WASHINGTON -- The Saudi government has been paying for lawyers, and in some cases for bond, for hundreds of its citizens who have been detained, prosecuted, or questioned inside the United States during the crackdown on terrorism. The FBI openly calls the practice tantamount to "buying off" witnesses.
Saudi officials said they have spent more than $1 million to provide American lawyers for those detained or questioned here since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Most, they said, are students being held on technical violations of immigration laws.
The Saudis acknowledged concerns by the Justice Department and FBI, but said it was essential that Saudis who are unfamiliar with the American legal system be provided with good lawyers to defend themselves.
"Our view is give them lawyers and let the process take its course, and if they are found guilty of crimes they will pay their price and would have had fair representation. If not, they should be released," said Adel al-Jubeir, Crown Prince Abdullah's foreign policy adviser.
John Pistole, assistant director of the FBI's counterterrorism division, recently told the Senate the FBI has raised concerns with the Saudi government that paying legal bills and bond for Saudis being questioned in the terror probe could influence what they say in their testimony.
"To us, that is tantamount to buying off a witness, if you will. So that gives us concern if the government is supplying money for defense counsel," Pistole testified.
The United States does not provide its citizens with lawyers and bail money when they are detained in foreign countries, although US embassies often will intervene to ensure they are treated fairly.
Immediately after the suicide attacks, US law enforcement focused heavily on Saudis after learning 16 of the 19 hijackers were from the kingdom.
Saudi officials say several hundred of their citizens were detained in the weeks immediately after Sept. 11 on immigration violations or terrorism suspicions, but the number detained today has dwindled to around a dozen.
A recent Justice Department investigation concluded many immigrants rounded up after the terror attacks were improperly detained for unnecessarily long periods of time and some endured mental or physical abuse during detention.
A small number of Saudis have been charged with crimes, such as a University of Idaho graduate student charged with associating with Islamic extremists.
The Saudis are also paying for lawyers for any citizens who are detained or questioned by the FBI and are sometimes providing counsel to students as they apply, renew, or comply with their visas to ensure they don't get in trouble. Saudi-paid lawyers have sat in on hundreds of interviews by FBI and immigration agents.
The US lawyer hired by the Saudi Embassy to coordinate the hiring of attorneys across the country for Saudi citizens said she is mystified by the criticism.
"I am fascinated that the FBI is unhappy with it. Isn't the right to counsel a bedrock of the American court system?" asked Malea Kiblan, an immigration attorney who is the lead counsel for the Saudis on immigration cases.
Kiblan said she has arranged attorneys for hundreds of Saudis who have been detained on visa violations or simply been instructed by immigration agents to sit down and be interviewed.
For instance, when University of Idaho graduate student Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, a Saudi, was arrested this year on federal charges accusing him of links to Islamic radicals, immigration and FBI officials rounded up Saudi and Muslim students in Idaho for questioning, she said.
"The agents were flown in on a military air transport plane," Kiblan said. Hussayen as well as all the students interviewed during the sweep were provided attorneys paid by the Saudi Embassy, she said.
In some instances, Kiblan said, the Saudi government has also paid for bail or bond so Saudis could be released from detention, and is providing some attorneys to assist with visa renewals or interviews.