Dramatic plea from al-Qa'ida suspect

By Robert Fisk Middle East Correspondent

The Independent

25 September 2004

One of 11 men still detained without trial under anti-terrorism measures drawn up by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, made a dramatic and unprecedented appeal last night to the Iraqi kidnappers of Ken Bigley to spare his life.

The man, Mahmoud Abu Rideh, was arrested in London by Scotland Yard detectives within 24 hours of the 11 September 2001 attacks and has been held under draconian anti-terror legislation without being told the reason for his detention.

Mr Blunkett claims that Mr Abu Rideh is closely involved with senior extremists and associates of Osama bin Laden overseas and in the UK.

Mr Abu Rideh issued his appeal for Mr Bigley's life to be spared to the Arab television channel Al-Jazeera last night. He said: "To those holding Ken Bigley, in the name of Allah the Magnificent, the Merciful, I am Mahmoud Abu Rideh (Abu Rasmi). I am a Palestinian prisoner, I have myself been tortured by the Israelis. I have been held indefinitely now nearly three years under unjust laws in England which do not tell me why I am imprisoned. I know what it is like to suffer injustice and torture. I ask you to release this man.''

The appeal came as the British embassy in Baghdad distributed 50,000 leaflets carrying a message from Mr Bigley's family pleading for help to find him. Also yesterday, the Muslim Council of Britain said it was at last sending a pair of negotiators to Baghdad to try to win Mr Bigley's release. The group said that Daud Abdullah and Musharraf Hussain, whom it described as "well-respected figures in the British Muslim community", would leave for Baghdad "very shortly" but did not specify when.

Mr Bigley, 62, a civil engineer, was taken from his house in Baghdad nine days ago with two Americans, both of whom have been beheaded, it is believed by the Islamist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Mr Abu Rideh's written statement - issued to the news channel through his lawyer Gareth Peirce - was carefully crafted to appeal to the kidnappers without naming them; he is known to al-Qa'ida members who were in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden because many of the children of Arab fighters were educated at two schools he helped to fund, one for boys, the other for girls.

He said: "As a Muslim also suffering, I can guess something of the great wrongs that have happened in Iraq. I set up two schools in Kabul - Abu Bakr as-Sidiq and Khadija - for Arabic-speaking children. I know how everything has been distorted so that everyone and everything that tried to do good is seen to be now an enemy.''

Mr Abu Rideh then repeated his appeal. "I ask you to release the man you hold. He is half-Irish, and he is an ordinary man with a family. I know that millions of British people did not and do not support the war on Iraq. A million marched against it last year, more than 6,000 British people have written to me to support me. They quarrel with the British Government about injustice, and so do I. I do not quarrel with the British people. Please release this man.''

Al-Jazeera, whose reporters have been kicked out of Iraq, is closely watched across Iraq, and has already been in indirect contact with those holding Mr Bigley.

Mr Abu Rideh was held first at Belmarsh Prison and now at Broadmoor, where he was taken after suffering a breakdown. He had helped to raise funds for two schools in Kabul at which the children of Arabs - both fighters and refugee workers - were educated before the American overthrow of the Taliban government. The statement - from a man who would naturally attract the attention of Iraqi insurgents, not least because of his contacts with the families of al-Qa'ida members - provided new hope that Mr Bigley might be saved.

Mr Abu Rideh who also uses the name "Abu Rasmi" - Rasmi is the eldest of his five children - called Ms Peirce from Broadmoor yesterday, telling her that he had spent a sleepless night thinking about the terrible fate that might await Mr Bigley. He later dictated a statement to her in slightly flawed English for broadcasting on the Arabic Al-Jazeera satellite channel in the hope that Mr Bigley's Iraqi captors would hear his appeal.

The Foreign Office had no idea that Mr Abu Rideh was to make his appeal until Ms Peirce called them last night. Senior editors at Al-Jazeera were reading his statement yesterday evening before broadcasting it on their satellite channel. Al-Jazeera, whose Baghdad offices were closed this month on the orders of the American-appointed government in Iraq, is the most popular Arabic channel in the country and Mr Bigley's kidnappers are sure to hear the appeal. Mr Bigley's own video-tape pleas for his life - and his personal appeal to Tony Blair - were broadcast over the same channel.

Mr Abu Rideh came to Britain in 19997 and was given refugee status by the Government. Along with 10 other Muslim men, he was arrested within 24 hours of the 11 September attack. According to Ms Peirce, his imprisonment at Belmarsh - after a previous incarceration in Israel - caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown and he was transferred to Broadmoor.