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Questions raised about detainee releases

Newspaper reports Saudi Arabia, Britain, U.S. had secret deal

From Suzanne Malveaux
CNN Washington Bureau

Guantanamo detainees kneel in this 2002 Defense Department picture.
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CNN's Suzanne Malveaux looks at the alleged three-way exchange.
Saudi Arabia
Great Britain
United States

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two separate releases of prisoners last year were part of a secret prisoner swap that involved the United States, Saudi Arabia and Britain, The New York Times reported Sunday.

A senior Saudi official dismissed the report as "pure fantasy," and National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said there was "no recollection here of any linkage between these two actions."

According to the Times report, U.S. officials returned five terrorism suspects to Saudi Arabia from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for the later release by the Saudis of five Britons and two other Westerners convicted of involvement in terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi official said the releases of Saudi prisoners from Guantanamo Bay were part of an effort to repatriate detainees.

"This is a case of connecting dots that don't," the official said.

Another senior Saudi official said many of the Saudis held at Guantanamo Bay were "low-level" al Qaeda sympathizers, not committed members.

Some of those repatriated to Saudi Arabia were jailed when they returned because it is illegal for Saudi citizens to go abroad and join a militia, the official said.

McCormack said the Saudis were released as "part of the normal policy of transferring detainees from Guantanamo for prosecution or continued detention."

Les Walker, one of the freed Britons, said Saudi security officials tortured him and six other Westerners into confessing to terrorist acts they did not commit.

"We pleaded innocent until they tortured us, or myself, they tortured me, to confess to bombings," he told CNN.

Walker and the six others were freed nearly a year ago.

The Times reported that senior American and British officials said the men were freed in exchange for the release of five Saudis held at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, where the U.S. military houses detainees from the war on terrorism.

Negotiations over the exchange began in July 2002, the Times reported.

In May 2003, the United States released the five Saudis from Guantanamo Bay, returning them to the Saudi government; three months later, Saudi Arabia released the seven Westerners.

"We were extremely relieved to win their release and get them out of Saudi Arabia," British Embassy spokesman Steve Atkins told CNN. "We worked ceaselessly for their return."

But he added, "I am not able to comment further on any diplomatic discussions."

One lawmaker said he has concerns about the exchange.

"Anytime Saudis are returned under a veil of secrecy, I'm suspicious," said Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a frequent critic of Saudi Arabia.

"This administration has been far too close for far too long to the Saudi ruling family, a family that has supported terrorism for over a decade."

A political analyst said he sees the timing of the releases, which took place around the time the United States was trying to persuade key allies to join the coalition to fight in Iraq, as more than coincidence.

"The Bush administration was hard-pressed to put the coalition together and to keep it together once the war was over," said Charles Kupchan, associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University.

"The one thing that you do to provide political payback was to facilitate a deal on these detainees, and Bush appears to have exercised that option," he added.

Walker said he was never told what led to his release but that he had suspected there were larger issues involved.

"We were a pawn in a big game," he said. "That was a feeling while we were in prison, and it's a thought that I've held since I came out."

CNN's Sarah Irwin contributed to this report.

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