The law requiring compulsory DNA testing of all Kuwaiti residents, as well as of all those visiting the country for whatever purpose, is a serious assault on the right to privacy of individuals, and is also likely to lead to the isolation of Kuwaiti scientific research and researchers, the European Society of Human Genetics (ESHG) said last week. In a letter addressed to Kuwait’s Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers of the State of Kuwait, the Society called upon the government to amend the law.
A United Nations Human Rights Committee also urged the law to be amended last month, asking that DNA only be collected following specific court orders, for specific investigations. The law “imposes unnecessary and disproportionate restrictions on the right to privacy”, the committee said.
Kuwait’s mandatory and controversial DNA law, which is reported to take effect in November 2016, has been questioned by other legal experts and human rights activists. A Kuwaiti lawyer has even filed a formal constitutional challenge against the law.
The law, which mandates DNA collection from all citizens and resident foreigners, a total of over four million people, plus all visitors to the country, will also be affected by the law. A station is being set up at the airport which will require all new arrivals to submit their DNA through cheek swabs or blood samples. This could lead to blatant privacy violations, say critics of the bill.
Kuwait’s Parliament that usually objects to any new law or regulation imposed by the government, moved swiftly to pass the bill in the wake of the July 2015 terrorist attack in Kuwait City that left nearly 30 people dead. By having access to a large database of everyone’s DNA, it would make it easier for law enforcement agencies to identify victims of terrorism and track criminal suspects.
However, the law, thought to be the first of its kind anywhere in the world, is viewed by many critics as being not only ineffective as a tool to combat terrorism but as being a potentially huge privacy liability if this database were to be stolen or hacked. The bill is meant to be mandatory and anyone who refuses collection of their DNA could be subject to imprisonment or a fine of KD10,000.
“Compelling every citizen, resident, and visitor to submit a DNA sample to the government is similar to forcing house searches without a warrant,” said Adel Abdulhadi, the attorney who has filed a constitutional challenge to the DNA bill. “The body is more sacred than houses,” the lawyer added.
Some fear that this law could be used as a blunt weapon, for example to determine paternity in a country where adultery is illegal and in deciding contentious cases of the right to nationality among thousands of stateless persons or ‘bedouins’.
Another way that the law might stand to be a game changer is that it will likely expose adulterers and women who have had children outside their marriage — crimes that carry severe punishments in the country, which closely abides by Islamic law. The Islamic Organization for Medical Sciences, a Kuwait-based religious andmedical policy group with broad influence in the Muslim world, has endorsed DNA evidence as a way to establish genealogies in the context of Islamic family courts.
Senior officials in charge with implementing the project at the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Criminal Evidence denied these criticisms. They reiterated that the DNA testing law is aimed at creating an integrated security database and does not include genealogical implications or affects personal freedoms and privacy.
The officials said protecting the privacy of each and every citizen and resident is underlined in the new law. The law clearly states that individuals making job-related secrets public or revealing any DNA database information they might come across as part of job duties, will be punished by a maximum of three years in prison. The law also states that individuals forging DNA documents or knowingly using fake ones will be punished by a maximum of seven years in prison and/or a maximum KD5,000 fine, while individuals who damage the DNA database will be punished by a minimum of three and a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Meanwhile, preparations are in progress to set the regulating charter to the DNA law and commence taking mandatory samples from all citizens, residents and visitors.