KUWAIT CITY — Four Shiite Muslims who had been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia in connection with a 1989 bombing in Mecca have been unexpectedly released by Saudi authorities in a dramatic illustration of changing political relationships in the Persian Gulf.
The four men, it has been learned, were quietly handed over to the Kuwaiti army on the Saudi-Kuwaiti border at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, concluding a bitter political standoff among Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran that had inflamed the Shiite community throughout the Gulf and sparked allegations of torture and other human rights abuses against the Saudis.
The four Kuwaitis, serving prison sentences ranging from 15 to 20 years for their alleged roles in the pilgrimage-season bombing that left one dead and 16 injured, had become something of a cause celebre among Shiites, who have long complained of discrimination and legal abuses at the hands of the Sunni Muslim majority. Sixteen other Kuwaiti defendants in the case were publicly beheaded in Mecca in September, 1989.
In the wake of the Persian Gulf War, the prisoner release illustrates not only the important new political ties between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran--harsh foes during the decade-long Iran-Iraq War, when the two Arab states supported Iraq--but also the rising influence of Kuwait's Shiite community as a result of Kuwait's seven months under occupation.
Diplomats in the region said the case had been deemed so important to the Saudis, who saw their stewardship of Muslim holy sites challenged by the Shiite government in Iran, that it seemed highly unlikely that the defendants ever would be released before the conclusion of their sentences.
"I'd be very surprised if they let those guys out," a Western diplomat in the Saudi capital of Riyadh had said. "It'd be a real gesture, most importantly to the Iranians, but also to the Kuwaitis."
Kuwait itself, the victim of several Shiite-organized terrorist attacks because of its support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, was accused of failing to act strongly to persuade the Saudis to release the Kuwaiti defendants. Relations between the two Gulf neighbors were severely strained by Saudi Arabia's decision to execute the 16 main defendants without prior notice to the Kuwaiti emir.
"The Kuwait government learned about it (the executions) on the radio. They were not pleased about it," said a diplomat in the Kuwaiti capital. "It put the Kuwaiti government in a difficult position vis-a-vis their own Shia population, because it made them either appear as witting accomplices of the Saudis or completely impotent in the face of what had happened."
Now, with a decade of hostilities in the Gulf at an apparent end, old foes have become new friends. Saudi Arabia in the last few weeks restored diplomatic relations with Iran for the first time since April, 1988, and Saudi Arabia's hosting of the allied military coalition against Kuwait's Iraqi occupiers erased most outward tensions between the two Arab Gulf neighbors.
Iran is expected this year to send about 110,000 pilgrims on the annual hajj journey to Mecca. Iran has boycotted the pilgrimage since a 1987 clash between militant Iranian pilgrims and Saudi authorities killed more than 400 pilgrims, most of them Iranians, and the Saudis imposed a national quota system on pilgrims to which Iran objected.
Political observers said the prisoner release appears to be both a gesture toward Iran and a favor to Kuwait. In the climate of political unrest after liberation from Iraq, the Kuwaiti government finds itself forced to seek endorsement from the Shiite minority against which it long was accused of discriminating.
Only a little more than a year ago, Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, accused Kuwait of detaining 27 Kuwaiti Shiites, including prominent religious figures, former members of Parliament and merchants, in an apparent crackdown on the Shiite community. Amnesty International said there were reports that some of the detainees had been tortured.
Throughout the 1980s, as Iran threatened to export its revolution across the Persian Gulf, Shiites in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait complained of improper arrests and detentions, difficulty in holding good jobs and social discrimination. Although 40% of the Kuwaiti population is Shiite, only three members of the last Parliament and one member of the Cabinet, the minister of transport, belonged to that branch of Islam.
During the seven-month Iraqi occupation, however, the Shiites became a majority in Kuwait, in part because many of them could less afford to flee the country than their Sunni compatriots. Class distinctions between Sunnis and Shiites, in the common struggle against the Iraqi occupiers, largely disappeared.