A Kuwaiti court sentenced key opposition leader Mussallam al-Barrak to five years in prison on Monday for insulting the emir, in a ruling likely to breathe new life into a flagging protest movement.
Barrak, a nationalist former MP, was charged with making statements offensive to the ruler of the oil-rich Gulf state, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, at a public rally on October 15.
Criticising the emir is a crime in Kuwait that carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail.
"The court has sentenced the defendant Mussallam al-Barrak to five years in prison with immediate effect," said judge Wael al-Atiqi in a half-full courtroom in Kuwait City.
In the written verdict obtained by AFP, the court said it was convinced that the statements made by Barrak "insulted the emir ... and undermined his authorities," both major violations of the law.
The verdict dictates the jail term must be implemented immediately and police could arrest the opposition leader at any time.
Barrak later told supporters at his residence that the "ruling is illegal but I will give myself up to police if they come to pick me up."
But when a number of high-ranking police officers arrived in the afternoon to arrest Barrak, lawyers asked for an official arrest order which they did not have and police had to go back empty-handed.
Hundreds of opposition activists and former MPs rushed to Barrak's residence in Al-Andalus, about 20 kilometres (12 miles) southwest of Kuwait City, to express solidarity with him.
The activists agreed to stage a demonstration later on Monday and urged Kuwaitis to join them.
One of Barrak's lawyers, Abdullah al-Ahmad, said "the ruling is null and void because it violated legal procedures and for failing to provide the defence team with sufficient guarantees."
"We will appeal against the ruling in the appeals court," he told AFP outside the courtroom, but the defence team had not filed the challenge when their offices closed on Monday.
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Last week, Barrak's defence team walked out of court after the judge refused requests to hear defence witnesses who included the Kuwaiti premier and two former opposition MPs.
Barrak had asked Atiqi to postpone the trial until he found a new lawyer but the judge refused and insisted he would proceed with the case on Monday.
The verdict was issued amid tight security inside and outside the Palace of Justice.
Kuwaiti stocks dived over 100 points or 1.4 percent immediately after the ruling was announced but most of the losses were recovered later.
Former liberal MP Abdulrahman al-Anjari said "the ruling is purely political ... far away from the principles of justice."
The verdict came two days after the Kuwaiti opposition threatened to stage street protests and call for civil disobedience if Barrak was denied a fair trial and jailed.
Independent political analyst Mohammad al-Ajmi said he expects a serious escalation of opposition-led protests after the verdict.
"I believe that escalation of protests is inevitable because of Barrak's heavy political weight and as he is considered an important symbol for the opposition," Ajmi told AFP.
The opposition leader is also facing trial on several other charges including storming parliament and participating in protests.
Several opposition tweeters and former MPs have been sentenced to jail on charges of insulting the emir.
Kuwait's opposition has been staging protests to demand the dissolution of the parliament elected last December on the basis of an electoral law that had been amended by the emir.
The opposition charged the change was illegal and aimed at electing a rubber stamp parliament.