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UAE, Kuwait jail two Twitter users for dissent, blasphemy

DUBAI/KUWAIT (Reuters) - A United Arab Emirates court has jailed a man for two years for tweeting about a political trial and Kuwait handed a five-year prison term to a Kuwaiti Twitter user for insulting the Prophet Mohammad, activists and a lawyer said on Tuesday.

The cases and similar previous prosecutions highlight the sensitivity of Gulf Arab states to political dissent, criticism of senior officials, ruling family members and to comments they regard as blasphemous, especially on social media.

In the UAE, activists said Walid al-Shehhi, who was arrested in May, was convicted on Monday of violating the country's Internet crime law by a court in the capital Abu Dhabi. He was also fined 500,000 dirhams ($136,100).

Shehhi had used his Twitter account to question the trial of 94 alleged Emirati coup plotters and to call for the release of detainees he believed were held for backing democratic reforms, according to a local activist who asked not to be named.

In July, a UAE court jailed 61 Islamists among the 94 accused of conspiring to overthrow the government in a case that reflected the authorities' deep mistrust of Islamist groups.

Thirty Emiratis and Egyptians are now on trial in the UAE over charges of setting up an illegal branch of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

Reporters Without Borders condemned Monday's ruling and called for the release of Shehhi.

"The authorities are trying to make an example out of Shehhi in order to dissuade Emirati citizens from posting any information about the latest trial that strays from the official line," the group said in a statement.

Last year the UAE tightened the law on online dissent, stipulating jail terms for anyone who derides or caricatures the country's rulers or state institutions on the Internet. Several people were arrested after the law was amended.

LITTLE TOLERANCE FOR DISSENT

A Kuwaiti court sentenced Mussab Shamsah to five years in prison on Monday after he was convicted of insulting the Prophet Mohammad on Twitter, his lawyer, Khalil Ahmed, told Reuters.

Ahmed said Shamsah had meant no offence against the prophet. "The verdict is very harsh and we will appeal," he said.

Earlier this year, Kuwait sentenced a man to five years in prison for insulting the emir on Twitter and a woman to 11 years in jail for insulting the emir, inciting regime change and insulting a religious sect via Twitter.

Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook have enlivened public debate in the Gulf countries - which control state media and restrict freedom of speech - after the Arab revolts of 2011. Users range from ruling family members and ministers to government supporters and dissidents.

The UAE and Kuwait, U.S. allies and major oil exporters, have weathered the popular uprisings that ousted autocratic Arab rulers elsewhere, but show little tolerance for any dissent.

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have also detained several activists on charges that have included defaming ruling figures or spreading false news on Twitter.

(Reporting by Yara Bayoumy and Rania El Gamal; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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