SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: November 20, 2021

Attack Types: Prosecution

Institution(s):Kuwait University

Region & Country:Western Asia | Kuwait

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On November 20, 2021, Kuwaiti national security agents interrogated Dr. Safaa Zaman – a professor for the Faculty of Computer Science and Engineering at Kuwait University and the president of the Kuwait Association for Information Security – about an interview she gave in her field of study. Roughly four weeks later, the Public Prosecution Office referred her case to Kuwait’s Criminal Court. 

On November 14, Al-Shahed TV published an interview of Zaman on YouTube for its program Appeal, during which she spoke with the program’s host, lawyer Rasha Salem,” about the risks of hacking and threats of data security posed by the existence of electronic servers associated with Egypt’s Civil Service Commission. The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GC4HR) has noted that Zaman’s remarks were “within her field of speciali[z]ation” and made “using evidence-based information.”

Late on November 19, Kuwait’s National Security Bureau summoned Zaman by phone for an interview at 10:00 am the following day. Zaman arrived at the designated location as instructed on November 20 and waited there for an hour, but was not interrogated at that location. However, national security agents then prevented Zaman from driving her own vehicle and transported her to the Public Prosecution Office in a national security vehicle. There, she was forced to wait another hour before being interrogated. During the interrogation, she was informed that she was facing three charges in relation to her comments on Appeal; however, at the time of her release, it was unclear if she had officially been charged. 

Then, on December 15, the newspaper Al-Qabas reported that the Public Prosecution Office had completed its investigation into the case against Zaman, which had been filed by the Civil Service Bureau, and had referred the case to Kuwait’s Criminal Court. According to the GC4HR, Zaman was charged with “broadcasting false news that undermines the prestige of the state,” “causing panic in society,” and “exposing the country to the risk of severing its relationship with a friendly country” – specifically, Egypt. The three charges carry up to ten years in prison. 

During Zaman’s first hearing on January 11, 2022, the court decided to postpone the presentation of the defense until February 15. Her lawyer, Ali Al-Sabri, asked for the next court session to be held privately to allow the defense to present sensitive documents to the court.

Academics, politicians, and members of civil society have expressed their support for Zaman, asserting that the court case against her violates her freedom of expression and that her comments were well-intentioned. Similarly, Zaman herself has defended her comments on Appeal as motivated by a desire to protect Kuwait’s national security rather than to disrupt it.

Scholars at Risk is concerned by the prosecution of an academic for peacefully exercising her academic freedom – conduct that is protected by international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Kuwait is a party. State authorities have the obligation to refrain from taking actions to restrict or retaliate against such conduct, so long as it is nonviolent and responsible. In addition to harm to the immediate victim, prosecution intended to restrict or otherwise deter academic expression undermines academic freedom and democratic society more generally.