Trials in Kuwait

MARTIAL-LAW tribunals in Kuwait are trying hundreds of people for allegedly collaborating with Iraqi security forces and for other crimes committed during Iraq's occupation. No doubt many of those arrested deserve punishment for their acts, which included betraying members of the Kuwaiti underground. Other defendants, however, may be innocent or may have acted under Iraqi coercion. The trials regrettably bear little resemblance to criminal trials in the United States or other democratic countries. ``Collaboration'' is vaguely defined. The accused are judged and sentenced by five-member panels, not a jury. Some are represented by lawyers; many are not. In most cases, the evidence is presented in prosecution documents, not by witnesses that can be cross-examined. Defense lawyers and international human rights observers insist that many of the ``confessions'' on which convictions are based were extracted by torture or intimidation.

Some of the defendants are Kuwaiti citizens, including a woman charged with writing for a newspaper established by the Iraqi occupiers. But most of the accused are Palestinians, Iraqis, Jordanians, and stateless Arabs.

Fortunately the Kuwaiti government, stung by an international outcry against the absence of due process, is trying to avoid such excesses as occurred the first day of the trials, May 19, when a man was sentenced to 15 years in prison for wearing a T-shirt with Saddam Hussein's picture on it. After suspending the trials for two weeks, the government resumed them early this month with somewhat more regard to fairness.

Also, last weekend Kuwait's prime minister established a panel to review all verdicts handed down by the martial-law tribunals. Convicted persons previously had no right of appeal.

Even so, the Kuwaiti trial procedures affront Western standards of justice. Is it fair to judge those procedures against practices worked out in the West over centuries? To an extent, yes. One needn't read the entire Bill of Rights into Kuwait's criminal code to assert that such fundamental elements of fairness as the right to question one's accusers are not mere cultural artifacts.

To its credit, the US government has openly called for fairness in the trials and for an end to Kuwaiti persecution and harassment of Palestinians and other foreigners. Kuwait must be made to know that the world's interest in justice there didn't end with Saddam's expulsion.

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