Politics & Policy

The Lubyanka Treatment

Former Saudi prisoners tell their story.

If torture were an Olympic competition Feliks Dzerzhinsky and Lavrenty Beria–Stalin’s Torquemadas–would have been gold medallists. In Moscow’s Lubyanka, they administered pain in hourly, daily, and weekly doses sufficient to turn many an ordinary life into a living hell. Though Dzerzhinsky and Beria are gone, their spirit–and methods-are said to live on in the interrogation center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The State Department, which rarely misses an opportunity to roll over for Saudi Arabia, said this in a March 2002 “Country Report on Human Rights Practices”: “The [Saudi] Government’s human rights record remained poor…Security forces continued to abuse detainees and prisoners, arbitrarily arrest and detain persons, and hold them in incommunicado detention. In addition there were allegations that security forces committed torture.”

Last week, I spoke to three British men who make such allegations. These Britons say they were arrested by the Saudis and tortured into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. The Saudis deny the torture and insist the confessions are proof of guilt. But in a country known more for public beheadings than for leniency, the Britons were among a group suddenly released last month (with some pressure from the British government) after, according to the former prisoners, getting the full Lubyanka Treatment. (Their story, as they tell is, follows.)

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif is in charge of internal security. This is the same Prince Naif who blamed “the Jews” for 9/11, and is jockeying for position to become king after (or instead of) Crown Prince Abdullah. When the bombings began, the Saudis said they were part of a war between European bootleggers. To make good on his frequent boast that his “Mubahith” police have a perfect record of solving such crimes, Naif had them arrest a group of British, Canadian, and Belgian workers and confessions were literally beat out of them. Three Europeans were arrested in November 2000 and accused of the bombings. In 2001, more were taken.

James Lee, Peter Brandon, and Glenn Ballard are an unlikely trio of terrorist bombers. A craftsman of artificial limbs, a chef, and a computer engineer, none of them had any criminal record before the Mubahith made one for them.

James Lee graduated from a “comprehensive” school in South Wales (equivalent of U.S. high school) and kicked around in several jobs. Eventually he worked in a hospital in Cardiff where he learned how to make artificial limbs, and quickly settled into a job he takes pride in. He makes prostheses by hand, turning out about four a week. In 1991 he was offered a job in Saudi Arabia to work in a military hospital.

In almost a decade there, thousands of legs and arms were made by Lee’s skilled hands. He and his fiancée, Gillian Barton, were saving their earnings hoping to buy a house back in the U.K.

Lee had heard of the bombings, but wasn’t concerned about being arrested because he says he wasn’t involved. Not that he followed Saudi law to the letter. Living with his fiancé was illegal. The Saudis turned a blind eye to that, as well as to Lee’s participation in a common practice among the non-Saudi population. The Muslim country wasn’t dry in Lee’s villa. He–like many other Europeans there–made his own beer and wine, and even ran one of the many underground pubs. He called it the “The Legs’ Arms” in a truly awful pun on his profession.

On April 21, 2001, two interior-ministry policemen came to the military hospital and took Lee away in handcuffs. He thought he was in trouble over the beer.

He kept asking them why he was being arrested. They told him to shut up. They took him to the interrogation center, and threw him in a cell that had only “a grotty mattress, pillow, and a blanket.” The next day, he was “taken upstairs” where he was handcuffed and his legs shackled.

There were two of them, and we may never know their real names. “Captain Ibrahim” is a small man with “small, beady, evil-looking eyes,” Lee told me. Ibrahim is short, maybe five feet two. (One of the others remembered Ibrahim being a few inches taller.) “Captain Khaled” was much taller, about five foot ten. He was the interpreter, and Ibrahim’s subordinate. Khaled had, “…black, rotten teeth” and “…very scruffy facial hair, very patchy and messy.” His features looked more Indian than Arab. Ibrahim began slapping Lee around, demanding he confess to the bombings. Then they put him in a “push-up” position, face down on the floor, still cuffed and shackled with his feet angled against the wall. They beat his legs and body with a cane, laughing and joking as they did it. Lee remembers fainting at least three times.

The beatings continued day and night, the men say. They removed even the “grotty” mattress, pillow, and blanket, leaving him sitting on concrete under bright lights. Whenever he fell asleep, someone would come in and literally beat him awake. Lee became disoriented and lost track of time. Eventually, after days or weeks of this, Ibrahim and Khaled became impatient. They threatened to arrest Gillian, and bring her to the interrogation room to abuse her in Lee’s presence. He broke, and confessed to three bombings. A confession was written out for him. Then they wanted to know who at the British embassy ordered the bombings. Lee gave them the only names he knew, and more innocents were labeled part of a nonexistent conspiracy.

Lee was brought before a judge and his confession was read. Only after he was released did he learn he was sentenced to 18 years in jail for the bombings he didn’t commit.

Even after the court appearance, the beatings continued. For about two and a half years, Lee was beaten again and again, and whenever his jailers wanted him to sign another concocted confession, the threats to Gillian were repeated.

Peter Brandon fared even worse. Brandon must have appeared to be a very dangerous man to the Saudis, having served 24 years in the British army–as a chef.

Brandon went to Saudi Arabia in August 1995 to be the chef at the same military hospital where Lee worked. A month before Lee was arrested, Brandon was taken from the hospital to his villa where his wife and toddler son watched the Saudis toss the place. Brandon’s wife had to beg the Saudi goons to let her say goodbye. All the while his little boy wailed, “Papa, papa, don’t go.”

Brandon soon found himself thrown against a wall in the “upstairs” interrogation room. Khaled and Ismail (who was Ibrahim under another name, by the description Brandon gave) worked him over with enthusiasm. He asked to get legal help. They laughed at him, and said no one could help him.

Brandon told me he was “systematically beaten” and subjected to what he called the “rotisserie” treatment. “I was shackled at the feet, you see, and handcuffed,” he said. “And they sort of thread a broom handle through your arms and your legs. Then you’re hung upside down, and so you’ve got all the weight on the creases of your arms, so it’s very painful.” I’ve heard tell of that being done at the Hanoi Hilton. I’m told the pain is excruciating, enough to make a man pass out. Brandon, too, was denied sleep, and became disoriented. On the third day, they beat his bare feet with an ax handle so badly that his feet were bloody. He was screaming so much that they forced a gag down his throat, and for a moment stopped his breathing.

After about five days of beatings and sleep deprivation, Khaled and Ibrahim threatened to arrest Brandon’s wife and toddler son. He broke down, and confessed.

Glenn Ballard–not Al Gore–designed the Saudi Internet. A typical engineer, he doesn’t think there’s a problem he can’t solve. When the Saudi police came for him, he thought they wanted technical advice. They asked him if a switch could be made from a wristwatch. “Of course,” he told them. When they asked him to draw a circuit to show how, he did. They released him. Ten days later, he was arrested again.

Khaled and Ibrahim told Ballard he was the master bomb maker. Ballard was “taken upstairs” just as Lee and Brandon had been. “They would continually keep me up long hours at a time and beat me until I gave them whatever answer they wanted. In the end, when you get hurt so much you agree to say anything they want you to say,” Ballard told me. “For about six days they kept me constantly awake…If I didn’t answer the question to the fashion they wanted it answered, I would either be punched in the stomach, kicked in the stomach, and hit around the head with open hands around the ears or clenched fists around the cheek bones.”

In one session, Ballard says he was beaten with a stick on the soles of his feet. Ballard is a tough customer. It took Khaled and Ibrahim about three months to break him, and force his confession to being the bomb maker.

Lee, Brandon, and Ballard are left with their physical and mental scars from the torture, and the record of convictions as terrorist bombers in Saudi Arabia. What they want, as Ballard said, is to clear their names, and to bring Khaled and Ibrahim to justice. They also want to bring legal action against the Saudis, to clear their names and for damages. (The BBC reported that the Saudis had offered each “hush money” of £1 million to prevent the action and the publicity it would bring. But a source close to the case told me no hush money had been offered. Perhaps the Beeb “sexed up” its report.)

Saudi Arabia pretends to be a legitimate member of the community of nations. It is a signatory of the U.N. “Convention Against Torture” which requires it to take legal and administrative action to make torture impossible as government action. It also requires the Saudis to either bring Khaled and Ibrahim to trial for torture, or extradite them for trial elsewhere. When pigs fly.

The trio’s lawyer, Richard Scorer of the Pannone and Pannone firm, is drafting a letter to the Saudi government demanding redress. It will be ignored unless the British government intercedes. Lee, Brandon, and Ballard could bring a case in a Saudi court, but who can believe they would get anything resembling a fair hearing? That leaves the matter in British courts (which may not have jurisdiction in cases against the Saudi government) and in Tony Blair’s hands.

These men deserve justice and it’s very likely they won’t get it. If their story is true, they deserve to be publicly exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted based on the torture-induced confessions. They deserve compensation for the harm caused them, and the Saudis deserve to be held accountable for their barbarity. Unfortunately Mr. Blair, like President Bush, seems willing to accept Saudi abuse of his countrymen.

If what they say is true–I buy the story, and so, it would seem, does the British government (which insisted on their release)–Lee, Brandon, and Ballard have been brutalized, but at least can now enjoy freedom. Which is more than we can say for the American children and women held in Saudi Arabia against their will.

NRO Contributor Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and is now an MSNBC military analyst. He is the author of the novel Legacy of Valor.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”


The Latest