Courtesy of Michelle Jackson. Monique Coverson (left) and Larissa Joseph.
It was Mother’s Day, and I was expecting my daughter to come home. But instead I found out she was in a jail cell in Kuwait,” recalls Michelle Jackson. “In jail for what?”
On the morning of May 8, 2015, Kuwaiti police kicked in the door of American military contractors Monique Coverson and Larissa Joseph’s apartment and confiscated one ounce of a “tobacco-like substance.”
The lesbian couple were sent to the Central Prison in Sulaibiya, Kuwait, for eight months while the substance was sent to Germany for analysis. Upon testing, lab results concluded it to be synthetic marijuana (also known as “K2” or “spice”) — a legal substance in Kuwait.
As Coverson and Joseph sat in a Kuwaiti jail for eight months, the charges began to escalate. By the time they were tried in January, the couple were charged with drug trafficking — the one ounce of K2 had somehow become a pound of hashish, despite the two substances looking nothing alike. Coverson and Joseph were sentenced to 20 to 25 years on drug-trafficking charges.
“I spoke with Monique the day they were sentenced,” remembers Jackson. “She told me, ‘Mom, they planted this on us. We didn’t have anything like that. I really don’t know what’s going on. You’ve got to get us out of here.’ To hear her voice and that sound, as a parent, it was devastating. I told God, ‘As long as I have breath, I will continue to fight for my daughter.’ That’s when I started putting everything into place. I was like, What’s my move? Where do I go from here?”
Her first move was to set up a Facebook page called “Free Monique and Larissa.” In the description, she announced: “Americans Monique Coverson and her partner Larissa Joseph have been arrested and falsely accused while in Kuwait and have been sentenced to 20–25 years.”
She explained that Coverson and Joseph served for seven years as soldiers in the U.S. Army, stationed in Kuwait, and returned to the country to work for the Army as military contractors. Upon completing their work as contractors, they remained in Kuwait. Coverson, a music producer, transformed a portion of their home into a recording studio. “They shared their musical talents with comrades and friends they had come to know along the way,” says Jackson. “To this day, I have no idea where her things are. I pray her friend was able to save most of her personal things and expensive recording equipment, but I don’t know.”
Coverson’s sister, Jasmine, addressed a Change.org petition to President Obama, Al Sharpton, and the U.S. ambassador to Kuwait that received more than 170,000 signatures.
Meanwhile, the Facebook page carried the message, “Signed, a group consisting of a desperate Mom, sister, brother, aunts, uncles, friends, cousins, and all the lives that these two have touched. We love you, and need you home.”
Kuwait has traditionally been one of the more progressive countries in the Gulf. Revolutionary Iraqi poet Ahmed Matar once found refuge there. But demographics shifted in the 1960s and 1970s, when large numbers of tribesmen were naturalized, shifting from a majority of merchants and townspeople (hadhar), to a bedouin majority. Since then, the populace and lawmakers have hewed more closely to bedouin conservatism.
“Now we are stuck with their backward ideas,” a female artist told the Fanack Chronicle, an independent online media organization publishing informed analysis about the Middle East and North Africa.
Islamic culture is present in every aspect of Kuwaiti life: Women are often fully clothed in hijabs, food is generally halal, and Ramadan is celebrated by everyone. Homosexuals are prosecuted under the “debauchery law,” a penal code containing general provisions against immorality. Article 198 criminalizes “imitating the appearance of a member of the opposite sex” and imposes fines, imprisonment, and arbitrary restrictions upon individuals’ rights to privacy and free expression. Consensual sex between two men carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison, although the law makes no mention of same-sex relations between women.
As Kuwaiti drag queen Arabia Felix told Huck, an independent British magazine, “I was doing a photo shoot with my best friend and I had painted my entire body red. I was dropping him home that night, and we got pulled over by the cops. The officer saw red paint on my nails, and immediately pulled us out the car, looking for make-up, wigs, anything. They interrogated us, looking to see if we shaved any parts of our body. If you shave your legs here, turns out you’re gay.”
Police have also arrested scores of transgender women under this law.
In 2012, supported by conservative Islamists in the Kuwaiti parliament, Kuwaiti police initiated a “vice crackdown,” targeting LGBT people, as well as suspected adulterers, prostitutes, and people selling sex devices. “The campaigns will intensify in the next period to end such illegal practices inside suspected apartments and houses,” a police source said.
In 2013, public-health official Yousuf Mindkar went a step further and an-nounced the introduction of a screening process at Kuwait’s International Airport to prevent LGBT foreigners from entering Kuwait or other Gulf Cooperation Council countries: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.
“Health centers conduct the routine medical check to assess the health of the expatriates when they come into the GCC countries,” he said. “However, we will take stricter measures that will help us detect gays, who will be then barred from entering Kuwait or any of the GCC member states.”
Is it possible that Coverson and Joseph were just caught up in Kuwait’s queer witch hunt? By March 2016, they had been in a Kuwaiti jail for over 10 months, and Coverson’s mother was growing restless.
“Our attempt to hire an attorney has been fruitless,” she explained to the Free Monique and Larissa Facebook group. “In fact, the only time the attorney has made contact with us is to request money for services not rendered (extortion).”
A GoFundMe campaign started by Monique’s brother, Cornelius Jr., raised only $1,795 of a $25,000 goal from 35 people in two months.
Coverson’s congressman, Sanford Bishop, directed all questions to the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. A State Department official acknowledged awareness of a report that “two U.S. citizens have been arrested in Kuwait” but declined further comment.
“To this day, I cannot understand how the U.S. government has allowed them to remain in prison,” says Jackson. “Yes, this is my daughter, but she was a soldier as well, and no one has lifted a finger to assist or to show they give a damn.” There’s some tragic irony in the family history: Coverson’s father fought in the 1991 Persian Gulf War to liberate Kuwait.
And then, seemingly out of the blue, a Kuwaiti lawyer named Pauline Bond lifted her finger.
“Ms. Bond reached out to us and asked if she could handle the appeal,” says Jackson. Bond explained that her firm in Kuwait, the Legal Right Group, was confident it could get the verdict overturned because the officer who claimed to have discovered the drugs in the house had failed to appear in court to testify. Nonetheless, Coverson and Joseph were sentenced based on his findings. According to Bond, the case should have been thrown out and the women deported back to the U.S.
An appeal was scheduled for March 7, 2016. On the day of the appeal, Jackson wrote to The Advocate: “They have a new judge and after the review of the case he agreed with our new law team that the case was unjust.”
In early April, Jackson addressed the Facebook group with good news: “Update: They are coming home. The judge found them innocent and they will be on the first plane that they can put them on to bring them home... They’re coming home y’all! Hallelujah!”
As of press time, the couple had not yet been returned to the United States, and the court’s findings had not been made available.