Palestinians in Kuwait Face Vigilante Roundups

THE patient's clipboard hanging at the bottom of the bed has a name - Shaker Ali, a 39-year-old Palestinian. But that is all the nurses and doctors at Kuwait's Mubarak hospital know about him. Shaker was found in a city street two weeks ago, disorientated, severely beaten, and tortured.

In the next ward was Azmi, a school English teacher. Ten days ago, unidentified armed men had come to his house looking for his neighbor. Not finding the neighbor, they took Azmi instead. After four days in one of Kuwait's ad-hoc detention centers, he is marked with cigarette burns and stab wounds.

Shaker and Azmi are just two of the victims of the roundups of Palestinians and foreign Arabs since the liberation of Kuwait on Feb. 26. Unidentified corpses are turning up almost daily in Kuwait, left in the street, under bridges, by highways.

Some United States military officials say in private they are appalled at what is going on, and that for them, the taste of victory has turned sour.

Middle East Watch, a New York-based human rights organization, believes as many as 2,000 people, mainly Palestinians, are being held in military prisons, police stations, schools, private homes, and hospitals.

The majority, they believe, are being tortured with the full knowledge, and frequently the participation, of officers of the Kuwaiti Army. Middle East Watch has traced some 40 executions so far.

Before the Gulf crisis, Palestinians were Kuwait's largest foreign minority, numbering 350,000. Many date their arrival in the country to shortly after the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948, which generated an exodus of Palestinians to Kuwait, the Gulf's first developing state.

More than 40 years later, a whole generation of Palestinians has been born in Kuwait, and many know no other home. Palestinians are the country's technocrats, the bank clerks, computer programmers, car mechanics, and retail class. Only a handful have ever been granted citizenship.

Today, the Palestinian community in Kuwait is paying the price of the support Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat gave to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Many did collaborate with the Iraqis during their occupation, and many were killed for their actions in the hours that immediately followed liberation.

Since then, it has been members of the middle class who have been hauled out of cars at roadblocks, gas stations, and from their homes.

With the Iraqi Army gone, resident Palestinians and foreign Arabs whose governments supported Saddam who have provided a handy target for the frustration and feelings of revenge felt by many Kuwaitis.

Andrew Whitley, Middle East Watch's executive director, believes many of these roundups have been carried out by vigilante groups that have sprung up since liberation.

Many Palestinians look to the US and British ambassadors for protection from these deadly purges.

"The foreigners are our only protectors now," says a Palestinian doctor, who identified himself only as Fawzi. "There is no law, no one to complain to."

As liberators of Kuwait and advisers to the Kuwaiti Army, the US military is finding itself in the uneasy middle of this situation. Officers from Special Operations of the Central Command have been placed in the detention centers, but their powers to intervene or stop the ongoing torture are limited, say US officials.

PALESTINIAN prisoners who have been released have told Middle East Watch officials that US officers have been present when torture is going on.

"They have played the good guys, and in a number of incidents have been able to stop the torture," officials say.

US military officials deny their officers have been present when torture is going on.

Mr. Whitley says civilian authorities are too weak and disorganized to control renegade officers, but says he has to trust the good will and intentions of Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, the crown prince and prime minister, that the killings and torture will stop.

Whitley says he believes the prime minister has also taken seriously allegations that younger members of the ruling Sabah family are behind the roundups and has sought to restrain them.

However, the government that remained in comfortable exile for seven months is having difficulty reestablishing its credentials with those who remained inside Kuwait during the occupation.

The slow return of public services - the city is still largely without water and electricity - led to the government's resignation last week. Whitley says this political vacuum does not improve the situation.

With the Kuwaiti population now heavily armed, the fragility of Kuwait's social fabric and political structure has been painfully evident since liberation. Until national consensus is achieved, there seems little likelihood of forming a strong government that can stop the torture.

Although most Palestinians would like to flee the country, the borders are virtually closed. Flight is financially impossible, as banks are only partially open and allow only limited withdrawals. Many feel that if they leave without their savings, the fruits of decades of work in Kuwait will be lost.

Palestinians in Kuwait also face mounting evidence that they are not going to be reemployed by the government or private employees. Many employers interviewed here said they would never employ Palestinians again.

An estimated 70,000 have nowhere to go.

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