The ex-prime minister’s transplant case, a test of justice in oil-rich Kuwait
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Where is Sheikh Jaber? Kuwait was abuzz with the issue as citizens on social media demanded to know the whereabouts of their 79-year-old former prime minister. He was ordered to be held pending trial last month to an unprecedented extent for the alleged embezzlement of millions of dollars from a military aid fund.
When the scandal involving the Sheikh and another member of the royal family erupted in public view almost two years ago, it sparked a rare wave of street protests. This prompted the resignation of the Cabinet and held the Arab Gulf state to account for the rampant corruption that trapped ministers and tainted the country’s sprawling bureaucracy for generations.
Activists believe corruption is rampant in the oil-rich Gulf Arab Sheikhs region, but public criminal cases against senior officials and members of the royal family remain rare, usually taking place behind palace gates.
That may change, however, with the recent explosive quarrels over money laundering in Kuwait, a major wave of corruption in Saudi Arabia and the arrest last week of Qatar’s powerful finance minister in an investigation for embezzlement.
Now the Kuwaiti justice system is testing the government’s promises to hold ministers accountable for the $ 790 million that disappeared from the Ministry of Defense fund years ago.
The ministerial court ordered two former ministers and members of the royal family, Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak Al Sabah and his ally, the former Minister of Defense and Interior, Sheikh Khalid al-Jarrah Al Sabah, to detain last month in Kuwait Central Prison for alleged abuse of the ministry. funds. The court also sent lower-ranking officials to jail pending trial and imposed a travel ban on Sheikh Jaber, according to a statement widely published in Kuwaiti media.
But Sheikh Jaber has not been seen in public since the criminal proceedings began and speculation has revolved around his fate. Many doubt the former prime minister is, in fact, languishing in the notorious dusty suburb of Kuwait, riddled with reported coronavirus outbreaks.
This doubt reveals the deep mistrust of Kuwaitis towards the authorities who are seriously pursuing the case. Social media has been inflamed with rumors in recent weeks, even after the court accepted the defense team’s request to ban news and social media from posting details of the trial sessions.
Kuwaiti newspapers – still reporting despite the court order – said the defense team had maintained the former prime minister’s innocence in recent hearings. Sheikh Jaber’s legal team did not respond to repeated requests for comment amid the gag rule. The Kuwaiti Ministry of Information declined to comment on the case, citing the court’s secret investigation.
Soon WhatsApp groups crackled with leaks that, while other officials remained in custody, Sheikh Jaber’s version of the state guard was a special wing of the hospital decorated like a palace with hotel service. A doctor at al-Amiri Hospital, run by the state of Kuwait, confirmed to The Associated Press that Sheikh Jaber, who skipped the last hearing due to reported health issues, was receiving treatment there. The doctor declined to give details and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, like most of those interviewed.
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” said a Kuwaiti anti-corruption activist. “We are waiting and watching to see if this case ends like the others.”
The case of the missing military money is one of the many scandals that have surfaced in Kuwait in recent years, undermining public confidence in its political establishment. Parliament has since repealed a public debt law that would allow the government to raise billions of dollars to resolve its worst liquidity crisis since the 1991 Gulf War, in part over fears of corruption.
In the fall of 2019, the late Defense Minister Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al Sabah called for an investigation into the millions of missing people, triggering the downfall of the government when ministers refused to appear for questioning in parliament. Other plans that later came to light have tainted Kuwait’s reputation, including a massive scandal at the Malaysian state investment fund that trapped the son of Sheikh Jaber, now out on bail.
Under pressure, the government created a new anti-corruption authority and a dozen similar committees. The late emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, then swore on state television that “no one, whatever his position, will escape punishment if he is found guilty of crimes related to public funds.”
Yet modest hopes of accountability have faded, and various investigations have stalled over the years. In the country teeming with petrodollars, critics describe a culture of corruption that ranges from everyday “wasta”, or political relations, to bloated public works projects. Lawmakers accused Kuwait of falling behind neighbors like Dubai in terms of development and foreign investment.
“Much remains to be done to resolve Kuwait’s problems. On the one hand, the justice system needs a major overhaul,” said Bader al-Saif, assistant professor of history at the University of Kuwait. “Without all the embezzled money being returned and jail sentences handed down if those involved are at fault, the corruption will continue.”
Others who are more optimistic say that the pre-trial detention of such powerful officials marks a pivotal moment in Kuwait’s drive to root out corruption – and note that it has already paid off.
Earlier this month, a leaked court document revealed that Sheikh Jaber had repaid 53.9 million Kuwaiti dinars ($ 180.7 million) to the state, which prosecutors had personally accused him of embezzlement. A court attorney confirmed the authenticity of the receipt, calling it an important precedent.
“You don’t often see former court officials in prison clothes here,” he said.