KUWAIT will reopen a painful chapter in its post-Gulf-war history this summer when a Kuwaiti man charged with a murderous attack on a Lebanese family confronts his accuser, the lone survivor of the assault, in criminal court July 17.
The case of the Farhat family has gained worldwide attention, largely through the efforts of Naim Farhat, a Santa Cruz, California, resident whose father and brother were murdered and whose sister, Naimat, was raped and shot in the March 1991 attack. Human rights activists here and in the United States argue that without international pressure, the Kuwaiti authorities might never have captured a suspect and the case would not have come to trial.
"There really was no energy or initiative from the Kuwaitis to open up this case," says one Western diplomat. "It's truly disturbing that it's taken two years to get to trial."
During the spring of 1991, as most Kuwaitis were celebrating their liberation from Iraq, vigilante groups circulated through the capital city, rounding up people they suspected of helping the Iraqi occupiers and meting out summary punishment. No one is certain how many people were beaten and killed in those first few weeks, but foreign residents of Kuwait are known to have suffered the brunt of the violence.
The allegations have badly tarnished Kuwait's international reputation and may have prompted the government to begin belated action against the suspected culprits. Crime and fumbling
The attack on the Farhat family has attracted particular attention because of the viciousness of the crime and the long delay in bringing a suspect to court.
According to court records, just before dawn on the morning of March 2, 1991, the Farhat family awoke to the sound of gunshots fired by a group of men standing outside the family home in a Kuwait City suburb.
The leader of the group, indentified by prosecutors as 33-year-old Kuwait Interior Ministry investigator Jaber al-Ameeri, forced his way into the house and ordered Naimat to tie up her father, Ismail, and her brother, Osama. After assuring the family they would not be harmed, Mr. Ameeri raped and shot Naimat, lawyers for the family allege. Then he killed the two men, leaving the badly injured woman to seek help from neighbors.
But the family's ordeal did not end there. After receiving emergency treatment in a Kuwait City hospital, Naimat fled to Lebanon and later moved to California, where her brother Naim, an art gallery owner, began his campaign to locate the murderers and bring them to justice.
"The Kuwaiti government did nothing to find out the identity [of the killers]," Naim Farhat said by telephone from the US. "If I were not a US citizen," he charges, "nothing would have been done at all."
Naim began by pressing his case with journalists, human rights groups, and the US Embassy in Kuwait City. Eventually, enough public interest grew around the case to prompt an investigation by Kuwaiti officials.
After Naimat identified Ameeri as the killer from among several photographs sent to her by Embassy officials, the family's lawyers secured an arrest warrant. Ameeri was arrested in April and charged with murder, attempted murder, and rape. He faces the death penalty if convicted. A breakthrough case
Human rights advocates say the Farhat case was a turning point in their efforts to secure justice for victims of the post-Gulf- war roundups.
"This is a very important case, for so many reasons," says Ahmad al-Khatib, an opposition leader in Kuwait and a member of the parliamentary human rights committee, who describes the postwar period as a "reign of terror." He adds: "We are finding our task easier now because of all the international pressure."
International rights groups have sharply criticized the Kuwaiti leadership for failing to protect the rights of foreigners who were living in Kuwait after the Iraqi occupation ended in February 1991.
In a report released earlier this year, Middle East Watch condemned what it called a "campaign of vengeance against disfavored groups," following the liberation of the emirate.
Palestinian and stateless Arabs, called Bedoons, were singled out for harsh treatment, the report says. The Farhat family had lived in Kuwait for 30 years since leaving Lebanon in the 1960s and is of Palestinian origin.
Kuwait continues to bring suspected collaborators to trial more than two years after liberation. At least 25 death sentences have been handed down, the most recent coming earlier this month, but none has been carried out, according to the lawyers here.
Naimat Farhat, who remains in the United States, has been reluctant to return Kuwait to testify against Ameeri out of fear, she says, for her safety. Her brother will accompany her and the Kuwaiti government has offered to pay her expenses and provide security, her lawyers said.
"I am terribly afraid," she said by telephone. "Physically and emotionally, I am shaking. I am afraid of the people who have helped him [Ameeri] all these months. But I know I must face it."