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Radio Free Iraq Helps Iraqi Prisoners In Saudi Arabia

RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) has helped to repatriate dozens of Iraqi prisoners who had been held in Saudi prisons without access to legal or diplomatic counsel.

Iraqi prisoner Ahmad Huseini and three dozen fellow inmates in Saudi Arabia returned home last week after Radio Free Iraq investigated a series of phone calls coming from a Saudi jail and spread the word to families back home.

The Iraqi prisoners, who were detained in the desert somewhere near the unmarked border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, smuggled in a cell phone and radio to listen to Radio Free Iraq. Huseini was among the men who placed the first phone calls, but RFI received calls from multiple phone numbers and prisons. Although concrete numbers cannot be determined, they told the radio station that up to 60 or 70 Iraqis were in Saudi prisons and had not received fair trial -- some were even sitting on death row with no access to the outside world.
Ahmad Huseini and three dozen fellow inmates in Saudi Arabia returned home last week after Radio Free Iraq investigated a series of phone calls coming from a Saudi jail

Radio Free Iraq director Sergei Danilochkin explained how the story unfolded over the course of nearly a year after the station received a series of calls from a mobile phone from men saying they were inmates in a Saudi jail. The calls discussed details of the prisoners' sentencing and their conditions. Radio Free Iraq returned the call.

"They reported several dozen people kept in various Saudi prisons," Danilochkin said. "Most of them were illegally detained for crossing the border, even though they weren't aware they had crossed the border."

Danilochkin also said that according to the callers, many of the Iraqi prisoners on death row were accused of serious crimes like murder and rape without any evidence. Instead, Saudi police simply blamed Iraqi prisoners for unsolved crimes committed by perpetrators the local police had failed to apprehend.

Many prisoners have faced trial -- though without being allowed any contact with Iraqi authorities, including the Iraqi consul in Saudi Arabia.

"They were put on trial with insufficient legal advice which means that some of them didn't have proper defense lawyers at the trial," Danilochkin explained. "Some of the cases were absolutely fabricated."

The imprisoned Iraqis told Radio Free Iraq that some Iraqis may have in fact broken Saudi laws. But the problem, Danilochkin said, was that they didn't have the chance to defend themselves, nor talk to Iraqi authorities for help.

When Radio Free Iraq got the story, they informed the Iraqi authorities. The Iraqi authorities told Radio Free Iraq that they were aware of the possibility of such cases, but had never heard any specific details about any arrests. It was then that the story broke and authorities stepped in.

"After we broadcast the phone calls, the relatives of men suspected to be in prisons rallied," Danilochkin said.

After a few months of back and forth conversations with the Iraqi Embassy in Saudi Arabia and Saudi Embassy in Iraq, the two governments started negotiating.

"We were not dealing with the issue of how Saudis were abusing human rights. We were simply asking whether Iraqis have a right to talk to their national country's authorities when caught by Saudis," he said.

Since the negotiations have started, the Saudis have agreed to release some of the prisoners on the condition that they serve their remaining time in Iraqi prisons.

Radio Free Iraq got a call on January 6 from the recently released prisoner's father, Karim Huseini, saying his son would come home the next day. Huseini said it was because Radio Free Iraq raised awareness of the issue.

Both governments are still negotiating the return of prisoners who have just started their terms, and men continue to wait on death row.

-- Ladan Nekoomaram