Barrak into custody.
Addressing supporters at his guest house, Barrak described the ruling as "void" but said he was ready to turn himself in to police when they come to implement the court decision, according to the www.alaan.cc news website.
Barrak was the most prominent figure among a group of activists brought to court in a state swoop on activists accused of insulting the emir.
In February, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said that since last October, prosecutors had charged nearly 25 people with offending the emir, sentencing at least six to jail terms.
The United States and Amnesty International have also called on Kuwait to respect freedom of expression.
(Additional reporting by Mahmoud Harby, writing by Sami Aboudi; editing by Mark Heinrich)