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Questions surround Saudi bombings, 'confessions'

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 3, 2002

Two years ago this month, a Briton working in Saudi Arabia was killed by a car bomb. It was the first in a series of bombings that eventually led to the arrest of James Cottle, a fellow Brit, and several other Western expatriates.

Six of the men, including Cottle, appeared on Saudi TV and confessed. Case closed.

Or was it? Although the "confessions" gave no motive, Saudi authorities insisted the bombings stemmed from a turf war among expats fighting for control of the kingdom's huge illegal liquor trade. There was just one problem with this explanation -- even after Cottle and the others were imprisoned, bombs continued to explode and claim victims who had no apparent ties to bootlegging. They included two Americans and, just a month ago, a German.

Many people think the attacks were not the work of Western bootleggers but Islamic extremists. Among those ascribing to this theory is Mary Martini, Cottle's ex-wife. She is convinced Cottle was framed, and says his country has done little to help him.

"All the British government does is say, "Keep quiet, don't rock the boat, don't upset the Saudis,' " Martini said from her home in Manchester, England.

Britain and the United States have reason not to roil the water when it comes to their friends the Saudis. The kingdom sits on the world's biggest pool of oil. It is home to Islam's two holiest sites and could be an important ally if and when war breaks out against another Muslim country, Iraq.

So at a time when Britain and America are justly concerned about terrorist acts and human rights abuses elsewhere in the world, they are saying very little about what's been going on in Saudi Arabia. And that leaves people like Mary Martini fighting a lonely battle to help their loved ones languishing in Saudi prisons.

Martini doesn't deny that her ex-husband enjoyed some illegal booze during the years he worked in Riyadh with a metalworks firm. But she was stunned when he was arrested in June 2001 and admitted to some of the bombings.

"He was tortured to make that confession, it was obvious," she says. "He looked scared, very worn out, his eyes were popping out. I'd never seen him like that -- he was always a jolly person."

Cottle, 51, was tried, convicted and sentenced in secret. He got 18 years; a Canadian co-defendant was sentenced to beheading. Martini, mother of Cottle's three grown children, says the British Foreign Office didn't even tell her about the sentences until after the news broke in Canada.

Cottle and several of the others now have a Saudi lawyer who -- to his great credit -- has had the courage to stand up to Saudi authorities and say the men were tortured and railroaded. In a remarkable appeal filed with the Saudi Supreme Judicial Council, attorney Salah Al-Hejailan argues their convictions should be overturned on the following grounds:

-- Except for the "confessions," authorities never presented evidence against the men.

-- Cottle and the others do not speak Arabic; the official in charge of the investigation did not speak English, and the translator had only "rudimentary knowledge" of English from a summer-school course. "Statements made by the accused under these conditions can, at the very least, be described as suspicious and unreliable."

-- Although they were unfamiliar with their rights under Saudi law, the men were denied access to legal counsel: They were not even aware they were facing trial.

-- Although the defendants were kept apart during the investigation, "there is a striking resemblance between the phrases used by all the accused in their confessions, which lack the elements that distinguish genuine and voluntary confessions."

Cottle and the others have since retracted their confessions, which they claim were extracted under various forms of torture. Among them: sleep deprivation of up to 10 days at a time, and hanging upside down while shackled at the hands and feet.

In another curious twist to this case, U.S. authorities claimed jurisdiction last June when a pipe bomb was found under an American's car in Riyadh. The bomb reportedly was similar to the type used in several of the bombings, including some of those Cottle allegedly confessed to.

The American authorities were asked to share information about the June incident, "as such information could not only lead to the exoneration of the five defendants but lead to the cessation of terrorist bombings within the kingdom," a member of Cottle's Saudi defense team said in a recent e-mail to Martini.

They declined to cooperate with the defense team.

An FBI spokesman in Washington, D.C., would not comment on whether the agency had investigated the June incident or refused to share information.

In the meantime, Cottle and the others continue to sit in Saudi prisons, still undergoing long hours of interrogation.

"They're all 50-year-old men and they're not going to take much more mentally or physically," Martini says. If the appeal fails, she hopes the Saudis will pardon the men and send them home. Because it doesn't look like any government -- British, Saudi or American -- really wants to know who planted those bombs.

-- Susan Martin can be contacted at

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