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Gulf rulers take sharper aim at Web speech, sentence people for 'cyber-dissent'

By Brian Murphy

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 9 2013 9:57 a.m. MST

Last year, a group of Saudi clerics and religious scholars urged bans against Western-oriented websites branded as "ideological deviations and delusions."

In Kuwait, the sentences issued this week — separate two-year jail terms to a blogger and online journalists for posts deemed "insulting" to the emir — brought some questions in the press about how far Gulf leaders will go to muzzle critics. But there was little direct criticism among bloggers and others, apparently stunned by the severity of the verdicts.

"It's no longer about being with or against. It's much bigger than that, the price is much more costly than a tag or a label of being "with" the government or "against" the government," wrote Waleed al-Rujaib, a Kuwaiti novelist, in a column Wednesday in the Al-Rai newspaper. "Is this the Kuwait that we once knew? Is this the Kuwait that once was a beacon for democracy among other countries in the region?"

Kuwait, which has the most politically empowered parliament among the Gulf Arab nations, is currently locked in showdowns between the government and opposition groups that include rare alliances of convenience between conservative Islamists and pro-reform liberals.

In a prison in Qatar, poet Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami is allowed only visits from family members and his lawyer as he hopes to overturn a life sentence for an Arab Spring-inspired verse that officials claim insulted the country's emir.

Al-Ajami was jailed in November 2011, months after an Internet video was posted of him reciting "Tunisian Jasmine," a poem lauding that country's popular uprising that touched off the Arab Spring rebellions. In the poem, he said, "We are all Tunisia in the face of repressive" authorities — and he criticized Arab governments that restrict freedoms.

Qatari officials charged al-Ajami with "insulting" the Gulf nation's ruler and "inciting to overthrow the ruling system." The latter charge could have brought a death sentence.

"He is a poet. He lives in a world of words, not politics," said his lawyer, Najib al-Naimi. "He loves his country and respects the emir. A society need not be afraid of words."

Associated Press writer Hussain al-Qatari in Kuwait City contributed to this report.

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