A Kuwait court on Monday charged 31 stateless people with illegal assembly and assaulting police during demonstrations earlier this year to demand citizenship and other basic rights.
Twenty-six defendants were present at the start of the hearing, which was also attended by representatives of local human rights groups and activists supporting the rights of stateless, locally known as bidoons.
More trials will be held for three others on Wednesday and 16 people on December 18. All the men were arrested following weeks of protests in February and March that witnessed clashes with riot police.
The men were charged by the court for illegal assembly with the aim to commit crimes and assaulting security forces. All the defendants denied the charges and said they committed no offence.
Mubarak al-Shemmari, one of several lawyers who volunteered to defend them, told AFP that the defendants face between three to five years in jail if the charges were proven.
He however described the whole case as “politically motivated” because no crime was committed and authorities could not provide any substantial evidence.
Under Kuwaiti law, only citizens have the right to hold public gatherings while foreigners are banned.
Head of the Kuwaiti Bidoons Committee Musaed al-Shemmari described the charges as “oppressive with the aim to scare all stateless people from protesting to demand their rights.”
“All witnesses and media people saw that it was the riot police who attacked the peaceful protesters first even without warning them,” Shemmari said.
Encouraged by wide-spread pro-democracy protests that swept several Arab countries, some of the estimated 100,000 stateless people in Kuwait took to the streets to press for their basic rights they claim they have been denied.
Kuwait launched a crackdown on the bidoons in 2000, depriving them of health care, education and jobs. The stateless claim they are Kuwaiti citizens who have been denied nationality.
In June, Human Rights Watch urged Kuwait in a report to redress citizenship claims by stateless people who have been denied this right for decades.
The report described how many stateless remain “vulnerable, without protection and live in poverty,” as wealthy Kuwait considers them “illegal residents.”
The government has denied them essential documentation, including birth, marriage, and death certificates, as well as access to free government schools and legal employment opportunities, said the report.
Kuwait has said that it was studying the issue of bidoons carefully and was prepared to grant citizenship to those who deserve.