Advocacy, Middle East, New in Lobbying

Religious discrimination charge against Kuwait falls flat with State Department

A massive lobbying campaign to paint Kuwait as a religious rights abuser has failed to gain traction with the Donald Trump administration.

Over the past year, Kuwaiti investment firm KGL Investment has spent more than $1.5 million to pressure the Gulf country to drop embezzlement charges against former KGL Investment executive Marsha Lazareva. Led by Washington-based law firm Crowell and Moring, the effort has notably brought together a coalition of conservative voices some registered as lobbyists, some not who describe the Russian-born, US-educated Lazareva as unfairly treated by the majority-Muslim emirate because of her Orthodox Christian faith.

The campaign has included a stream of op-eds in conservative media calling on the Trump administration to threaten sanctions against Kuwait. It culminated with a February event on religious persecution in the Middle East, live-streamed on the Breitbart News site, which prominently featured calls to free Lazareva, who has been sentenced to almost two years of hard labor and is believed to have found refuge at the Russian Embassy in Kuwait.

Lazareva “was clearly targeted for being a successful Christian woman in a business environment dominated by Muslim men,” Neil Bush, the son of the late President George H.W. Bush, argued in a typical op-ed in the Washington Examiner back in November. “This religious persecution extended to her trial and her time in prison, where she was reportedly denied access to a Bible and told things would go better for her if she converted to Islam.”

Others who have thrown their weight behind the cause include In Defense of Christians President Toufic Baaklini, who wrote in support of sanctions against Kuwait in September, also in the Washington Examiner. Lazareva, he wrote, was “required to wear a burqa, attend court hearings on Sundays, including on Easter Sunday and Orthodox Easter Sunday, was not able to practice her religion and was encouraged by Kuwaiti jail authorities to convert to Islam to receive more favorable treatment.”

Both the Bush and the Baaklini op-eds were placed with help from public relations firms working either for KGL Investment or for Lazareva herself, Marathon Strategies and SouthFive.

Despite the money and the high-profile names involved, the campaign for Lazareva appears to have fallen flat.

The push for human-rights sanctions has gone nowhere in the Trump administration. And on Wednesday, the State Department opted not to give extra credence to the accusations of religious discrimination against Lazareva when it released its annual report on International Religious Freedom.

Far from repeating the claims made by her defenders, the US government’s highest-profile report on religious freedom around the world makes no mention of Lazareva at all. Instead, it praises Kuwait for registering the Mormon church as an official church this year and quoted representatives of registered churches as saying that the government was “generally tolerant and respectful of their faiths,” despite restrictions on expansion and proselytizing.

Bush and Baaklini did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did Crowell and Moring or the State Department.