Friday, May 24

The elegant central London apartment of Ahmad al-Khatib, articulate spokesman of the secular Kuwaiti opposition, served as a center for exiles during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Its comfortable diwaniyya remains a gathering place for those anxious about the political future of their country: Will the 1962 constitution be restored and parliamentary elections be held soon? Or will the Sabahs first reestablish their authority — reorganize their security forces and maintain tight control over foreign contracts and the much-discussed restructuring of society? Khatib is a key figure in those debates, concerned to keep the varying opposition groups in harmony as they seek to restore the constitution and democratic practices. Contentious issues include voting rights for women and bidun (“withouts”), stateless persons who numbered nearly 13 percent of the pre-invasion residents. Khatib and his friends communicate continually with their counterparts inside Kuwait in an effort to sustain common positions. He hopes to return soon, but the government must permit him to fly home. Others indicate that he has reason to fear for his own safety. A prominent lawyer, Hamad al-Ju‘an, was paralyzed in an assassination attempt in Kuwait on February 28, and Scotland Yard has reported threats against Khatib, too.

Many Kuwaitis in London are preoccupied with the emotional scars left by the occupation and the violence that has erupted since liberation. The staff of the Committee for Free Kuwait show us horrendous photographs taken illegally by doctors in hospitals and workers in morgues, determined to record the macabre torture carried out by Iraqi security forces. They hand us copies of such documents as an itemized list specifying which Iraqi provinces would receive books, furniture and equipment looted from academic institutions in Kuwait. Emotions are still raw.

They are also angry at Iraq’s failure to document fully or return the Kuwaitis who are refugees in Iraqi towns, or still in prison, or missing. Ghanim al-Najjar, a founder of the Association for Kuwaiti War Victims, believes those persons total at least 4,000 — one out of every 200 Kuwaiti and bidun residents. Without knowing their fate the whole society will remain preoccupied, unsettled.

Some argue that the Kuwaiti government has failed to reassure its citizens that they are secure. Fawziyya of the Committee decries the government’s failure to collect arms and ammunition from the public during the three months of martial law. Many Kuwaitis seized weapons from the fleeing Iraqi forces. She worries that Palestinians may be armed, and stresses the distrust among the communities. Although most Palestinians stood aside, uninvolved in the occupation, and some even helped Kuwaitis, she insists that 30 percent of the Palestinians carried guns. Her brother was imprisoned and tortured when a Palestinian reported on his resistance cell; we know which Palestinians helped and which hurt us, she says. She can no longer bring herself to raise funds for the Palestine Medical Association that assists hospitals on the West Bank.

Saturday and Sunday, May 25-26

From the airport in Kuwait, we rush to the marital law court, after dropping our suitcases at the hotel. Muhammad bin Najji, whose severe sentences have led some Kuwaitis to call him the “hanging judge,” presides over the panel of three civilian and two military judges. On May 19, bin Najji imposed a 15-year jail term on a young man who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with Saddam Hussein’s picture.

Today the defendants present their versions of the charges, deny their confessions and consult with their lawyers, but the cases hardly reach a Nuremberg level. Four men who worked in a Kuwaiti garage are accused of repairing Iraqi military vehicles; they ask why the Kuwaiti garage owner has not been arrested, instead of them. A Jordanian receives six months’ probation for possessing a bullet. On Sunday, a male nurse is charged with stealing photocopying equipment; he says that he has been framed by hospital staff who dislike him. An Iraqi is accused of harboring Iraqis in his home; he claims they were cousins who had deserted the Iraqi army and needed a haven.

Nihaya Taha, a young Palestinian woman, is charged with turning a member of the Kuwaiti resistance over to the Iraqis; she sits huddled in the back of the courtroom. Her parents talk softly to us during a recess. They came from Jenin in 1967 and the father worked as a long-haul driver. Shortly after Iraq seized Kuwait, Nihaya’s husband was shot dead at an Iraqi checkpoint; the Iraqis killed another relative, too, but now Nihaya and her brother are charged with collaboration. They believe that Nihaya’s children squabbled with the children of the Kuwaiti man’s mother-in-law, who is now taking revenge. They all fear deportation, even if Nihaya is found innocent, and wonder where they will go. Their West Bank residency permits expired years ago.

In the evening, ‘Imad al-Sayf, the articulate 29-year-old defense lawyer, describes the relative improvement in the court since the summary justice of May 19. ‘Imad notes that all the defendants now deny their confessions, which they state were obtained after torture. Defense lawyers can now examine files, meet their clients in prison and call witnesses. Nonetheless, serious problems remain, given the severity of the sentences and the lack of any appeals court; only the crown prince, as martial law governor, can alter a sentence. ‘Imad believes that many defendants are innocent; their legal defense is difficult but vital. With all the world scrutinizing us, he says, Kuwaitis must prove that there is justice here and that we will not use the same methods and norms as Iraq.

Monday, May 27, Tuesday, May 28

We are immersed in visits with Palestinians: officials from the now-closed Palestine Embassy, the Palestine Red Crescent Society and the women’s union, terrified residents of Hawali district, and senior statesman ‘Ali al-Hasan. ‘Ali worked hard during the Iraqi occupation to maintain contact with both the secular and Islamist Kuwaiti resistance movements and to assist impoverished Palestinians. Yet his house was torched and bullets were fired up the staircase shortly after Kuwait’s liberation.

All the Palestinians feel isolated and beleaguered. They cite specific disappearances, arrests and deaths: Some attacks may have been personal vendettas, but most seem targeted against the person simply for being Palestinian.

Kuwaiti soldiers and returnees, who burn with anger at Iraq, cannot hit Iraqis directly: Palestinians and other non-Kuwaitis are easy targets. Palestinians hope that the sharp reprimand that the crown prince gave to senior security officials on May 26 will have an impact on such behavior, but they worry. About 30 percent of the Palestinians worked at their government jobs and perhaps 5,000 Palestinian children attended schools during the Iraqi occupation. The Kuwaiti government has refused to reinstate these Palestinians in their posts or to admit their children to public school. They undergo lengthy processes to re-register their IDs and car licenses; they resent being treated as though accepting Iraqi IDs was tantamount to collaboration.

Palestinians even find it difficult to leave: Many would flee to Jordan, but cannot find a way to take their belongings with them and have not yet received their vital severance pay. When they do depart, only a remnant of the once vibrant and financially influential community will remain, shrinking from its pre-occupation 350-400,000 to less than 50,000.

Wednesday, May 29, Friday, May 31

The Palestinians are not the only non-Kuwaiti community that feels beleaguered. The bidun, some 200,000 stateless persons who had lived on the margins of Kuwaiti society, are bewildered at accusations that they collaborated with the Iraqis. Many bidun are the descendants of long-term Kuwaiti residents who, for reasons of ignorance or inconvenience, failed to register as citizens in 1959, just prior to independence. Others have come from neighboring countries in recent years. In 1986 the government decided to reduce drastically the number of bidun: They were no longer issued civil IDs, which meant that they could no longer hold civilian jobs, own property, get married or send their children to public school. Those measures forced foreign-born bidun to produce their passports but stranded the indigenous bidun. Their only option was to join the armed forces or the police, which provided them with military IDs and enabled their children to enroll in school. As a result, 95 percent of Kuwait’s foot soldiers were bidun; they were on the front lines on August 2. But they were also vulnerable to Iraqi pressure, since they could not hide their military IDs. Some were forced to join al-jaysh al- sha‘bi, the neighborhood guard that Iraq formed; many endured torture and jail rather than collaborate.

With liberation, some Kuwaitis who sought scapegoats for their country’s swift military collapse charged that bidun guided the Iraqi army into Kuwait and that bidun soldiers fled their posts. Such accusations are deeply wounding to the bidun, who represented a disproportionate number of the Kuwaiti POWs in Iraq and now find themselves excluded from the armed forces on their return. Moreover, the government refuses to readmit bidun who were stranded in Iraq: The Red Cross has registered nearly 3,000 in Baghdad who seek to return home and another 4,850 have been huddled in makeshift tents at the ‘Abdali border post since March. Some women were searching for their detained husbands in Iraq when the war broke out; some men escaped Iraqi prisons during the civil strife there and walked to the border, only to find their return blocked.

We find them virtual prisoners at the border: afraid to go to Iraq, even for food, and forbidden to go the few miles to their homes. The children cling to their mothers: ‘Abbas, a skinny 13-year-old, shows us scars where his arm was injured by a detonator and says he fears that the Iraqi Republican Guard will attack their camp. Maha, who is 12, says wistfully that the only game that children play involves lining up in a row and shouting to the winner: “You’ve won a permit to enter Kuwait!” Conditions here are intolerable, say the men angrily, but no officials have come to process our return home. Why do they let back Kuwaitis who sat abroad in air-conditioned hotels, while we remain here?

Bidun inside Kuwait express even more anger. Devastated by constant suspicion and harassment, and lacking work, they increasingly insist that they obtain citizenship. Without a legal status, they and their children have no future in Kuwait and no place else to go. Kuwaiti human rights advocates admit that the bidun issue is a hot potato: No Kuwaiti politician wants to take up their cause.

Saturday, June 1

The second session of the al-Nida’ case consumes the entire day: 24 defendants, alleged to have worked in the Iraqi daily newspaper that spewed out pro-Saddam propaganda during the occupation, crowd into the locked cage on one side of the room and cluster in the back rows of the court, exchanging muted glances with their relatives, foreign observers and journalists. Six defendants are female, including Ibtisam al-Dakhil, the only Kuwaiti on trial. The editor-in-chief, a Lebanese who was managing editor of the leading Kuwaiti newspaper, al-Qabas, before the occupation, is now a fugitive. Some of the defendants had previously worked for al-Qabas, others for the Ministry of Information. The main evidence against them appears to be contained in a slip of paper that the first witness — the arresting security officer — hands to judge Muhammad bin Najji. The officer argues that they are guilty of helping Iraq consolidate its occupation, working to weaken Kuwaiti morale, and gaining money from services to the occupying power. The handwritten list names them as employees in al-Nida’; bin Najji dismisses requests by defense lawyers that the source of the list be revealed and its veracity ascertained. From the judge’s perspective, so long as they confessed that they worked for the newspaper and received payments, they are guilty. The pressures under which they might have agreed to work and the possibility that their confessions were obtained under duress do not appear to concern him.

The lawyers struggle to undermine the evidence: Usama Husayni’s name is not even on the list; another insists that his payment was for one-time repairs to water pipes. The judge continually interrupts the lawyers’ efforts to cross-examine the security officer and derides the character witness whom they introduce on Usama’s behalf.

Ibtisam is the only defendant against whom witnesses present concrete evidence. Three Kuwaiti journalists argue that she not only wrote regular articles for the newspaper under a pseudonym but also urged them to join al-Nida’ and “face the reality” that they must accept Iraqi IDs. Such statements are particularly damning, since they hint that she not only served as the sole Kuwaiti journalist on staff but also sought to recruit and intimidate Kuwaiti colleagues. [1]

Judge bin Najji’s overtly hostile attitude contrasts markedly to the approach of Judge Jawad Jasim, on Wednesday, May 29. During that marathon session, Jasim listens attentively to defendants’ descriptions of the psychological and physical torture that Iraqi forces used to compel them to join al-jaysh al-sha‘bi, to betray colleagues or to participate in musical performances for Iraqi officials. He allows ‘Imad al-Sayf to deliver an eloquent appeal on behalf of a Kuwaiti invalid who was sexually tortured by Iraqis before he revealed the names of two Kuwaiti officers but not that of his brother, who had worked in the Kuwaiti Ministry of Defense and was active in the resistance. The judge is also troubled by the clear evidence of torture after liberation: He agrees to a lawyer’s request to perform a medical examination on and obtain the hospital records of a bidun who was beaten so badly in a police station on March 4 that he had to be sent to Farwaniyya hospital.

Judge Jasim is particularly attentive to five Iraqi actors, poets and musicians — all long-term residents of Kuwait — who were compelled by the Iraqi artists union in Baghdad to form a counterpart union in Kuwait and perform at a New Year’s Eve party and a large gathering of Iraqi officers on January 6. The dignified, diminutive 74-year-old poet, Khalaf ‘Alwan al-Makki, says he tried unsuccessfully to escape to Saudi Arabia after the Iraqis “threatened his family honor” and made him chair the union. None of his poems, he insists, defamed Kuwait. The judge is visibly shocked at the welts around the wrists of Khalaf and Qasim Salih Bashir, a well-known actor; they claim the Kuwaiti resistance attached electric wires to their handcuffs and seared their skin. Qasim is so badly injured that he cannot sign his name and must make a thumbprint for the official record.

The judge also allows Zanouba ‘Abd al-Khidr, who acts under the stage name Zaynab al-Dahi, to describe in excruciating detail her near-assassination by Kuwaiti kidnappers on February 27. Although Zanouba appears to have been the most active participant in the Iraqi-sponsored activities, the judge seems to take into account in her case as well as the others’ important mitigating circumstances: As Iraqi citizens they were under special pressure from the Iraqi occupation regime; they did not accept any salaries for their performances; they refused to perform anti-Kuwaiti or pro-Saddam songs; they never knowingly performed for TV or radio; and they never tried to persuade Kuwaitis to join the union or perform. Judge Jasim appears to assess the moral and legal complexities of the occupation, and the mood in the courtroom similarly reflects that anguish, rather than a sense of vindictiveness. [2]

Sunday, June 2

Our last full day in Kuwait is rushed, as we try to complete our interviews and assessment. Ken returns to Riqqa cemetery, whose mass graves and stark logbook prove that dozens of unknown Kuwaitis were buried there in the autumn of 1990, and 93 who died in the final days of Iraqi rule were buried there shortly after liberation; perhaps members of the Kuwaiti resistance and Iraqi soldiers are thrown together in the same mounds. Another 54 died after liberation. Forty-nine of those were buried in March during the early revenge killings, but the latest anonymous burial was on May 30, the body sent directly from the Sabah Salim police station on orders of its commanding officer. Those graves contain the grim record of Kuwait’s agony during the past year.

We have not found time to visit prisons, but lengthy discussions with former prisoners indicate that the Juvenile Detention Center, where more than 600 persons are held, is not the only place or incarceration. Dozens are detained in local police stations, nearly 250 may be held at the State Security Center, and others in the G-1 army base. Two locations house non-Kuwaitis who will be deported without even standing trial. The crown prince on April 4 ordered detainees moved from the formidable military prison, where 11 persons were tortured to death in March and guards routinely beat prisoners. But the Red Cross, lawyers and family members do not have access to all the detention centers and detainees are frequently shifted among them. Only the Juvenile Detention Center appears to meet minimal standards of treatment and access.

Kuwaitis worry that the situation may not improve. The emir announces this evening that parliamentary elections will not be held until October 1992. As Ahmad al-Khatib and others feared, that gives the government ample time to make crucial decisions without public scrutiny and accountability. The coalition of opposition groups is organizing a rally for June 4: Under martial law, public gatherings are banned, and so they plan to meet on the grounds of a mosque.

Young Kuwaitis who endured the Iraqi occupation want to reestablish their society on the basis of the rule of law and the extension of rights to deprived communities. They agonize over the collective violence against non-Kuwaitis, fearing this lowers them to the same moral level as the Iraqi regime. They hope that the Kuwaitis who are coming home will turn their attention to unpacking their luggage and reconstructing their lives, rather than lash out at surrogates for the enemy who brutally destroyed their privileged lifestyle. But they fear that the government lacks a vision of “the new dawn” (al-Fajr al-Jadid) that its official newspaper proclaims. The scar tissue that is forming on the surface of the society masks the underlying wounds.

Author’s Note: I traveled to Kuwait from May 25-June 3, 1991 with Kenneth Roth of Middle East Watch.


[1] On June 15, the court imposed death sentences on Ibtisam, Usama and four others, including the Lebanese editor in absentia. Ten received ten-year prison terms, including a female translator and a female secretary/accountant, and eight were acquitted, including the repairman, a janitor, a female secretary and a messenger. All risk deportation, as non-Kuwaitis.
[2] On June 19 the court condemned seven performers to life imprisonment, including Zanouba ‘Abd al-Khidr, Khalaf ‘Alwan al-Makki and Qasim Salih Bashir.

How to cite this article:

Ann Lesch "A Scarred Society," Middle East Report 172 (September/October 1991).

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