Kuwait court hears plotters' plea

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FOR A man who has been convicted by President Clinton and sentenced to the gallows by Kuwait, Wasli el- Ghazali looked understandably angry yesterday as he fingered the brown-painted bars of the cage in Court No 15. 'Every Arab child is worth all of America,' he shouted at us. 'I am an Iraqi citizen. Bush killed 16 members of my family. I have lost all of my feelings.' In his way, Mr Ghazali is also a victim of the 1991 Gulf war, allegedly involved in an attempt to murder the conflict's victor - George Bush - when he returned in triumph to Kuwait last year.

One uses 'alleged' advisedly, for although the six men - five Iraqis and a Kuwaiti - have been convicted, along with seven others sentenced to prison terms, there are a host of reasons why Kuwaiti and foreign lawyers alike should doubt the fairness of this particular trial.

There has been plea retraction, evidence of beatings by the security police, a scandalous lack of pre-trial access to the defendants by local lawyers and, most extraordinary of all, a US missile attack on Baghdad based on the defendants' guilt, but staged before their conviction.

There are even those who suspect that the 'plot' to kill Mr Bush - with a car-bomb when the former US president visited the emirate in mid-April last year - was as much a figment of imagination as this month's threatened Iraqi re-invasion of Kuwait. By unhappy coincidence, the judicial review of the convictions - at the Kuwait Palace of Justice before a Kuwaiti senior judge and four Egyptian assistants - opened here yesterday just as the Americans' latest military stand-off with Iraq begins to look distinctly over-zealous.

No wonder, therefore, that Najib al-Wougayan, the small and persistent lawyer for the only Kuwaiti condemned to death, Badr al-Shamaari, claimed yesterday that last year's US missile attack on Baghdad prejudiced the fairness of his client's trial.

'Clinton's missile attack on Baghdad placed the hearing in a political context,' he told the Independent. 'Before the trial finished, Clinton said that he had evidence that Iraq was behind the bomb attack on Bush. How could he do this before the trial had been concluded? There are defendants who have admitted their guilt and I do not quarrel with this - they made confessions. But Badr did not. He is innocent and the Americans condemned him.'

The Kuwaiti authorities say that Iraqi intelligence ordered the defendants to kill Mr Bush in a plot that was uncovered by the Kuwaiti security services just a day before he arrived in the country. One of the defendants was allegedly found in possession of a car loaded with 180lb of explosives, while Mr Ghazali was accused of planning to assassinate Mr Bush with a belt-bomb strapped to his waist.

President Clinton's Baghdad assault was launched on 26 June last year: a total of 23 Tomahawk missiles were fired from US vessels in the Gulf, aimed at Iraqi intelligence headquarters, although seven missed their target and hit civilian housing, killing eight people, including the renowned artist Leila al-Attar.

Mr Clinton later told the American people in a live broadcast that they could 'feel good' about the attack. The White House said it had 'certain proof' of Iraqi guilt but the New York Times later reported that the administration's claim was based only on circumstantial evidence.

Amnesty International stated that US claims of 'compelling evidence' of the plot against Mr Bush - used as justification for the attack on Baghdad last June - undermined the defendants' presumption of innocence. The Kuwaiti government angrily denied that the American action could influence the court.

The accused, grey-uniformed and grey-faced, many of them bearded and several apparently praying, listened without emotion as Judge Abdullah al-Issa told their lawyers that the review would be continued next month.

(Photograph omitted)