Questions Arise From U.S.-Saudi Prisoner Release
British Men Say They Were 'Pawns in a Game'
By Jeffeson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 6, 2004; 10:45 AM
A report of a secret deal to trade detainees between the United States, Great Britain and Saudi Arabia is gaining credence in the eyes of the international online media.
Two British men released from a Saudi prison last summer now say they believe a secret deal, first reported by the New York Times on Sunday, secured their release. An attorney who represented the men says he proposed such a trade. But a lawyer for five Saudi suspects released from U.S. detention at Guantanamo Bay in May 2003 denies there was any such arrangement.
News sites from London to the Persian Gulf are wondering if the five unidentified Saudis are the latest beneficiaries of behind-closed-doors cooperation between Riyadh and Washington.
"US-Saudi prisoner deal?" asked al-Jazeera.net.
The question was first raised by a July 4 New York Times story.
The article quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying that the United States had released five Saudi terrorism suspects from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in May 2003. In return, the article said, the Saudis in August 2003 released five Britons and two others who had been convicted of charges related to a car bombing in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis alleged the European men were involved in the lucrative but illicit liquor business in the Saudi capital.
In London, the Independent claimed they had received confirmation from "diplomatic and intelligence sources" that the six British men and the Belgian were released in August 2003 in exchange for the U.S. decision in May 2003 to release five Saudi prisoners. The Independent said that at least two of the Saudis released "were believed to have trained in al-Qaeda camps."
The release of the prisoners helped both the Saudi and British governments put their relationship with the United States in favorable light, noted the liberal London daily.
"The joint releases were subsequently presented as diplomatic triumphs by both the British and Saudi governments."
"It is my information that the Saudis themselves broached the idea of an exchange, effectively using us as hostages," said William Sampson, another one of the men released.
"We were definitely pawns in a game," said Sandy Mitchell, one of the released British detainees now living in Scotland.
The BBC reports that British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is sidestepping the issue.
Asked if any deals had been done with Saudi Arabia, Straw replied: "I worked very hard for the release of the British detainees and we were all greatly relieved once they were released. As to the precise circumstances I am not going to comment further."
The allegations of a secret deal "cast new light on what was already one of the murkiest episodes in Saudi-British relations," said the conservative Daily Telegraph.
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