CAIRO— Saudi Arabia's wink-and-nod approach to terrorism has rightly raised a critical storm in the United States. But the winking and nodding began almost a year before the terrorist attacks in September 2001, in the Saudi government's response to a series of mysterious bombings on its own soil.
The targets were Westerners who lived in the kingdom. Until now, no one has claimed responsibility for any of the incidents. It is likely that the real perpetrators have not been identified. It is clear that Saudi officials are loath even to consider that the attacks might be the work of home-grown terrorists.
The first of the attacks occurred in Riyadh on Nov. 17, 2000, killing the British citizen Christopher Rodway when a bomb exploded under his vehicle. David Brown, a Scot, lost his eyesight and right hand when he removed a bomb from his car on Dec. 15, 2000, in Khobar. Gary Hatch, an American, lost one eye and his left arm when he opened a letter bomb delivered to his office in Khobar on May 2, 2001.
Simon Veness, a Briton, was killed in Riyadh last June 20 when a bomb exploded inside his vehicle. The last attack took place on Sept. 29, also in Riyadh, when the car of W. Maximilian Graf, a German, exploded, killing him. Saudi Arabia's powerful and unaccountable Interior Ministry pointed the finger at seven Westerners, who were charged and sentenced in connection with the earliest attacks, although no evidence was ever presented against them. Some of the kingdom's trademark tools - among them torture, coerced confessions and secret trials - were used to implicate these men, while Saudi officials insisted that their own citizens were not responsible. The Saudis said the violence was the result of a turf war among Western expatriates involved in the illegal but lucrative alcohol trade, and rounded up some suspects. The first group - a Canadian, William Sampson, a Briton, Alexander Mitchell, and a Belgian, Raf Schyvens - was shown on Saudi television on Feb. 4, 2001, confessing to two bombings in Riyadh in November 2000. Their videotaped statements were made after they had been held incommunicado for more than a month without their respective consulates being informed.
A second group - James Cottle, James Lee and Les Walker, all British - appeared on Saudi television on Aug. 13, 2001. They confessed that they had received orders to carry out attacks in Riyadh on Jan. 10 and March 15, 2001, and in Khobar on Dec. 15, 2000. They, too, had been held in solitary confinement.
The families of the Westerners were shocked at the accusations, saying they were unbelievable. The confessions provided no information about the motives for the random violence and no disclosure of who had allegedly ordered the attacks.
On Feb. 8, 2001, in London, The Times cited an unnamed U.S. security source who revealed that British and American investigators had found plastic explosive C4 in the bombs. "It does not appear to be the work of men arguing over drinking clubs," the source told The Times. Moreover, the violence continued even after the Western suspects were in custody.
The six who confessed on television - and Peter Brandon, a Briton - were tried in secret without their Saudi lawyers present. Sampson and Mitchell were sentenced to death. Brandon, Cottle, Lee and Walker received 18-year prison terms, and Schyvens a sentence of eight years.
In an appeal to the Supreme Judicial Council, the Saudi defense lawyers for six of the defendants itemized the failures of the justice system in the case. They said that not a single piece of evidence was ever presented to implicate their clients other than confessions extracted under torture.
According to the lawyers, the men were suspended upside down with their hands and feet bound, forced to stand with their hands shackled to the top of a door, slapped and punched, and subjected to continuous sleep deprivation for up to 10 days. The lawyers criticized the judges who confirmed the confessions and ignored the claims of torture, which are clear violations of Saudi law.
The connection between human rights abuses and terrorism in Saudi Arabia merits serious scrutiny. The Bush administration and congressional critics should ask Crown Prince Abdullah and other senior Saudi officials tough questions about how justice is administered in the kingdom, starting first with the official investigations and legal proceedings surrounding the anti-Western bombings.
Some outspoken relatives of the imprisoned men argue that the miscarriage of justice in this case has enabled homegrown Saudi terrorists to operate with impunity in the kingdom. If that is true, it means that human rights victims are wrongly imprisoned and foreigners remain at risk in Saudi Arabia because the real bombers are free.