Britons jailed for Saudi bombings return home

Saturday, August 9, 2003

LONDON -- Seven Westerners jailed in Saudi Arabia over a series of bombings that killed one person arrived back in Britain Friday after being freed and deported by Saudi authorities.

Canadian William Sampson and Briton Alexander Mitchell were sentenced to death in October 2001, while Britons James Lee, James Cottle, Les Walker and Peter Brandon were given prison sentences.

A sixth Briton, Glenn Ballard, who was detained for 10 months but not charged, also was released.

Raf Schyvens, from Belgium, who was also convicted and sentenced to prison in Saudi Arabia was released Friday and arrived back in Belgium, the Belgian Foreign Ministry said.

The men were sentenced in relation to two bombings in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in late 2000, in which a Briton, Christopher Rodway, was killed and four other people injured.

The Riyadh bombings were followed by several other blasts, which Saudi officials blamed on disputes between gangs dealing in alcohol, which is forbidden in the kingdom under Islamic laws but is not difficult to obtain.

The British men's relatives had often said that the charges against them were trumped up and that the bombings were the work of Islamic fundamentalists targeting Westerners.

Canadian and British officials had worked hard behind the scenes to persuade Saudi officials to free the men, but it was not immediately clear if the Western governments believed the defendants were innocent, or simply mistreated in custody and given harsh sentences.

On Friday, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw welcomed the men's release. "I am relieved that they have returned to the U.K. and their families. It has obviously been a very difficult time for the men, and for their families. Ministers and officials have worked hard for this outcome," he said.

Canadian Foreign Affairs minister Bill Graham said Sampson's release followed a plea for clemency made directly to the Saudi royal family. Graham said he would check with Sampson about whether he or any of the other captives had been tortured in Saudi custody.

Straw's office released a statement from the British men saying they were delighted to be home, thanking their families and the government for their support, and asking the media for privacy.

"We hope everyone will understand we now need some time and space with our families," the statement said.

The men were flown on a British Airways flight from Riyadh after being granted Saudi royal clemency. They left Heathrow airport without speaking to waiting reporters.

A spokeswoman for the Canadian High Commission could not confirm news reports that the men had been whisked away by British police for interviewing. She spoke on customary condition of anonymity.

The clemency was issued two weeks ago but has only just been finalized, their lawyer Salah al-Hujeilan said, speaking from southern France. Al-Hujeilan said his clients "maintained their position that they are not guilty. This case should now be closed. It is closed from the Saudi point of view."

Jane Rodway, the 53-year-old widow of the Riyadh bomb victim, was informed of the men's release by London's Metropolitan Police. "I'm a bit stunned and worried because they all said they were innocent and if they are, who did kill my husband and try to kill me?" she said.

"I just think, what next? Somebody killed my husband. I need to be given evidence from somewhere. I need to know the truth."

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