THE imminent departure of one particular United States colonel from Kuwait City is being viewed with anxiety by the country's Palestinian community. He is Col. Ron Smith, an adviser to the Kuwaiti Interior Ministry. Colonel Smith is a member of the Kuwait Task Force, a team of US reservists, whose job it was to advise ministries how to get back on their feet. In civilian life, Smith is a Washington lawyer-cum-bureaucrat with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Ostensibly, Smith's job was to advise on the resurrection of the country's police force and judicial system. In practice, he has been sucked into the emotional and political minefield of Palestinian human rights in the liberated state.
Human rights groups believe that about 2,000 Palestinians and Iraqis have been held in detention centers, many of them tortured by officers in the Kuwaiti Army. The situation has improved in recent days, largely because of the attention of the international news media, and the probing questions asked each day by the US colonel. More than 600 Palestinians and Iraqis are due to come up for trial in May under rules that have yet to be defined by the authorities.
"I'm just trying to get the system going again," Smith says, "so that the system protects the detainees."
On paper, the system ensures a fair trial and humane treatment and prosecution for those who abuse it. Smith believes a beating is a beating, and as such is a criminal offense. So far though, only a handful of Kuwaiti Army officers have been charged with torture of detainees.
Smith has managed to make a lot of high-ranking people squirm by his questions and bureaucratic reports. It's made him about as popular as Serpico in the Kuwaiti police force.