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Tuesday, 3 April, 2001, 21:32 GMT 22:32 UK
Frontline Scotland: Riddle in the Sands
Frontline graphic
This is the full transcript of Frontline Scotland's programme Riddle in the Sands broadcast on 3 April, 2001 and presented by Ewan McIlwraith.

SANDY MITCHELL I confirm and confess that I was ordered to carry out an explosion here in Riyadh, which took place on Friday 17th November in the year 2000.

WILLIAM SAMSON I admit and acknowledge that I participated with Mr Alexander Mitchell in setting off an explosive device on a vehicle.

RAAF SKIVENS ....and they also told me that they required me on the second explosion. My role would be to actually place an explosive under the car....

EUAN McILWRAITH Three men face death by public beheading in Saudi Arabia. The confessions on Saudi television shocked the western world.

Sandy Mitchell, from Scotland, a hospital technician and the one time owner of one of the most popular drinking dens in Riyadh; his friend, Canadian Scot, William Samson, an economic adviser of Saudi businessmen and Belgian national, Raaf Skivens.

All three friends, and all three frequented the thriving illegal drinking clubs. The Saudis alleged they carried out a series of bombings in a turf war over alcohol.

Three men, three confessions. But are they guilty?

Tonight, Frontline Scotland will piece together the complicated sequence of events surrounding the bombings.

We will also reveal that the men accused, far from being guilty of murder, could well be scapegoats for a regime with secrets of its own to hide.

A story involving corruption, shady dealings, and a power struggle that goes right to the top of Saudi society.

Saudi Arabia - a country that looks both to the east, and to the west.

The population is mainly Islamic. But it's very different from many of its Arab neighbours in that it's controlled by a Royal family.

It's also a magnet for westerners attracted by large tax-free salaries. Tens of thousands of British work in Saudi, but they live very separate lives from their hosts.

Saudi law is strict, and any attempt at a normal western lifestyle has to be carried out behind closed doors, living in a world of guarded compounds.

Alcohol is strictly banned, and there's little to do. Fertile ground for those seeking to make some big money - fast.

A bottle of malt whisky can change hands for up to one £125, that's £1,500 a case.

And there's no shortage of those willing to risk breaking the law to supply the huge demand.

It's a massive trade, rumoured to be worth millions of pounds a year centred round the illegal drinking clubs in the western compounds.

JACK STOILES (Friend of Sandy Mitchell) You go into these places and you see all this drink, and you've been told back in England that there is none of course.

So, you're quite shocked at the beginning, then everybody has it, you know, all the places you go everybody has drink.

EUAN Jack Stoiles became a close friend of Sandy Mitchell's, the Scot who's one of the three men who've confessed to the car bombings. Jack drank regularly in the Celtic Corner, which Sandy ran as a sideline.

JACK STOILES I knew Sandy very well. I met him after I'd been out there about six months, because Sandy was in the same job as me, but at a different hospital, and we used to borrow equipment off each other, you know, anaesthetic equipment, and that's when I met him.

And eh, I just got to know him basically, and he told me he was opening this bar up, and would I like to come along, and that's how we became friends really, and I just find him a lovely fella.

I never had any trouble with him at all, I never ever saw him fall out with anybody.

If you asked him for anything he'd try and get it for you, you know, some port products, or some booze, and things like that. He was just a genuinely nice chap.

He did run the bar quite strictly though, if there was any sign of trouble, because the lads do get a bit drunk, he'd stop it and that's you were barred. That was like an unwritten law, there was never any trouble.

EUAN Sandy's bar was typical of the many small illegal clubs run in the evenings for the benefit of those in the compounds.

But others ran bars full time, like the Empire, the biggest in Saudi started by friends of Sandy.

Gary and Mary Dixon saw it as a way of making money fast after a former business went bankrupt. But they started small.

MARY DIXON We thought we'd have about fifty members at the most, ever. We ended up with a waiting list of thousands of people wanting to join.

So we really welcomed other people starting clubs eventually. And it was very, very successful.

EUAN Although Mary and Gary were in business to make money they claim it wasn't a competitive operation.

People went from bar to bar, and all the owners helped each other in getting supplies of smuggled drink.

According to Mary it was more like one big family than the turf wars that the Saudis claim was the real reason behind the car bombings.

MARY All our members were members of all the other clubs as well. There wasn't that kind of hostility.

I mean we have minor fallings out like you have with everyone. I'm not saying everybody's laughing and joking all the time, you have minor fallings out, but nothing like a turf war. You wouldn't be able to afford a turf war because you needed everybody else.

You might want to borrow a bottle of whisky from another club, frequently they wanted to borrow one from us till theirs arrived. You know, things like this happened all the time. That's what it's like.

EUAN Although the bars were an open secret amongst the westerners there was still a need for caution.

There's no ambiguity about the law of Islam - the drinking of alcohol is prohibited. That meant tight security.

At the Empire and Celtic Corner membership was essential, but no real names. Lord Lucan, Popeye, and Lord Nelson were all regular members.

MARY They had an historical pseudonym, or a code name that they wanted to use.

I mean we had some American Forces as members of our club. One of them was called Garfield, he was a good friend of mine, but we...people sometimes chose a pseudonym, and sometimes Gary gave it to them when it was appropriate.

You have to live a life of secrecy, and it's more because the Saudis don't want to know what you're doing.

EUAN But the bar owners were walking a tightrope. The profits may have been big, but there was a price to pay.

In order to stop raids increasingly protection money had to be paid to Saudi police, and civilian officials.

JACK STOILES Now I heard through the grapevine that Gary did. Who I don't know, I would imagine some high official in the police force, or....I have seen him myself personally when I've been in for stuff when he's been closed, I've gone down for stuff myself, I've seen him with several envelopes with names on.

MARY Gary did pay protection money, but not¿.not in the first few years. It was only when things started to get a bit difficult.

EUAN And things got more difficult. It was a system that worked well for years, but suddenly things went wrong.

The protection evaporated giving the religious police the opportunity they'd been looking for for years. The Matawa are the moral guardians of Islam. They police the streets on the lookout for breaches of Islamic law.

They saw the clubs as an affront to their religion, but they've got no official government standing, and were powerless as long as the bars had police protection.

When Gary was on holiday The Matawa struck, Mary was captured and handed over to the authorities. Mary is now back in the UK after enduring eight months in a Saudi prison.

It was Sandy Mitchell who somehow managed to get her free, and helped her return home.

But his high profile efforts in helping Mary wouldn't have gone unnoticed in the Saudi corridors of power.

MARY Well I had to leave the country but I had to get my passport from the police, and that was...Sandy helped to take me there to get that...Sandy was the one who actually did all the phoning about, and that was at risk to himself you see, because you shouldn't really be doing that.

EUAN The raid on the biggest bar in Saudi, and the imprisonment of Mary Dixon came as a shock to westerners.

They knew that drinking was illegal, but the authorities had turned a blind eye for years.

Many took it as a warning that their whole way of life had come under scrutiny. The smaller drinking clubs too came under pressure. And then in this highly charged atmosphere the bombing started.

On 17 November English engineer Chris Rodway was killed and his wife injured when a car bomb exploded.

Then, just five days later a second car bomb went off, this time badly injuring one man.

The man was Mark Paine, now back at his home in Wales. He was in hospital for 10 weeks, and nearly died of his injuries.

He's now disabled despite extensive surgery to rebuild his leg and now requires regular hospital visits.

MARK PAINE (Showing his injured leg)All this muscle was hanging off at the time, and they put it all back together, stapled it around that area with 150 staples at the time, metal staples, did skin grafts on top of there.

EUAN Mark had gone with a friend, Steve, for a drink at Sandy's bar, the Celtic Corner. At the club they met Steve's girlfriend, and a nurse called Jackie Gill.

JACKIE GILL We went to Celtic and it was about eight o'clock when we got there. Steve and Mark were there already, and other friends were already there as well.

MARK And we stayed for a bit, they were chatting to people we knew in there, and and Steve had had enough, and about ten, ten past ten, something like that we decided we'd make a move, told the girls and finished up in we all went out there

JACKIE When we got in the car I said to Steve and Mark, you know, "You have checked the car haven't you?", and they said: "Yes", but the side of the car that Mark was on was more in darkness, and the side that Steve got in it wasn't quite well lit, so he maybe just couldn't see properly.

MARK And had been raining that day and there was a lot of standing water basically, and em...we were coming up this service road by the side of the main drive, and there was a big pool of water.

This is the last thing I remember in my mind....and em....I remember saying to Steve "watch out for the puddle", and I sort of just put my arm up, and then instinctively really....and the next thing I remember is lying in a sort in a laid back or flat position where a seat had collapsed, I didn't know what had happened at the time.

The first thing I did when Steve said we had been blown up....I asked him if my feet was still there because I couldn't feel them.

JACKIE My friend and Steve, because they were sat on the left of the car, they didn't really feel the same impact.

It was completely obvious to me that it was underneath the car and had come from in front of me, and Mark was obviously injured lying down, his feet had fallen down.

And I'd spoken to people about the previous bomb, and it just....there was no question in my mind what it was.

EUAN Belgian ex-pat Raaf Skivens, a drinking friend of Sandy Mitchell's, confessed to the bombing.

So if the television confessions are to be believed Raaf was guilty.

He'd admitted planting the bomb that badly injured Mark Paine.

According to the Saudis he'd been recruited by Samson and Mitchell after overhearing of their plot in a bar, and they'd got him involved to keep him quiet.

All, in theory, possible, but it does stretch the bounds of credibility, especially when you consider that Mark and Jackie's memories of that bombing are very different from the official Saudi version.

JACKIE Raaf came in with one of my friends, and her friend as well. They worked at the same hospital as him, and they left with him, and it was kind of like, over the course of the evening we decided where we were going, and we asked them if they were going to come as well.

EUAN Whose idea was that to bring Raaf and the other girl?

JACKIE Probably my friend's really, 'well, we're going to go here now, are you coming?'

EUAN A pretty normal arrangement.

JACKIE Yeah, yeah.

EUAN And the fact that it wasn't Raaf's idea to leave together is a crucial point in to what was to happen next. The cars all left in convoy.

Minutes later the bomb went off. Raaf had been in the car behind, and ran to help the others in the leading car.

JACKIE I went and sat in Raaf's car. He then took my friend and the other two girls away, and Raaf all the time was helping Mark at the front of the car.

It doesn't make any sense to me that if you plant a bomb you sit around in a bar, you leave your car parked next to the bomb, you drive off after the bomb, and you help the victims, you give your name to the police. It doesn't make any sense at all.

EUAN After watching the confession Mark, too, is unsure about Raaf's involvement in the bombing. They didn't know him, they'd met for the first time that night.

MARK PAINE I don't know who he is, or what he does, or what his involvement in it at all.

I mean, if he's there and he was setting bombs off there, and then the next minute he's helping people out. But I've no idea what's going on there at all.

EUAN There was another twist of events that night. When Jackie arrived at the club she reported seeing the unusual sight of two non-westerners loitering outside the compound gates.

JACKIE The only usual thing the whole night really was there were two non-western guys trying to get into the compound pressing one of the villa buzzers.

And they were either Asian or Arabic guys. And we kind of looked at them a bit strange, and who are they?

And then a guy who lived on the compound came to the gate as well. So he's like: "What are you two doing, what do you want, what are you doing here?"

We walked in through the door and then this guy, this western guy, was asking the gate guard: "Who are these people, do you know them, what are they doing here?" And basically we just walked in because it was being dealt with.

EUAN Was that unusual?

JACKIE Because I never saw any non-western people going into the compound.

EUAN Jackie reported the suspicious actions of the men to the police, but heard nothing more about the incident.

There were three bombings altogether, and Sandy Mitchell, Raaf Skivvens, and William Samson confessed to all three.

But the confessions make little sense, and there are questions that the Saudis have yet to answer.

Raaf claims that Sandy ordered him to plant the bomb - but why? Sandy says he was acting under orders - but from whom?

FOOTAGE OF SANDY MITCHELL I confirm and confess that I was ordered to carry out an explosion here in Riyadh..."

MARY There was no one more surprised than me when I saw that they were trying to pin this on to Sandy.

EUAN Why would they try to pin it on him?

MARY I just can't imagine. It's just's just impossible for me it's impossible for a Brit to get access to that type of equipment anyway, or to you know¿even venture into that.

And Sandy was a theatre technician, he cared about life. I don't think for a minute that Sandy would ever dream of taking life.

EUAN Those confessions mean death by public beheading. So how credible are they?

Frontline commissioned Criminal Psychologist Ian Stephen to watch the footage.

Ian was the real life inspiration for the television series Cracker and has been used in court as an expert witness in cases involving confessions made under duress.

He thinks it is likely that the admissions of guilt were forced out of them.

IAN STEPHEN (Forensic Psychologist) The postures of the guys in that are fairly rigid, they're not sitting comfortably, they look as if they're reading something, they look apprehensive, they look afraid to make any kind of comments which are contrary to what they've agreed with their captors.

EUAN He looks as if he's pleading.

IAN STEPHEN Well, I would think by this time if he'd been subject to a lengthy ordeal of questioning and so on, you would be getting to the stage now where you're almost asking your captors to say....I'm going to say what you want me to say, please get me out of this, I can't cope with this any more.

And if he's been losing sleep, he's been under a lot of questioning, stress, forced with a lot of threats put to him, he's not going to be in a relaxed state of mind anyway.

EUAN Is there any doubt in your mind that this is just an ordinary confession?

IAN STEPHEN I would think it's quite unlikely to be an ordinary confession because I would suspect that they will be under a tremendous lot of pressure.

I mean the whole body language suggests to me this is a man who's just gone in there and confessed, and said 'I've done it'.

I mean this is a man who's been forced over pressure to eventually say 'I did it, stop this, let me get away'.

MARY I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. Total....I thought it was forced, I thought it was put up, I thought they probably had a gun pointing at them.

EUAN So if these confessions are false, and certainly other westerners involved say there's not a scrap of evidence that the men carried out the bombings, then what's going on?

Well, we've uncovered evidence that points in a very different direction.

This is the Royal family that controls Saudi Arabia. Seven thousand princes, all effectively above the law, and responsible to no one but the King.

The monarchy ruled the country, but they've got a delicate path to tread. On one hand they have to keep the mainly Islamic population happy. On the other, they're hugely dependent on western technology and trade.

But many Islamic fundamentalists hate the west, and want a truly Islamic state.

In 1996, Islamic fundamentalists bombed western targets killing five Americans. Another attack left 19 dead. Acts carried out in frustration at what they see as an erosion of the Islamic way of life.

BBC NEWS BULLETIN "Hours after the bomb explosion senior members of Saudi Arabia's ruling Royal family came to inspect the devastation. The finger of blame is already pointing at Islamic fundamentalists. There are several shadowy groups inside Saudi Arabia who now, it seems, may have developed a taste for terrorism."

ANJEM CHOUDARY (UK Leader, Islamic Movement Muhajiroun) There is a war, if you like, ideological war taking place in Saudi Arabia, people are rising to create awareness about Islam as a law and order.

And there is war as well, a military struggle against those people occupying Muslim land as in Palestine; as in Chechnya; as in Kashmir.

And also people believe, and it's an entirely Islamic opinion, that the presence of foreign forces on Muslim sides is something which is unacceptable, and that they are legitimate targets, and we know very well there are American bases, for example, in Saudi Arabia, the American bases in Kuwait, and in the whole, even the whole of the Middle Eastern region. So if these people are targeted then they have only themselves to blame.

EUAN So could Islamic fundamentalists be responsible for the wave of car bombs against westerners?

An easy target, and one guaranteed maximum publicity.

ANJEM CHOUDARY There is the possibility, of course, that people are upset about westerners coming over the Muslim countries, and those regimes in charge at the present time allowing them to drink alcohol, and opening for them pubs, opening them discotheques, and allowing them, for example, to go to the beach, and to do things which are not allowed as far as the issue is concerned.

And of course there'll be other people who may take the law into their own hands, and there will be casualties.

I believe that the three westerners had absolutely nothing to do with the bombings which took place in Saudi Arabia.

EUAN Doctor Fagih is a leading Saudi dissident and, although a distant relative of the Royal family, he's often been an outspoken critic of the regime.

He too believes in an Islamic state, but one achieved by peaceful means.

He claims the westerners are innocent because, at the same time as they were arrested, the authorities detained 50 Islamic fundamentalists whom, he believes, were really responsible.

Dr SAAD AL-FAGIH (Director, The Movement for Islamic Reform) We know that there is a trend among those groups to do something, and they feel frustrated.

And some of those groups are small, and do not have the clear strategy, or the logistics to do major events like attacking the Americans, attacking American bases, so they look for soft targets to make their case.

EUAN Dr Fagih claims the Royals are using the westerners, and allegations of an alcohol turf war as a smoke screen to cover up fundamentalist actions.

It¿s important to the Royal family, that they present an impression of stability to western investors.

Dr FAGIH Any admission that those groups are capable of managing to perform one, or two, or three, or four, or even five attacks against westerners in a way which makes the world media know about it reflects the failure on controlling those groups.

EUAN Stephen Jakobi, from Fair Trial Abroad, has been retained by the families of those arrested to ensure they get a fair hearing.

He believes the confessions were staged by the Saudi Government for domestic consumption.

STEPHEN JAKOBI (Fair Trials Abroad): I think what's going on, as far as I can determine, but it's guess work, isn't it. I think what's gone on is that they had a domestic situation to cope with in which, of course, everybody's very worried about terrorist bombings, and thinks it's an anti-government faction or something, and it was very reassuring to the Saudi population to be told it's a squabble amongst foreigners and they didn't think beyond that.

EUAN The arrests and confessions may also mask other secrets the regime may wish to hide.

According to Dr Fagih, the Royal family are heavily involved in alcohol smuggling.

He maintains it's the Royals that are the main source of spirits and a multi-million-dollar trade to supply both Saudis and westerners with drink.

Dr FAGIH The Royals smuggle alcohol, the expensive alcohol, they drink all types of expensive alcohol.

They bring it by their own planes, containers, all that they need to do to protect something which is brought from outside, just put the label it belongs to Prince so and so, and then this huge amount of alcohol which comes in is distributed either to Saudis, or his middlemen, or to the westerners, where there's plenty of them through those people. So the original distributor is the Royal, it's not the Alexander Mitchell, or the others.

MARY I know that the main sources is the Royal family anyway and of course if it comes in through the Royal terminal then there aren't any Customs there.

EUAN So it would seem that Sandy Mitchell, Raaf Skivvens, and William Samson are simply entangled in a very complex political web.

They were guilty of breaching the strict alcohol code along with most other westerners. But their involvement in the bombings now seems less then certain.

They have confessed, and so it may have sealed their fate - death by beheading.

A spokesman for The Foreign Office said it is not the policy of the British Government to get involved in a foreign legal dispute and with British trade to Saudi Arabia worth billions of pounds a year, mainly in oil, perhaps the government is reluctant to jeopardise trade relations.

A difficult trade off between oil profits, and human rights.

Officially the British Government won't get involved in this case.

But the recent visit to Saudi by Prince Charles comes as a welcome coincidence for the men hoping to avoid the death penalty.

There's no suggestion that the members of the Royal Family whom Prince Charles met are involved in the smuggling of alcohol.

The Prince is thought to have discussed the plight of the men at the highest level.

We don't know what's going on behind closed doors at The Foreign Office, but is there not a feeling perhaps that they'd prefer this whole case to go away, there's a lot of trade at stake, and there's more important things than perhaps three individuals?

STEPHEN JAKOBI: I don't think there's any secret about that. I'd be very surprised if The Foreign Office felt differently.

They've got national interests and they're really going to be very concerned about those national interests which are in conflict with individual interests a great deal, and this case, I think, highlights that sort of problem of human rights for oil that we're seeing all over the place, if I can put it that way.

But if it all goes wrong the Saudis are sort of proclaiming loud and clear, and I don't think that's awfully helpful that Saudi law will be obeyed, and people will get the chop in a Saudi public square.

I wonder if they thought of the consequences of this, because I can't see diplomatic relations between most of the international community in Saudi being other than disruptive for quite some time after that.

It won't be possible in domestic politics to keep an ambassador in Saudi if anything like that happens. I can't see it - can you?

EUAN Meanwhile, the bombings have continued despite Saudi claims that those involved are behind bars.

As yet, no date has been set for their trial. No Saudi lawyer has been appointed. They still face death by beheading.

According to Saudi law their only hope is that the relatives of the murdered Chris Rodway will accept blood money in exchange for his life.

The Rodways want those guilty to pay the ultimate penalty.

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See also:

05 Feb 01 | Scotland
'Shock' at Saudi bomb arrests
12 Feb 01 | Scotland
Official visits bomb suspect Briton
08 Feb 01 | Middle East
Getting a drink in Saudi Arabia
05 Feb 01 | Middle East
Saudi bomb suspects may face execution
04 Feb 01 | Middle East
Westerners confess to Saudi bombs
17 Nov 00 | Middle East
Briton killed in Saudi blast
02 Apr 01 | Middle East
Saudis 'deny access' to detained Briton
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