By Sylvia Westall
KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwaiti security service officers raided farmhouses near the Iraqi border late last summer, slicing through carpets and smashing open concrete floors. Hidden in large plastic containers was a weapons cache, the largest discovered in Kuwait's history. State television showed Kuwait's Interior Minister, a senior ruling family member, solemnly viewing the results of the operation.
Kuwait charged 25 of its nationals – all of them Shi'ites – and an Iranian with spying for Iran and Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah.
The case has opened up sectarian divisions in Kuwait. While Kuwait's Sunni majority and Shi'ite minority get on better than in neighboring Saudi Arabia, tensions still exist, and relatives of some of the charged men say they are innocent victims of regional politics.
It also highlights the delicate position of many of the Gulf's smaller states, which find themselves caught up in a power struggle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran.
One Middle Eastern diplomat said Kuwait, a major OPEC oil producer and home to U.S. military bases, was squeezed between the two regional giants, who have jousted in recent months over everything from Iran's nuclear program to oil production. "Kuwait is in a critical situation, a small dot in a very big triangle," he said. "They are killing themselves to be in the middle."
Kuwaiti prosecutors said the men intended to carry out "hostile acts" against Kuwait. Members of the "Abdali cell," as local officials dubbed the group for the place the weapons were found, were charged with buying, transporting and storing weapons and explosives. Several were also accused of receiving military training in Lebanon from Hezbollah, according to an investigation by Kuwaiti Homeland Security referred to by prosecutors in a Kuwaiti court.
The men denied the charges.
In January a Kuwaiti court found 23 of the 26 guilty of various crimes. Two were sentenced to death, including one, the Iranian, in absentia. The others were fined or received jail terms between five years and life. Three were acquitted. The prosecution is appealing the sentences, saying some of the men should have received tougher punishments.
The men have all appealed their convictions. The charges, the lawyers say, were based on confessions nearly all of the defendants allege were extracted under torture.
Khalid al-Shatti, a defense lawyer for Hassan Hajiya, the Kuwaiti man sentenced to death, said the case was politically motivated. "There is a conflict in the region and those who pay the price of this conflict are the accused."
The Interior Ministry declined to comment for this story, referring queries to the judiciary. The judiciary did not respond to requests for comment. The Information Ministry, which deals with general media enquiries, said it was unable to comment on the topic.
The government and state security officials have said the weapons show that Tehran was seeking to destabilize Kuwait and other countries in the region by infiltrating and manipulating local Shi'ite communities. In recent months Kuwait has accused Iran of stirring up local politics and ignoring "basic diplomatic norms."
Iran has denied any connection with the alleged cell and has said Kuwaiti authorities have not contacted it regarding the Iranian defendant. Last September, the Iranian embassy issued a rare statement expressing "deep dissatisfaction with the association of the name of Iran" with the case.
A senior Kuwaiti government official said that while Iran may not be happy with the court decision "they should respect our laws and they should also respect our internal affairs."
Historically, relations between Kuwait's Sunnis, who make up between 70 and 85 percent of the country's 1.4 million citizens, and its minority Shi'ite community, have been mostly amicable. Shi'ites hold important positions in business, government and parliament. And last June, Kuwait's ruling emir comforted worshippers and families at the scene of a suicide bombing in a Shi'ite mosque. Claimed by Sunni extremist group Islamic State, the attack killed 27.
But the Abdali case, said Abdullah Bishara, a Kuwaiti diplomat and former secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has opened up splits. "Iranian politics, Hezbollah politics, have played a role in the agitation of differences in Kuwait," he said. "Abdali sharpened differences."
The editor of one of Kuwait's main newspapers, who mixes regularly with senior ruling family members, agreed. “The Kuwaiti government overdid it,” the editor said. “The Shi'ites say: This is against us."
GUNS, GRENADES AND EXPLOSIVES
The weapons cache Kuwait's security forces uncovered included Kalashnikov rifles, submachine guns, grenades, 144 kg of explosives, and 19 tons of ammunition, according to a 186-page court judgment issued in January.
"These are all high explosives. To have them in thousands and tens of thousands of kilograms is very significant," Sheikh Thamer al-Sabah, President of Kuwait's National Security Bureau, told Reuters.
But lawyer Shatti, whose own nephew was among those charged and jailed, said the weapons were for self defense. Members of Kuwait's Shi'ite community regularly keep weapons at home, he said, in part because of the rise of Sunni militant groups in the region.
"It is in their interest to defend themselves, to defend their honor and defend their homeland, to defend the Kuwaiti government and the ruling family, to keep their weapons," Shatti told Reuters at the start of appeals proceedings in March.
Hassan Hajiya, the primary defendant in the case, owns the Abdali farmhouses where the weapons were found. The prosecution said he smuggled the weapons by sea from Iran.
Hajiya told the appeals court that the weapons were left over from local resistance to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The defense has asked the prosecution to examine the serial numbers of the weapons which they say will prove the weapons are old.
Thamer of the National Security Bureau, which assesses domestic security risks, said the number of weapons suggest they were for more than just self defense and that the case fitted a pattern of Iran-linked militant and espionage activity in Kuwait dating back to the 1980s.
"This is the Iranian influence again, like with militias in Iraq," he said.
The men's appeals hinge in part on the evidence used in the trial. The defense questions the testimony of two Homeland Security officers and the Interior Ministry investigation because, it says, they were based on confessions extracted under torture and duress.
The defense team wants to see CCTV footage of the interrogations and video from cells where the men were held before the trial. It has also asked for the clothes the men were wearing when they were arrested; one lawyer said he saw blood stains on his client's garments.
Homeland Security told the court it cannot locate the clothes. The CCTV footage, it said, was erased.
A request for medical files for one of the defendants who was twice taken to a military hospital during interrogations was also denied, according to Fawaz al-Kateeb, whose law firm Taher Group is representing three of the defendants and is coordinating the entire defense team. "So no CCTV, no clothes, no medical files. Is it a fair trial? Are these fair proceedings?" Kateeb asked.
An August medical report from the Interior Ministry's general department of criminal evidence, referred to in closed court but seen by Reuters, described doctors' examinations carried out on three of the defendants after they were interrogated.
The report said the men, Hassan al-Attar, Hassan al-Bathar and Yousef Ghudunfary, all sustained "frictional abrasions" on their wrists as the result of restrictive handcuffs. Attar had bruising on his upper right arm, Bathar on his neck and left arm, and Ghudunfary had abrasions on his elbows and feet, the report said.
It also described "traumatic injuries" seemingly due to a "collision with a solid object" but said the cause was not clear. The men were not in severe physical pain and their injuries were expected to heal within 30 days, the report said.
The Interior Ministry declined to comment.
The Paris-based Arab Commission for Human Rights said medical reports "clearly showed visible injuries of some of the detainees and confirmed that they have been tortured during their detention." The statement, signed by 13 regional rights groups in February, said the legal proceedings "discredit the image of the Kuwaiti judiciary and State of Kuwait."
(Additional reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh in Beirut; Edited by Simon Robinson)