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A royal death sentence in Kuwait

The region waits to see whether a ruling family member will go free in a nation known for democratic reforms.

August 12, 2008|Raed Rafei | Special to The Times

BEIRUT — It was an open-and-shut case. Kuwaiti cops showed up at the dealer's house and seized more than 22 pounds of cocaine and 165 pounds of hashish. The suspect was accused of drug trafficking and, a few months later, sentenced to death.

But the convicted drug dealer, Talal Nasser al Sabah, was no ordinary Kuwaiti -- he was a member of the Persian Gulf kingdom's ruling family.

Now everyone is watching to see whether the authorities will follow through on the ruling by the independent-minded judiciary or grant Talal the immunity considered a right by royal families throughout the gulf region.

"The people of Kuwait are impressed with the independence of the judiciary and trust, in general, its rulings," said Naser Sane, a Kuwaiti lawmaker. "In other Arab gulf nations, you don't see a court sentencing in this way a member of a ruling family."

Royal clans dominate political and economic lives of the oil-rich kingdoms. It is uncommon to see a royal behind bars, let alone on death row.

But Kuwait has experimented with democracy in ways that distinguish it from its neighbors, which mostly have autocratic political systems.

Nowadays, members of the Sabah ruling family get traffic tickets and have even been jailed for alleged corruption, said Abdullah Ayoub, a lawyer in Kuwait.

"There is no immunity for members of the ruling family just for the reason that they are part of this family," he said.

In June, Kuwait's supreme court upheld the death sentence against Talal, who is in his 50s. His conviction late last year by a lower criminal court was the first such case against a member of the royal family in Kuwait.

Talal "deserves the death sentence . . . for dealing with drugs and narcotics that threaten the security of society and lead its youth into the mire of addiction," the ruling said.

Despite the ruling, Talal still could benefit from the amnesty of Kuwait's ruler, Sabah al Ahmed al Jabbar al Sabah. The emir has the authority to call off the execution.

Although the emir, or prince, enjoys vast political powers, they are not unchecked: A National Assembly elected by the people every four years has the authority to hold the government accountable. Women have been allowed to vote and to run for office since 2005.

Several ministers, some members of the royal family, were forced to resign under popular pressure.

The democratic steps have raised eyebrows in the rest of the Persian Gulf. During one regional meeting, heads of state were shocked when the Kuwaiti delegation had to return home to answer to parliament on a sensitive issue, said a Kuwaiti political analyst who asked that his name not be published.

"Rulers of these states fear the space of democracy in Kuwait might at the end affect their power," said Mohammed Rumaihi, editor of the Kuwaiti newspaper Awan and a former advisor to the government. "For them, the Kuwaiti phenomenon is like a plague that needs to be contained."

Talal's case was viewed as a test of sorts, to see whether the country's rampant nepotism can trump the independence of the judiciary.

Along with his collaborators, Talal was arrested in April 2007 when he and others were caught in possession of large quantities of drugs. His arrest order was given by a leading figure in the ruling family, Defense Minister Jabbar Mubarak al Sabah.

Talal also was accused of possessing two unauthorized weapons and of laundering more than $3.3 million in drug money.

This wasn't the first time he had run afoul of the law. Talal previously was jailed in Egypt for drug possession.

He has said he hopes his connections will save him from the gallows. He told a newspaper that leading members of the ruling family had intervened with the emir.

Talal has pleaded with the country's emir to commute his death sentence.

"I am drug-addicted and I am getting cured," he said in an interview from prison published in the newspaper Al Jareeda.

"I don't deal," he said. "I don't know whether Kuwaiti society is satisfied with the ruling of the judiciary or not. But it's in the hands of the emir."

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Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi contributed to this report.

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