Secret report detailed violenceRichard Norton-Taylor and David Pallister
A top secret report revealing the extent of the torture meted out to Britons accused of bombings in Saudi Arabia was circulating at the highest levels of government a year ago but ministers decided to suppress the evidence, the Guardian has learned.
The report described how the Britons were subjected to physical assaults, including beating the soles of their feet - confirming accounts published by the Guardian yesterday and today. It also included unflattering comments about Prince Naif, the Saudi interior minister, suggesting he was a protagonist of torture and an anti-western conservative.
The highly classified report provoked a furious debate in Whitehall between officials who wanted the government to go public, and others who warned would damage Britain's relations with a key ally.
Tony Blair responded by sending John Sawers, then a Foreign Office official, and Lady Symons, then minister for arms procurement, on secret but unsuccessful missions to Riyadh to try to secure the release of the Britons.
The Foreign Office confirmed yesterday that on their visits last September they had met "senior Saudi authorities". But a letter to one of the families from a Foreign Office consular official - seen by the Guardian - reveals that Mr Blair's envoys had met Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of the country. The letter also claimed the prime minister had raised the matter with the crown prince on his flying visit to Riyadh on October 31.
MI6 officers also tried to apply pressure on the Saudi government, according to Whitehall sources. Britain has a close intelligence relation ship with the regime, which is one of the biggest markets for British arms.
Though five Britons were released last year, five remain in jail. They are Sandy Mitchell, Jimmy Cottle, James Lee, Les Walker - who appeared in staged televised confessions - and Peter Brandon.
It was revealed yesterday how Saudi secret police under the control of Prince Naif tortured three British suspects as they sought confessions to the wave of bombings against westerners. They were part of a circle of illicit drinkers and the Saudis claim they were engaged in a bootleggers' turf war. But Whitehall officials make it plain that the most likely perpetrators were Saudi supporters of Osama bin Laden.
Whitehall's description of Prince Naif as being anti-western does not imply any sympathy with Bin Laden, whose support among young Saudis is causing concern to the Saudi royal family and its 7,000 princes.
The revelations were applauded yesterday by Whitehall officials who believe the government should have adopted a firmer approach with the Saudi regime. But opinion was deeply divided, officials familar with the debate said. The argument was won by those who pointed out that Saudi Arabia, with the world's largest oil reserves, was a key country in the Middle East with huge influence over pro-western Gulf states.
Mr Blair's spokesman said yesterday the government had been pursuing the prisoners' cases with "vigorous representations by ministers and senior officials and these are continuing". He added: "Our experience in these kinds of cases indicates that these contacts and representations are best pursued privately."
The FO said in a statement: "At every stage since the first arrests, we have pursued these cases actively and at a high level. We have worked at all times with the best interests of the detainees as our top priority."
It added: "These decisions are never easy, but in our judgment it was right to pursue these cases in private. That remains our view. This approach was discussed with the families throughout. In some cases, we were specifically asked to avoid publicity."
Michael Moore, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, described the Guardian's disclosures as "extremely worrying, coming as they do at a time when the treatment of detainees is headline news".
He added: "The Foreign Office must make the strongest possible representations to the Saudi government. Access to the four Britons still being held must be afforded immediately to ensure their proper treatment."
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