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Kuwait Opens Trials Today for 600 Accused of Collaboration : War aftermath: They are suspected of aiding Iraqi forces during their seven-month occupation.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly three months after the liberation of Kuwait, trials begin today for the first of more than 600 people--many of them non-Kuwaitis--accused of collaborating with Iraqi forces during their seven-month occupation.

As the trials open in a Palace of Justice heavily vandalized by the Iraqis, the emirate faces conflicting pressures from an embittered and well-armed populace at home, and from foreign diplomats and human rights groups concerned about recent abuses of non-Kuwaitis.

The government has insisted that the trials will be fair. However, defense lawyers fear that vengeance may triumph over justice as the first 20 defendants are brought before a military tribunal.

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Kuwaitis on every street corner tell ghastly tales of torture and abuse at Iraqi hands, and many former resistance fighters reportedly are still armed with weapons captured or scavenged from the retreating Iraqis. There is sentiment in Kuwait for punishing suspected collaborators promptly.

“Most Kuwaitis, they are asking the government, why are they putting them on trial? Why not just execute them?” said defense attorney Najib Ibrahim Wegayan. “A lot of Kuwaitis are dead. They have been raped, they have been shot.”

At the same time, Kuwait has been under fire from human rights groups such as Amnesty International. They have alleged mistreatment of non-Kuwaitis, especially Palestinians suspected of collaboration, since the U.S.-led allied troops liberated the emirate in late February. Kuwait’s government has denied authorizing any rights abuses.

The accused on trial today--Iraqi civilians, one Egyptian and several Jordanian passport-holders who may be Palestinians--are charged with looting, sheltering Iraqis, helping Iraqis obtain weapons and ammunition and working with “foreign organizations” that assisted the occupation.

They will be tried and sentenced by a five-member panel consisting of three civilian judges and two military judges, both trained in the United States, government officials said. Although roughly 70% of the Kuwaiti judiciary is Egyptian, according to Kuwaiti lawyers, the judges presiding in today’s trial are all Kuwaiti.

In a briefing for foreign journalists--only one newspaper is being published inside Kuwait--a government spokesman stressed that Kuwait has an independent judiciary and due-process guarantees.

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Although the defendants will be tried under military law, they have the right to appeal, first to the martial-law governor and the crown prince, and then to the emir for a pardon, the spokesman said.

The spokesman could not provide details of the alleged acts of collaboration. Asked whether the defendants might face the death penalty, however, he replied: “Anything’s possible.”

The media will be permitted to cover the trial today, although there was no immediate word on whether later trials will be open. Foreign observers are also expected to monitor the proceedings.

“They would like to do it without the media, but they can’t get rid of you now,” said another defense attorney, Emad Saif. “They are stuck with the whole world who helped restore their country. It’s a high price they have to pay.”

Attorney Wegayan said the proceedings had been repeatedly postponed and delayed until attorneys and human rights groups went public with concerns about “a kangaroo court.”

“I think they are receiving international influence to hold the trial as soon as possible,” Wegayan said.

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On Tuesday, 23 defendants will be tried on charges of working for an Iraqi newspaper, Al Midaa, which means “The Calling.” One is a fugitive and will be tried in absentia, the government spokesman said.

Saif said he is also defending three Palestinian women who say they were dragooned from their jobs at the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information and told they could either work at the Iraqi-controlled propaganda newspaper or serve Iraqi President Saddam Hussein inside Iraq. All three say they were tortured in Kuwaiti jails immediately after the country was liberated, Saif said.

“They have been treated as though they were guilty since the day they were detained,” Saif said. “Some of them are innocent. And even those who are not innocent, there have to be guarantees that they will have a fair trial.”

Saif and other defense attorneys praised the fairness and integrity of the Kuwaiti judicial system that existed before the Aug. 2 invasion. However, they said, this is the first time the country has conducted military trials.

For the Palestinians, who have been living under constant fear of harassment since the liberation, many barred from their former jobs, the trials could help distinguish collaborators from those who did not sympathize with the Iraqis.

“The Palestinian population is 400,000,” Saif said. “How many collaborated, 1,000, 2,000? The problem is that none of the Palestinians stood up and said, ‘We are against Saddam Hussein.’ But that doesn’t mean they are all guilty.”

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