Saudis freed Britons in a secret swap of prisoners

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The Independent Online

Six Britons convicted on terrorism charges in Saudi Arabia were released last year as part of a secret three-way deal in which the US set free a number of Saudi prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay. The deal was brokered to obtain Saudi support for the invasion of Iraq.

Six Britons convicted on terrorism charges in Saudi Arabia were released last year as part of a secret three-way deal in which the US set free a number of Saudi prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay. The deal was brokered to obtain Saudi support for the invasion of Iraq.

Diplomatic and intelligence sources have confirmed to The Independent that the Britons, convicted of a fatal car-bombing, were released last August after the US returned five Saudi prisoners, at least two of whom were believed to have trained in al-Qa'ida camps.

At the time, the release of the Saudis was opposed by the Pentagon and the CIA. But the joint releases were subsequently presented as diplomatic triumphs by both the British and Saudi governments.

A senior British source said yesterday: "Of course there were government-to-government talks. We were all anxious to solve the problem. But one must bear in mind that it was the Americans who held the aces with the Saudi detainees, the British government did not have that kind of leverage. So the term 'negotiations' should really be applied to the American-Saudi dialogue. But it was a particularly difficult time with Iraq, and a solution was in everyone's interest."

The Britons - Sandy Mitchell, James Cottle, Les Walker, James Lee, Glenn Ballard and Peter Brandon, and a Canadian, William Sampson - said they were subjected to beating while incarcerated for two years. They had been convicted of a car-bombing in which another Briton, Christopher Rodway, was killed. Many have subsequently said their confessions were forced and are suing the Saudi authorities.

Mr Mitchell, 48, originally from Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow, said last night: "We were definitely pawns in a game. I was sentenced to crucifixion and beheading for a crime the Saudis knew I did not commit.

"They had to tell us during the torture sessions what to confess to. It was a set-up from the very beginning."

The initiative to release the five Saudis from Guantanamo Bay began in July 2002 when Saudi officials visited the camp. According to a report in The New York Times, the proposal was discussed at the highest levels of the US and British governments, both eager to keep the support of the Saudi authorities for the invasion of Iraq. One US official said: "This was something that the Saudis desperately wanted, as a way to show their people that they could get something from the Americans and that it was not just a one-way street."

The following month, a recommendation by the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Robert Johnson, outlined a "swap" as a way to keep the Saudis' support. While the Saudi authorities were technically opposed to the invasion of Iraq they allowed the US to use air bases in the kingdom.

The deal that was negotiated deliberately ensured there was a time gap between the release of the Saudis and the subsequent release of the Westerners in order to allow officials to deny there had been a "swap". "We did not want to make it a clear quid pro quo," said a US official. "We did obviously say that we expected [the release of the Westerners] to be resolved."

In March 2003, just days before the American-led coalition invaded Iraq, King Fahd granted clemency to the Western prisoners, though they were not released immediately. On 14 May, the five Saudis were flown to Riyadh. There are contradictory reports as to whether these men have been released by the Saudi authorities or charged with any crime.

Finally, in early August, the Westerners were flown home.

Informed of the secret deal Mr Rodway's widow, Jane, said last night she was shocked by the news and had not been informed of any such swap. "I didn't even know they were coming home until they were on the plane," she said.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman refused to confirm or deny that a deal was done.

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