Sunday, March 25, 2007

U.S. officials are questioning a series of arrests by Saudi authorities last month, disputing official claims that the men were involved in terrorism financing.

“Based on the evidence I have seen, it appears more likely that these men were actually democracy activists,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Mr. Wyden, Oregon Democrat, added in an interview that he intended to follow the issue closely, “and I continue to be disappointed by the Saudi government’s efforts.”

Several U.S. intelligence officials interviewed by UPI on the condition of anonymity agreed, saying at least some U.S. agencies have concluded that the arrests were, in the words of one, “not a good bust.”

The 10 men were arrested Feb. 2, two in Medina and the rest in Jidda. According to the Saudi Interior Ministry, the arrests were part of an ongoing effort against “terrorism and its funding.”

The 10 were involved in illegally collecting donations and “sending them to suspected parties,” said Mansour al-Turki, the Interior Ministry spokesman, according to the Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat.

The money was used to “drag the sons of the nation to disturbed places,” said Mr. al-Turki in what was widely interpreted as a reference to Iraq.

Although the Saudi government has for years proclaimed a “zero-tolerance” policy on fundraising for extremist causes, these were the kingdom’s first arrests on such charges.

Within days, a lawyer representing some of the men told reporters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, that the detainees were not terrorism financiers but democracy activists. Amnesty International noted that two of the men, including lawyer Sulieman al-Rushudi, had been arrested in March 2004 after they signed a petition calling for reform of the Saudi government.

Nail al-Jubeir, a spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said the line between self-styled democracy activists and Islamic extremists is not always clear in Saudi Arabia. “In the 1990s, bin Laden was called a ‘dissident,’” he said.

Mr. al-Jubeir pointed out that Mr. al-Rushudi co-founded a human rights group in London in 1993 along with Saad Al-Faqih, who according to U.S. prosecutors supplied a satellite phone to bin Laden in the 1990s. Al-Faqih was designated by the U.S. Treasury in 2004 as a terrorism financier.

At least one other of those arrested, Islamic cleric Musa al-Qarni, has at leastpast associations with bin Laden, to whom he was a friend and mentor during the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

“Nobody knows these guys better than us,” said Mr. al-Jubeir, defending the arrests.

However, a former senior Treasury Department official said the Saudis “have provided no further information on the individuals, their activities or the terrorist groups they are purported to have been affiliated with, suggests to many that such information may simply not exist.”

Matthew Levitt, who until this year was deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Treasury Department, said other people designated as terrorism financiers by the United States remain at large in the kingdom.

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