International Incident
Mark Andresen

International Incident

They flowed into the streets, shouting and waving signs, angry at Denver police.

Mostly they were young teens and college kids, more than a thousand of them, demanding justice for two boys they say were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But the protesters weren't in Denver. They were in Kuwait City, the coastal capital of Kuwait, a fringe of land at the tip of the Persian Gulf. In late March they protested outside the Kuwait Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A week later they were in front of the Parliament Building, blocking the entrance and holding signs, many of them in English. The protests, which have included candlelit vigils, have been decidedly American in flavor.

And this is appropriate, since they are fighting for the rights of two Kuwaiti brothers, Raed and Hamad Mubarak, who are tangled up in the United States legal system.

The Mubarak brothers got into a fight last fall in Denver that ended, police say, when Raed tried to run over two Americans with his car. No one was seriously hurt, but Raed was charged with two counts of attempted first-degree murder and faces up to twenty years in prison for each count. His younger brother Hamad was convicted of attempted third-degree assault late last year, sentenced to thirty days probation and ordered deported to Kuwait.

It's an unusual set of circumstances, and it's raised passions in a country of two million people halfway around the world, where such stirrings are not looked upon favorably.

"These kind of protests are not allowed in Kuwait," says Ahmed Quraishi, an editor at Rai-Alaam newspaper in Kuwait City, which wrote about the case. The government would have already cracked down on the protestors, he says, but their age gives them a certain amount of license. There are even plans to organize a huge rock concert -- which are forbidden in public spaces in Kuwait -- in support of the Mubarak brothers.

"Now nobody can come and stop it," Quraishi says, "because people will shout that this is a humanitarian cause."

When sixteen-year-old Hamad Mubarak visited his older brother Raed in Denver last summer, he liked the city so much that he returned in the fall, moved in with Raed and began to study for his United States high school equivalency test so that he could enroll at the University of Denver. On October 17, he received his GED. That night, despite being underage, he headed to a LoDo nightspot to celebrate.

How the fight started is unclear. Raed's version goes like this: He picked his brother up near the corner of 15th and Market streets after midnight and they headed home. But while they were waiting at a red light on Lincoln Street at its intersection with 14th Avenue, two guys -- Michael Van Hofwegen and Andre McKnight -- emerged from a Toyota 4Runner stopped twenty feet behind them and came up on either side of Raed's silver VW Bug. Unprovoked, McKnight then started punching Raed through the open window.

They want to hijack the car, Raed thought. They want to rob us. As McKnight continued to throw punches at Raed, Raed turned in his seat and lashed back with his feet. McKnight pulled his shoes off.

Hamad, meanwhile, had gotten out of the car to reason with the attackers, but instead wound up being hit by either McKnight, Van Hofwegen or the latter's girlfriend, Marla Fulks (who happens to be a United States Marine.) The whole thing lasted no more than ninety seconds, Raed says. When the light turned green, Raed hit the gas and spun the car around so it was driving south, the wrong way down one-way Lincoln, the passenger door still open.

Raed says Van Hofwegen got back in his vehicle and drove off, but Hamad was lying facedown in the street, and McKnight and Fulks were still hitting him. The VW pulled alongside Hamad, and Raed yelled at his brother, "Get in! Get in!" McKnight and Fulks withdrew and Hamad crawled inside the car.

"I can't breathe, I can't breathe," Hamad gasped. "They hit me with the car. Take me to the hospital." Hamad's yellow shirt was red with blood. He reached for his cell phone, but it was lost underneath the seat. The Bug got only as far as Broadway and Colfax Avenue, on the other side of Civic Center, before a Denver police cruiser pulled them over.

Michael Van Hofwegen and Andre McKnight's story is a little different. Although neither man returned phone calls from Westword, their version is laid out in the testimony they gave during Raed Mubarak's preliminary hearing held December 9 of last year.

Van Hofwegen says he was driving his Toyota 4Runner on Lincoln at about Eighth or Ninth Avenue, when the Mubaraks' silver Bug slowly started to creep into his lane. It appeared to Van Hofwegen that Mubarak wasn't paying attention, but when he tried to get away from the erratic vehicle, Mubarak pulled around him on his left, cut in front of him and slammed the brakes. "As soon as I came to a complete stop, the driver and passenger jumped out of their car. The driver opened my door, it wasn't locked, and said, you know, 'Don't "f" with me. I'm going to kick the shit out of you.'"

Then he said Raed Mubarak began kicking him. Van Hofwegen pulled one of Raed's shoes off. He tried to put the SUV in reverse, but his friends had already gotten out of the vehicle. (Van Hofwegen testified that he never got out of the truck during the scuffle, but his roommate, McKnight, said all three of the SUV's occupants eventually left the vehicle.)

Van Hofwegen said he saw Fulks on the ground and Hamad standing over her with an object in his hand, like he was going to hit her. He pulled the SUV over and up onto the sidewalk, between Hamad and Fulks. "I probably pushed him with the car," Van Hofwegen testified, "but it was, you know, it was me pulling the car onto the sidewalk five feet from him...There was no speed involved. It was merely a blocking maneuver."

While McKnight and Raed Mubarak continued to fight, Van Hofwegen said he and Fulks got in the SUV and pulled onto 14th Avenue. When they got out again, the fight was over. McKnight was walking toward them, and Fulks ran over to meet him. But then the Bug circled around, "the engine revved at a very high rate, and Marla and Andre were both run down. I would approximate the speed at probably twenty to thirty miles per hour."

Van Hofwegen said his friends were thrown onto the top of the car and landed on the pavement. According to testimony, McKnight suffered several scrapes and bruises and was sore for a few weeks, but his injuries were minor. Fulks chipped her front tooth and suffered bruises and a "jarred" jaw.

The police report noted that there was a dent on the hood of the Bug, as well as, possibly, blood on the front fender. (Raed Mubarak wouldn't comment about whether he hit McKnight and Fulks with his car. His mother, Kareemah, says her son "did not intentionally hit them.")

A witness told police that it was McKnight and Van Hofwegen who jumped the Mubaraks, but he added that Raed Mubarak did hit McKnight and Fulks with his car.

Raed Mubarak says the evening got even worse from there. He claims that at police headquarters, a cop kneed him in the stomach, slapped his face and threw him up against a chain-link fence. Another cop, with tattoos, then slapped him some more on the elevator ride up into the station, he says. Worse still, Raed didn't know where his brother was. "I don't know what happened to him," he says. "I was hoping they'd let him go. He's just sixteen."

Mubarak spent the next twelve days behind bars.

Captain John Lamb, commander of the department's downtown district, says he has heard nothing about police misconduct in any of the officers' reports, or, for that matter, from Raed. In addition, none of the officers filled out a Use of Force report, which is standard whenever a suspect resists arrest, or when things get at all physical. "It sounds to me like it was a fairly routine arrest," Lamb says.

"That's a very serious allegation," adds Lynn Kimbrough, the spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney's Office. "If there's any substance to the allegation, he [Raed] needs to bring it forward. I don't know that he has. We'd need something more than an unhappy defendant making that allegation."

But Raed's mother, Kareemah, says her son didn't file a complaint "because he doesn't know the laws and rules in Denver. We come from a country where the rules are so different."

McKnight, Van Hofwegen and Fulks weren't charged. "Based on the investigation we conducted, nothing would warrant the filing of criminal charges on any of the alleged victims," says Diane Balkin, who is prosecuting the case.

Kareemah Mubarak was in her home in Kuwait when she got the call from a Denver bail-bondsman named Patrick Mares. It was 8:30 p.m. Kuwait time.

Hamad was supposed to have been on a plane from Denver to Kuwait on October 20 -- just three days after the brawl. His mother had wired him money and sent along a shopping list of things she wanted him to buy in America, mostly clothes for her daughter. He didn't get off the plane, though, and when her calls to the boys in Denver went unanswered, she panicked. "They vanished," she says. "Can you imagine how that felt?"

On October 25, Kareemah arrived in Denver and bailed out both of her sons. When Hamad was released, she says, he was nursing a broken finger. He didn't recognize her. "He looked terrible." Confused and overwhelmed, he managed to tell her that the police had beaten him up. But Hamad is still in shock, according to his brother. "He's still at home," says Raed. "You can only get him to the supermarket."

The demonstrations in Kuwait started after the boys' father, Hussein, took their story to the Kuwaiti press.

The Kuwaiti Embassy in Washington, D.C., is now paying the family's living expenses in Denver and is trying to convince the Immigration and Naturalization Service to let Hamad stay in the United States. Although Ahmad Alweheib, a counselor at the embassy, is aware that some of the demonstrators in Kuwait are displeased with what they perceive as the embassy's lack of action, he wouldn't talk about the situation. "We don't discuss cases that are going to trial," he says. "We are very conscious that any statement may be misconstrued."

Though Kuwait is a modern and prosperous country, it is Islamic, and its traditions are rubbing against a younger generation of Kuwaitis who, if not quite Westernized, are Americanized and itching to let everyone know. The protests are as much a plea on behalf of the Mubarak brothers as they are a declaration of freedom of expression, says Quraishi, the Kuwaiti editor.

He recalls seeing a young woman on the fifteen-member demonstration organizing committee coming to meetings wearing a black veil. "To her, she'd never met these two boys. She said that before this case, she was leading a normal life. Now she found something she could put her energies in. I'm sure the same goes for the rest. Since there's no precedent where a younger generation came out so openly for something, their frustration is resonant." He says the response by e-mail and fax to the paper's article on the brothers has been "tremendous."

And not just to Rai-Alaam. Andrew Hudson, the spokesman for Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, says that when he returned from a city trip to London, there were 2,400 e-mails jamming the mayor's mailbox -- the most he had ever received on one subject. All told, Hudson estimates that he received between 4,000 and 5,000 messages from angry Kuwaitis. "The mayor has no control over this," he says, referring to the adjudication of the case. "As well-intentioned as it is, it is unfortunately not effective."

There are three distinct reactions in Kuwait to the boys' situation, he continues. Some folks believe the Mubaraks, especially mothers. A small minority of people don't support the brothers and figure the whole matter should be left to the justice system here, which they trust. Lastly, the majority don't necessarily believe the entire story but feel they should support the Mubaraks because they are Kuwaiti.

"They feel this is sort of a nationalist obligation," Quraishi explains. "This younger generation is willing to stand by a cause like this, even though it seems on the surface like it's against the United States. These kids are not your typical Arab nationalist demonstrators, anti-American, anti-imperialist. These people are not politicized."

Quraishi doesn't know how long the protests will last. "They'll stay the course for the time being," he says. "I don't know if all of them understand this is a lengthy case. But if they do, hooray. This gives them a longer period of time to continue with their noise and merrymaking. It's great."

Raed Mubarak's next court date is April 28, and although his grades at Arapahoe Community College have plummeted and the charges he is facing are serious, he doesn't want to return to Kuwait.

"I'm staying here in Denver," he says. "I love it here, other than what happened."


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