By Ahmed Hagagy
KUWAIT (Reuters) - A prominent Kuwaiti opposition politician was sentenced to five years in jail on Monday for insulting the emir, his lawyer said, in a ruling that brought thousands of people to the streets in protest.
The demonstration showed the continuing tension between former members of parliament and the government, long dominated by the Al-Sabah family, in a country that has avoided the sort of mass pro-democracy unrest seen in many other Arab states.
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".
Thousands of supporters marched from Barrak's guest house towards the central prison outside the town as a police helicopter watched from the sky. In a show of defiance, the crowd chanted phrases from Barrak's October speech for which he was convicted of insulting the emir.
"We will not let you," they chanted, repeating part of the fiery speech Barrak addressed to the emir.
"Repeating this speech is not in support for Barrak. It is in support of justice and for the nation," Faisal al-Yahya, a former parliamentarian told the crowd at Barrak's house ahead the march.
Before the court decision, the government put a special forces squad on alert and boosted police patrols, according to the al-Qabas daily.
"I did not insult the emir. I addressed the head of state," Barrak told the Dubai-based al-Arabiya television in an interview. He was not immediately taken into custody.
The government of Kuwait, an OPEC member and U.S. ally across the Gulf from Washington's main regional adversary Iran, said Barrak was given a transparent and fair hearing.
"All citizens, regardless of their position, are equal in the eyes of the law. Anyone accused of a crime in Kuwait will get a fair trial with a comprehensive legal defense and open appeals process," the Information Ministry said in a statement.
After the sentencing, the latest manifestation of a crackdown on opposition activists, the Kuwaiti stock market briefly dipped by 1.3 percent but rebounded.
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.
There has been a series of political trials in Kuwait of late 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 parliamentarian Osama al-Shaheen wrote on his Twitter account.
"Consciences cannot be locked up," he said.
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 and Robin Pomeroy)