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Human Rights Developments

Close to two years after Kuwait's liberation from the seven months of Iraqi occupation, on February 26, 1991, the Kuwaiti government is still pursuing its long-term strategy of restructuring its population in a fashion that violates human rights. Entire communities whose loyalty is in doubt are being expelled, including Palestinians, Iraqis and Bedoons, the long-term stateless residents of Kuwait. Other groups of foreign residents also suffered discrimination during 1992. While arrest and detention conditions showed marked improvement during the year compared to 1991, arbitrary arrest and detention are still prevalent. Torture remains common. Pre-publication censorship was lifted in early 1992 but other restrictions on press freedom continued. Parliamentary elections were finally held in 1992 but no changes were made to broaden the highly restricted electorate: only 11 percent of the native population was eligible to vote.

Soon after the end of the Gulf War, Kuwaiti authorities and allied militias engaged in a campaign of vengeance against disfavored groups. Scores were killed, many disappeared and thousands were detained without due process and tortured. Despite repeated requests from families and human rights organizations, only a handful of those disappearances and killings have been investigated. Mass graves of unidentified bodies buried after the war-apparent victims of Kuwaiti forces-have not been exhumed. None of those implicated in the killing and torture of prisoners has been brought to justice. In September 1992, Kuwaiti officials told Middle East Watch that they had no plans to launch such investigations.

The violent manifestations of the anti-Bedoon and anti-Palestinian policy have dissipated considerably, largely due to the departure of most of the targeted groups. But the policy itself continues by other means, including arbitrary arrest and detention, heavy fines, the denial of employment and threats of imprisonment.

Most of the Palestinians who remain in Kuwait-fewer than 50,000, down from a prewar high of over 350,000-are stateless refugees who came originally from the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip but have not been allowed by Israel to return. They carry travel documents issued by Egypt which refuses to allow them to reside in its territory. Although these refugees have no place to go, Kuwaiti authorities have denied them the right to remain in Kuwait until they find another country that would accept them. They have been harassed, threatened with imprisonment, denied employment, and subjected to heavy fines for every day they stay in Kuwait.

Most Bedoons are long-term stateless residents of Kuwait who were born there and have lived in Kuwait all their lives, but are not officially deemed to qualify for Kuwaiti citizenship. In Middle East Watch's judgment, Kuwaiti authorities have never given Bedoons a reasonable opportunity to prove their claims to Kuwaiti citizenship. Instead, shortly before the Iraqi invasion, the Kuwaiti government introduced measures to pressure Bedoons to leave the country. Bedoons were dismissed in large numbers from their civilian government jobs and their membership in professional organizations was banned. By law, Bedoons' driver licenses were withdrawn and their laissez passers were restricted.

After liberation, anti-Bedoon policies took a violent turn. Accused en masse of aiding the Iraqi occupying forces, the Bedoons were singled out for retribution, even though many of them had been killed for resisting the Iraqi occupation. Since liberation, some Bedoons faced summary execution, disappearance or torture, while all Bedoon government employees were dismissed from their jobs, lost the ability to send their children to school, and were threatened with expulsion from the only country they have ever known. The military and the police, which before the invasion were largely composed of Bedoons, rehired only a small fraction of their prewar employees-depriving the community of its chief source of income. The prewar community of 250,000 is down to fewer than 200,000.

The Kuwaiti government has ignored appeals by families and human rights organizations to retry the 118 sentenced by the martial-law tribunals set up in May and June 1991. In those show trials, most defendants were convicted and sentenced-sometimes to death-on the basis of confessions extracted through torture. The Crown Prince, Shaikh Sa`ad al-Abdalla, in his capacity as martial-law governor, commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment. ButKuwaiti authorities have rejected demands to set aside harsh jail sentences and either grant the accused new trials or give them the right to a judicial appeal of their verdicts.

Another vulnerable group of foreign residents subjected to violent mistreatment is Asian maids. Expressly excluded from the protection of labor legislation, these workers are left at the mercy of their private employers. Their legal recourse severely limited, hundreds of abused Asian expatriates sought refuge in their respective embassies, charging their employers with rape, physical assault or withholding wages. Fourteen-hundred Filipina maids fled to their embassy in the year between April 1991 and April 1992. In 60 cases of abuse of Asian maids investigated by Human Rights Watch, one third involved rape or sexual assault. However, charges were laid by the police in only a minority of cases, and there is no evidence that one employer accused of rape or assault has been successfully prosecuted in the postwar period. Far from addressing the problem of the victims, police sometimes pressed charges of visa violations against maids who had run away from their abusive employers.

Other than adopting regulations aimed at streamlining employment agencies, the Kuwaiti government has failed to address adequately the prevalent abuse of female domestics. Despite the lack of shelters for runaway abused maids, the Kuwaiti government has instructed foreign embassies not to house these women in their facilities, claiming that such action is an abuse of diplomatic privileges. Following adverse publicity, the Kuwaiti government agreed to repatriate most of them in the spring and summer of 1992, but made no move to prosecute their abusive employers.

On instructions from the Kuwaiti Ministry of Foreign Affairs, most Asian embassies turned away runaway maids seeking refuge. But the flow continued to those embassies still accepting fleeing workers. During the summer, the Philippine embassy, working with the Kuwaiti government, repatriated most of those remaining in its shelter. But the flood of runaways persisted. By the first week of September, over 200 maids who had fled their employers were crowded in the embassy's shelter. In response, the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry again asked the Philippine embassy to refrain from sheltering fleeing maids. The victims were left stranded while their employers continued to face no legal consequences for their abuse.

Other foreign nationalities were also subjected to varying degrees of repression. Among them were citizens of Sudan, Somalia and Yemen-countries considered to have condoned Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. For example, Ahmad Mubarak, a Sudanese, was arrested in January 1992 and accused of collaboration with the Iraqi occupying authorities. During his 24 days of detention, he was "subjected to various forms of torture and his health deteriorated rapidly," according to an unpublished report by the Kuwaiti Association to Defend War Victims (kadwv), a local human rights group. Despite a lack of evidence of his collaboration, an order to deport him was issued. It was not carried out after the Association appealed to senior officials on his behalf. From various reports received by Middle East Watch, it appeared that merely belonging to a nationality that is considered suspect is enough to trigger arrest and mistreatment. For example, following the deterioration in 1992 in relations between Kuwait and Bahrain-a fellow member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the military and political alliance that also includes Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates-two Bahraini citizens were arrested on suspicion of having knowledge of the whereabouts of other Bahrainis wanted for security offenses. They were both subjected to torture, including sexual abuse in one case, before being released for insufficient evidence of any criminal wrongdoing.

In January 1992, the Kuwaiti government lifted pre-publication censorship, in place since the dissolution of the National Assembly in July 1986. Despite this positive development, other restrictions on the press remained in place. The Publications Law of 1961 places severe restrictions on the press, especially after it was substantially amended in 1976 and 1986, each time, not coincidentally, in a year when the Emir of Kuwait dissolved the National Assembly.

During 1992, several reporters were charged with violating the press law. On March 3, Ahmed al-Jabr, a writer for al-Watan (The Nation), anindependent daily, was charged with "harming Kuwaiti foreign relations" for writing a column ridiculing the Egyptian government's handling of a reported Israeli spy ring. The Kuwaiti action came after the Egyptian ambassador to Kuwait protested to the Kuwaiti Minister of Information. This incident led to a heated exchange between the government on the one hand and the press and political opposition on the other. On March 14, the Crown Prince warned reporters against "taking any position that weakens the home front in the name of press freedom," and hinted that the government might re-introduce pre-publication censorship. This warning prompted seven opposition groups to issue a joint statement on March 20 registering their "disappointment" in the Crown Prince's comments and calling for tolerance of dissident opinions.

On April 28, Khdair al-Anezy, a reporter for the independent daily al-Qabas (The Spark), and Muhammed Jassem al-Saqr, the paper's editor-in-chief, were arrested and charged with violating secrecy laws for writing a story commenting on the restructuring of the Kuwaiti Minister of Defense. They were released on a KD1,000 (US$3,450) bail the same day. Al-Saqr was arrested again on October 11 for approving a series of articles critical of the Ministry of Information. He was released the same day after posting bail. Abdel-Latif al-De`aij, the writer of the articles, was detained for three days and also released on bail. All four cases, against al-Saqr and the two reporters, are still pending.

On May 20, Fouad al-Hashem, a reporter for Sawt al-Kuwait (Voice of Kuwait), was sentenced to a three-year suspended sentence and fined KD500 (US$1700) for writing an article considered by the government as "an affront to Islamic and public morals," a crime under the restrictive press code. On May 31, Diana Abdalla, Reuter's correspondent in Kuwait, was expelled from the country after she filed a report on the Chamber of Commerce elections emphasizing the close relationship between the Emir and a candidate who lost despite the government's support.

Two years after the Emir promised from his place of exile in Saudi Arabia to hold elections as soon as Kuwait was liberated, Kuwaitis went to the polls. On October 5, elections for the National Assembly were held for the first time since the Assembly was dissolved by the Emir in July 1986. Only 81,400 first-class male citizens over the age of 21 were eligible to vote, accounting for less than 11 percent of the native population. Opposition campaigns were limited by the press restrictions and a ban on public assembly. When opposition groups attempted to meet in Kuwait with representatives of the Washington-based National Republican Institute for International Affairs, the Ministry of Interior prevented the meeting from taking place because it violated the ban. Meetings in candidates' diwaniyyas, the traditional Kuwaiti living rooms, were not disrupted, thus reversing a policy adopted by the government in 1989 and 1990 of forcibly dispersing meetings in opposition supporters' diwaniyyas.

Kuwaiti authorities went to great lengths to limit the opposition's ability to campaign freely. When U.S. Ambassador Edward Gnehm met with opposition leaders, government-sponsored media criticized the meeting as meddling in the internal affairs of Kuwait. Echoing the same sentiment, Abdel-Aziz al-Mesa`id, the Speaker of the government-appointed National Council, criticized the U.S. ambassador for visiting opposition diwaniyyas and speaking about democracy.

Despite the government's attempt to limit the opposition's ability to campaign successfully, pro-government candidates secured only 18 out of the Assembly's 50 contested seats. The remaining 32 seats went to opposition and independent candidates. Opposition groups included: the Kuwaiti Democratic Forum, the only publicly announced political party; the Deputies Bloc, composed of members of the National Assembly dissolved in 1986; the Islamic Constitutional Movement, an Islamist group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood movement; the Popular Islamic Coalition, another Sunni Islamist group; and the National Islamic Alliance, a Shi`a Islamist group. In addition to the 12 seats that religious groups secured in the election, they enjoy the support of six other independent and tribal candidates, making the religious bloc the largest in the Assembly. A number of the recently elected Islamist members voiced their intention to bring Kuwaiti laws closer to the Islamic law of Shari`a.

Although the opposition and independent candidates gained a majority of the 50 contested seats, the majority's power was significantly curtailed when the Emir once again asked the Crown Prince to form a new government. Under Kuwaiti law and practice, appointed cabinet members are ex officio members of the National Assembly, provided that they do not exceed one third of the membership. The new cabinet, announced on October 14, was composed of five members of the Sabah family, five other government figures, and six others who were either independent or opposition members of the newly elected National Assembly. The Sabahs retained the sensitive posts of prime minister and first deputy prime minister, as well as the key portfolios of foreign affairs, defense, information and interior (in charge of internal security). Although obviously skewed in favor of the ruling family, the composition of the cabinet was nevertheless significant because it was the first time in Kuwait's recent history that such a significant proportion of the cabinet was assigned to the opposition and independent members of the Assembly. In the past, only one or two independent representatives were included.

The Right to Monitor

Established immediately after the Gulf War, the Kuwaiti Association to Defend War Victims has been the only independent local organization in Kuwait devoted exclusively to monitoring human rights. The Kuwaiti government, which has not formally recognized the organization's legal existence, has asked it to vacate the public school building it has occupied since its inception in March 1991. kadwv nevertheless continues its work, sometimes in coordination with government agencies, and participates in conferences and national committees alongside government representatives, indicating at least a tacit official recognition.

As in its first year, a focal point for kadwv in 1992 was the fate of over 900 Kuwaitis and others who are missing, have disappeared or are believed held by Iraq. The organization also followed the fate of those who disappeared or went missing after liberation, mainly Palestinians and Bedoons. During 1992, kadwv continued to provide aid to prisoners and their families. It also gave food and financial support to Bedoon families, many of whom have been reduced to destitution by official anti-Bedoon policies.

On July 7, over 50 Kuwaiti professionals announced the formation of the Kuwait Pro-Democracy Committee to "act as a public advocacy and information group on all issues relating to democracy, human rights and basic freedoms in Kuwait," according to a statement issued by the Committee on July 20. In November, the Committee issued a detailed evaluation of the October 5 elections. It called for enfranchising women and naturalized citizens.

In 1992, the Kuwaiti government allowed visits by several international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, but significant delays in granting approval were reported. Although Kuwaiti officials were generally accessible to representatives of these organizations, information on human rights issues was rarely provided, even after repeated requests.

U.S. Policy

Since the end of the Gulf War, the U.S. has been the main force protecting Kuwait from the possibility of renewed Iraqi attack and rebuilding its economic and military infrastructure after the devastating Iraqi occupation.

A ten-year military agreement signed in September 1991 regulates the U.S.-Kuwaiti defense alliance. Under this agreement, the stationing of large numbers of land-based troops was eschewed in favor of maintaining a substantial naval presence nearby and holding frequent U.S.-Kuwaiti maneuvers. These exercises amount to a semi-permanent presence in light of their frequency, their duration and the large number of troops involved. Three major joint maneuvers-code-named Native Fury, Eager Mace and Intrinsic Action-were undertaken after August 2, 1992, the second anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. According to U.S. Defense Department officials, these exercises and the September 1991 agreement itself were intended as both a signal to Iraq and a demonstration of U.S. commitment to the security of Kuwait and stability of the Gulf.

The extensive U.S. military presence elsewhere in the Gulf has been coordinated through a number of similar, long-term military agreements thatthe U.S. has signed with the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (gcc). According to The Washington Post of September 5, Rear Admiral Raynor A. K. Taylor, who heads the 26-vessel U.S. task force in the region, said: "We've got ships going into ports left and right. We've got ships and airplanes doing bilateral exercises left and right."

The U.S. military also has been closely involved in training Kuwaiti forces and making Kuwaiti military facilities "inter-operational" with their U.S. counterparts to ensure early access in the case of renewed military operations. Many Kuwaitis believe that another Iraqi invasion is likely in the near future-a belief strengthened by continued references in the official Iraqi press to Kuwait as being part of Iraq.

Indeed, the defense of Kuwait has become an important component of U.S. policy doctrine in the Middle East. On September 11, Edward Djerejian, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, told the National Association of Arab Americans: "America has two key sets of policy goals in the Near East. The first has to do with a lasting and comprehensive peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors; the second-the creation of viable security arrangements for our friends and allies on the Arabian peninsula." Secretary Djerejian added that during a visit to the region, he "assured the gcc leaders that the United States will cooperate closely with them to meet legitimate defense needs. This includes both the sales of weapons...and bilateral security arrangements such as the periodic conduct of joint military exercises, the maintenance of an enhanced naval presence in the Gulf, and arrangements for the access and prepositioning of critical military materiel and equipment."

In October 1 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, Secretary Djerejian praised the elevated level of military cooperation, noting that "[t]he establishment of Operation Southern Watch [code name for U.S. enforcement of a ban on Iraqi military flights in the southern part of Iraq] is a good example of a level of cooperation well beyond what existed two years ago, prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait." The Secretary added: "It is important to understand that the purposes of both arms sales and collective security measures are to deter threats to our shared interests, and to raise the threshold of future requirements for direct U.S. military action." Apparently as part of this project, in mid-October the Administration announced plans to sell 236 M1-Abrams tanks to Kuwait.

The need to put an end to human rights violations committed by Iraq in Kuwait was one of the stated reasons that the U.S. administration went to war against Iraq. However, since the liberation of Kuwait, U.S. senior officials have shied away from publicly criticizing the serious human rights violations committed by Kuwaiti authorities against foreign and Bedoon residents. This reticence comes despite what most Kuwaitis acknowledge to be their near-complete reliance on the U.S. to protect them from external threats. Little should have stood in the way of more forceful advocacy on human rights by the Bush administration, apart from an apparent desire to avoid political embarrassment by highlighting the human rights violations of a government restored largely by U.S. forces.

On most occasions in 1992 in which U.S. officials publicly addressed human rights issues, they emphasized perceived positive aspects or explained away violations. Commenting on the October 5 general elections, U.S. Ambassador Gnehm said that the elections had been "extremely good at establishing at a grassroots level the idea of democracy." A more qualified endorsement was issued on October 7 by Richard Boucher, a State Department spokesman. He said that the U.S. would encourage the Kuwaiti government to "move in the direction of expanding political participation, and in that regard, we welcome the statement by the Crown Prince on October 3 in support of granting women the right to vote." This comment was a considerable revision of an earlier State Department position that appeared to apologize for the limited franchise in Kuwait. On October 1, Lawrence Eagleburger, Acting Secretary of State, said that the U.S. had communicated its view on democracy to "all and sundry" and that he was "disappointed that the Kuwaitis have a different view on the subject. On the other hand while I don't defend it, they do come from a different culture and their views are obviously different than ours."

There were other times in 1992 when U.S. officials sought to deflect criticism of human rights abuses in Kuwait. In February, despite ample coverage in the media of the plight of hundreds of Asian maids who sought shelter in their embassies in Kuwait, spokesman Boucher claimed to be unaware of such cases. According to State Department officials, Ambassador Gnehm frequently took up the issue of the abused domestic workers with senior Kuwaiti officials, but Middle East Watch saw little evidence of follow-up to ensure that the problems were addressed or reforms implemented. In particular, in August, while failing to provide alternative shelters for abused maids, the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry renewed its earlier order for foreign embassies to refrain from sheltering runaways.

The Work of Middle East Watch

Middle East Watch continued in 1992 to investigate post-liberation human rights abuses in Kuwait. It provided information to U.S. congressional staff, U.N. agencies and other groups investigating various aspects of the human rights situation in Kuwait. It briefed U.S., Canadian and Danish immigration officials and refugee aid groups to help them deal with a flood of refugees from Kuwait who had been pressured to leave or banned from returning.

To help especially vulnerable stateless refugees stranded outside Kuwait, Middle East Watch filed a substantial number of affidavits and appeals to immigration officials and judges in Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and the United States to help individual families in their quest for asylum. In February, in response to resurrected claims by the Kuwaiti and U.S. governments that the Iraqi occupying forces had killed scores or hundreds of babies by taking them out of incubators, Middle East Watch issued a 24-page report, "Kuwait's `Stolen' Incubators: the Widespread Repercussions of a Murky Incident," in which it published the contrary results of its exhaustive research on the subject. In May, Middle East Watch filed a brief with the Frankfurt District Court in support of a German television network being sued by Hill and Knowlton, the public relations firm engaged by the exiled Kuwaiti government, over its conclusions regarding the incubator allegation.

In August, Middle East Watch and the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project issued a joint 44-page report entitled Punishing the Victim: Rape and Mistreatment of Asian Maids in Kuwait. The report documented the physical and sexual abuse of foreign household workers in Kuwait.

In September, Middle East Watch briefed members of the U.S. Congress about human rights violations in Kuwait, in testimony before a joint session of the House Middle East and International Organizations subcommittees.

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