LONDON (AlertNet) - Stateless Arabs arrested after protesting in Kuwait for the right to be recognised as citizens were beaten and sexually abused, a rights group has said.
Refugees International advocate Sarnata Reynolds, who visited Kuwait last month, said some protesters were also held in solitary confinement after the crackdown during which police used rubber bullets, water cannon and sound bombs to break up demonstrations.
Reynolds called on Kuwait to stop police brutality against protesters and criticised the international community for turning a blind eye to the violence.
She said the plight of its large stateless population – known as bedouns – was “an abhorrent and ugly stain” on the country, and called for the government to take immediate steps to tackle the issue.
There are an estimated 100,000 bedouns in Kuwait. Many are descendents of Bedouin tribes who have lived in the region for generations but failed to apply for citizenship when Kuwait became independent in 1961.
They cannot get birth certificates or passports and do not have the same right to free education and healthcare enjoyed by Kuwaiti citizens. Barred from most jobs, they largely live in makeshift housing outside the capital, Kuwait City.
Their average salary is $300 a month, ten times less than what the average Kuwaiti earns, said Reynolds, Refugee International’s expert on statelessness.
Thousands of bedouns have held periodic demonstrations over the past year to demand the government recognise them as nationals, but the police cracked down hard on protests in December and January.
Those arrested included a man whose 6-year-old son had died of cancer because the government would not let him travel to Saudi Arabia to get treatment, Refugees International said this month in a report: Kuwait: Bidoun Nationality Demands Can’t Be Silenced
Reynolds said she was particularly shocked by allegations from several protesters she met who told her they had been sexually abused after their arrest. They believed many others had been subjected to similar ordeals.
The crackdown was made worse by the total lack of international condemnation which had encouraged a climate of impunity, she added.
But Reynolds said there had been a number of positive recent developments. Kuwait has said its Human Rights Commission is to investigate allegations of human rights abuses and it has released all 72 people arrested – although they still face charges.
There is also growing momentum in Kuwait’s newly elected parliament to address the bedoun issue which MPs have traditionally viewed as toxic, she said.
Reynolds said Kuwait could easily absorb all the bedouns without detriment to the generous state benefits enjoyed by its citizens.
“It’s 100,000 people who have lived there for generations in a country which has a $47-billion surplus,” she added.
Kuwait has acknowledged that 34,000 bedouns do qualify for nationality, but has not yet given them papers. However, it says many other bedouns are Arabs from elsewhere who deliberately disposed of their identity documents after coming to Kuwait to seek citizenship in the oil-rich country.
Reynolds called on the government to immediately nationalise the 34,000 bedouns it has recognised and to start adjudicating on tens of thousands of other pending applications.
She said the United States and Britain, which have strong diplomatic ties to Kuwait, along with U.N. agencies must press the government more forcefully on the case of the bedouns.
Britain sent a delegation to Kuwait this month to talk about the bedouns, as did the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), which has a mandate to protect stateless populations. The United States is also sending a team.
Volker Turk, head of international protection at UNHCR, who visited Kuwait last week, said he was very encouraged by a meeting he had with the speaker of parliament.
“There’s a more positive spirit than I’ve ever seen before and there is a consensus that this has to be resolved,” he added.
Turk said Kuwait was now firmly in the spotlight following an international drive launched last year to resolve the plight of the world’s 12 million stateless people.
“I find it anachronistic in the 21st century to see stateless populations in the world and we hope this new momentum to tackle statelessness will inspire Kuwait,” he added.
Statelessness: The world's most invisible people - AlertNet multimedia package
Bedouns suffer uncertain fate in Kuwait - an interview with a bedoun now living in London
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)
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