The seven men, speaking in Arabic from several different countries by phone and by Skype, simultaneously, gave their accounts after months of long consultations between them, and several meetings with the people they had chosen to speak to. “I am so pleased this joint initiative has gone ahead – it has made me very proud…and if it has an effect I’ll be even more pleased,” said one this week. The formal documentation to be lodged with the UN is currently underway. The witness statements with the details of their torture are in seperate links see below:
Abu Assad (English)
Abu Layth (English)
Abu Haytham (English)
Abu Muhammad (English)
Abu Umar (English)
Abu Khalid (English)
Abu Yasin (English)
Their group determination to go public overrode their frequently expressed fears about the risks to themselves and their families from intelligence services if their identities were to become known. “The threat to my family and to myself would be very, very serious…these are very ruthless people with an extreme fear of adverse publicity.” However one said, “regardless of dangers, they have already taken five years of my life... I would like to expose what’s going on in Saudi Arabia at any cost.”
The men’s identities were crossed checked and verified by an independent lawyer and journalist who took their calls, and met two of the men for interviews both together and separately. Background checks were conducted over months.
Two of the former prisoners were close friends in prison, while the others overlapped acquaintanceships at that time. The two said that they had resolved in the very darkest time there that once they got out they would campaign to publicise what happened to them, on behalf of those still there. “It is our duty, when we left the prison the others begged us, really begged us, “don't forget us, don't forget us”,” one said.
Some of the men were in the same room together for two and a half years, becoming closer than family. “To leave a person behind is very hard.” As they spoke there were echoes of every former Guantanamo prisoner’s expression of responsibility for those left behind.
Another explained how he believed that the public naming of the key figure who each one had been tortured by, Mr al-Barakaty, would have a psychological impact on other, less senior, men who routinely carry out torture. “They will wonder who else may be named…it is a strong message to officers to think one million times before they lay their hands on any detainee.”
Several of the men said they believed their speaking out would encourage other former prisoners to break their silence too. All of them spoke of having met in prison men “from every continent” – arrested in the massive fishing net hauled in by US and other Western intelligence agencies with the launch of the War on Terror a decade ago.
From the line of questioning by their interrogators two said they realised they were being asked not about themselves, but about an associate. Another said that he had been arrested for Takfiri or Jihadi ideology, which he did not hold, as his interrogators soon found out, although they did not release him for years. Others said they had never found out why they were arrested, nor why they were released. As one put it, “anyone can be arrested in Saudi, they don't need a reason.” Another added that, as in his case, it could be “because someone from outside wants you arrested.” And one added, “it’s of everyone’s interest to allow [the torture] to continue... rather than torturing people in the West, why not just let it happen in another country, so you can’t be blamed?”
These men were held for between five months and seven years and their torture took place over varying periods. Besides the physical torture described in the witness statements, one added that he had had the psychological torture of being taken to the airport and told he was being deported, but after some hours waiting was returned to prison.
The men explained that during their time in prison consular visits only ever happened for those men with European passports, and then usually they would be taken to Riyadh for the visit before being returned to prison in Madinah. Asked about prison visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross, one man responded, “regarding the Red Cross, there was no such thing in those prisons and anybody that mentioned 'human rights' or 'Red Cross' in a phone call to his family would be banned from calling again.”
Of the seven men, only three were charged and tried. They explained that the judges were appointed by the Ministry of Interior, there were no lawyers, no public access to the court, and no notice given of the hearing. “All of us raised with the judge that we were tortured, but he dismissed the issue and sentenced us on the confessions. In fact the judge said to me. ‘I am sentencing you because you confessed to these things, regardless of whether you did them or not. You’ve got to bear the punishment because you confessed.’ ”
The men appear to have been released as randomly as they were arrested.
Nearly all were deported either to their own countries, or in some cases to third countries where they described, and showed pictures of leading lives of extreme isolation and hardship, knowing no one. Some men described “drowning in debts so it is difficult to put food on the table for my family,” or they spoke sadly of lost businesses, lost study possibilities, prohibition on travel, and the very private loss of an engagement to be married. As one put it, “it is very, very difficult to re-engage with anything that resembles life.”
Some of the men were university students when they were arrested, and one said that approximately 30 students from the University of Madinah were held in the same prison when he was there, all without charge or trial, many on the mere suspicion of associating with a suspect individual.
Several knew well the tragic outcome in the case of Ahmed Abu Ali, the young American/Palestinian who was arrested in 2003 while taking his exams in Madinah. Abu Ali was finally released to the US government after 20 months, when his family took a habeas corpus case against the Saudi government. But the false confession Abu Ali had made under torture in Saudi Arabia was then used by the US to try him on terrorist offences, and in court the two doctors who testified he had been tortured saw their evidence ignored and Abu Ali was forbidden to lift his shirt to show his scars. By a video link to the court Saudi officials testified that torture was not used in their country. Abu Ali is serving a life sentence in a US SuperMax prison.
During the interviews one man wanted to add to his written statement that he had seen women and children in the prison who had been arrested for protesting the arrest of individual family members. Another said that he hoped their speaking out could become a spur for lawyers to initiate a legal process based on their testimonies. “Not in any of our countries, but surely in Europe there are lawyers and courts who can take a case like this?”
In 2006 a similar case against named Saudi officials was heard in London on behalf of four British businessmen tortured in jail and forced into false confessions. Saudi Arabia is party to the Convention against Torture, which means that UK courts have jurisdiction over torture allegations that occur in its territory – but English judges decided that state immunity applied, and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) agreed.
The legal team has since taken a different tactic, suing the torturers, the head of the prison and the minister in charge. The Saudis again claimed that state immunity should protect them from the charges, and the case is now pending before the ECHR. Tamsin Allen of Bindman’s, lawyer for the British men said yesterday, “If the European Court allows this application, the way will be opened for torture victims to achieve redress in UK and other European domestic courts against those responsible for their torture. That is an important first step towards torture victims achieving the right to be compensated by foreign states for the damage caused by torture.”
For the seven men taking their first step towards justice this week such an outcome would validate the risks they have taken to expose from first hand what Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported of judicial and prison deficiencies in Saudi Arabia over many years. “Hell” was the simple summing up of one of these former prisoners this week.
For further information on the Saudi Torture Project see link below: