KUWAIT CITY — The young Palestinian limped out of the hospital last week so badly beaten that he had to lean on his father's arm to make it across the parking lot to the car.
He talked softly, and when he lifted his hands in a gesture of helplessness, the scabs of cigarette burns were still fresh on his palms. He pulled up his T-shirt to show a mass of bruises he said were inflicted during beatings at two police stations.
"They wanted to ask about my friend, who works with me," he said. "But I tell them he's not here, he leave Kuwait."
Across town, another Palestinian told of a 21-year-old Kuwait University student who had complained to police that a Kuwaiti man was harassing him. Then he disappeared.
Mohammed Shawkat Yusef's body was found in a vacant lot May 23. His eyes were gouged, said the friend, and his mouth had been shut with a screwdriver.
"I think he's still in the morgue," he said.
Yusef's body was, in fact, still unclaimed in the morgue Friday, bearing eye and cheek wounds consistent with his friend's account.
The two cases differ from hundreds of similar reports of beatings, rapes and disappearances only in the fact that they have been substantiated. Together, the incidents have created a climate of terror among Palestinians in postwar Kuwait.
Many remain holed up in their houses, afraid to pass neighborhood checkpoints, desperate to leave the emirate. Three months after liberation, garbage is still strewn across the sidewalks and vacant lots of Hawalli, the largest Palestinian enclave. On the streets, there are more rumors than people.
"The government's inaction threatens to encourage this abuse and has left the Palestinian community terrified," Kenneth Roth, director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Sunday.
"While in the days following liberation, free-lance killings were common, we've been able to document a series of cases of torture and murder in police and military facilities under the direction of at least mid-level commanders. That's the problem today."
Palestinians are not the only victims, although they are the most obvious scapegoats for Kuwaitis who suspect them of having collaborated en masse during the brutal seven-month Iraqi occupation. Egyptians, Lebanese, Sudanese, Yemenis, Bangladeshis and especially Iraqis and those of Iraqi origin have also reportedly been targeted.
The majority of the reported cases of abuse remain unconfirmed, however. Victims and witnesses tend to leave the country if they can. Yusef's roommate, for example, took a plane to Syria on Thursday after police told him that the Kuwaiti suspect whom he had identified was about to be released, according to the friend.
Some of those who stay refuse to speak to journalists and human rights officials for fear of retaliation. Other stories turn out to be fourth-hand. Evidence seems to vanish into each sooty dust storm that blows through the city.
Yet the problem is severe enough to prompt Kuwait's crown prince in a televised speech a week ago to denounce a wave of abductions and tortures, some committed by men wearing police or military uniforms.
In a blunt speech unprecedented in language and content, Sheik Saad al Abdullah al Sabah warned that violators, including security forces and even members of the royal family, would be held accountable.
"These elements must be arrested, questioned and brought to trial," said Saad, who is also prime minister. "We must not lose the international support we have on account of irresponsible acts by individuals."
Western diplomatic sources hailed the speech by the crown prince as the first tangible step toward improvement.
"(It) was, in my experience in the Middle East, unbelievably straight and to the point and without all of the flowery stuff that you normally see where you have to divine what he meant," said one. "It was really a remarkable speech. And I think it was warranted."
Some Kuwaiti citizens agree.
"If these things weren't serious, the crown prince wouldn't come out with that speech," said Majid Shatti, who returned to Kuwait from Irvine, Calif., last month, and complains of arbitrary and undisciplined behavior of the machine-gun wielding young officers at checkpoints.
"It's better to live with one person who collaborated with the Iraqis than accuse nine others who didn't do anything," he said. "But it's all emotion."
Whether Saad's edict will be enforced remains an open question. At the Bayan police station, where the young man said he was blindfolded, beaten and burned, two officers insisted that suspected vigilantes are being treated as criminals. They showed visitors a cell where two police officers were awaiting trial for abusing Iraqi residents.