Latest News

Mother of detained Saudi emerges as activist

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—The poems come quickly and in the middle of the night. They are desperate words for the son that Luluwa al Dakheel hasn't seen in nearly six years.

Her henna-stained hands trembled as she read a verse she wrote one recent night when she was crying too hard to sleep:

"My longing for him shakes my heart and wets my eyes

"Will my wishes reach the faraway lands where Fahd is confined?"

"I'm no poet," Dakheel said, "but prison and misery made me write."

The prison is the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where her son, Fahd al Fawzan, 23, has been held for the past five years.

Neither his attorneys nor the Saudi government knows when—or if—Fawzan will be released. Dakheel's hopes rise with every new batch of freed Saudi prisoners, then plunge when her son isn't among them.

Her only solace, she said, comes from his handwritten notes to her, mailed to Riyadh with a return address of "Camp Delta." She keeps them in an album that she covered with red velvet and handles as if it were made of glass.

Fawzan's 60 or more innocuous letters avoid any mention of politics or prison conditions. He writes about his yearning for his favorite Saudi dishes; she sends him photos of the 5-year-old daughter he's never met.

Dakheel reads from one:

"My mother's tears from her depths come

"To lose her son to captivity among the infidels

"She prays to the Lord that He releases him."

"When all his brothers sit around the table, I imagine him sitting there," Dakheel said. "When I see them sleeping, I wonder, `What is Fahd doing now? What is he eating?'"

Most families of Saudi detainees politely refuse to speak about their sons' cases; in a culture built on honor and reputation, the shame can be overwhelming. There's also fear that their statements might anger U.S. or Saudi authorities and keep their loved ones behind bars.

Dakheel, however, has emerged as one of the most prominent lobbyists for the release of Saudi prisoners. Her public remarks and behind-the-scenes activism have grabbed so much attention here that even her son in Guantanamo once wrote asking her to tone it down.

"I swear by the Quran, my son has nothing to do with terrorism, nothing," she said. "My son was there for charity work. I didn't even know anything until (his friends) called one day and told me the Afghans sold my son to Bush."

By all accounts, Fawzan, the fourth of nine children, comes from a respected family. His father runs a prosperous trading company in the holy city of Mecca, and the family resides in a spacious villa in an upscale neighborhood of Riyadh.

One warm day in late 2001, Fawzan told his mother that he was spending the weekend outside Riyadh. He never returned, and it was nearly a year before Dakheel learned that the Americans had detained her son at Guantanamo.

U.S. documents contain scant details about Fawzan's case. Papers from a review hearing allege that he spent 10 months in Afghanistan in 1999 and that he belonged to a relief group called al Harmayn Charitable Institute, whose assets and transactions were frozen in 2002 as a counterterrorism measure.

The papers say that Fawzan's name cropped up among the personal effects of a senior al-Qaida member and on a Web site for supporters of imprisoned Taliban and al-Qaida fighters. He's accused of having attended a militant training camp in Afghanistan, and Saudi authorities identified him as a "high-priority" target, according to the documents.

But the papers also note that he called Osama bin Laden "a bad man" and said that the Sept. 11 attacks reflected poorly on Muslims.

Dakheel insists that there was nothing in her son's behavior to suggest he was contemplating becoming a jihadist. She described him as a quiet, sensitive young man who entered into an arranged marriage at age 17 to a beautiful girl he'd known since childhood.

Fawzan's bride, Thikra, also 23, had just learned that she was pregnant when her husband vanished, and she was close to her delivery date when she found out he was in Guantanamo. The couple traded love notes and discussed baby names in letters mailed to and from the prison.

In one note, he teasingly suggested naming their daughter Bushra, which means "good omen," in hopes of speeding up his release. But the letter arrived in Saudi Arabia too late; the little girl had already been named Ithar.

While Fawzan's letters from Guantanamo don't reveal much about his day-to-day life, his mother said, they do chronicle a remarkable spiritual transformation.

During his time in prison, according to his family, he's memorized the entire Quran and uses Islamic teachings as the central themes in his most recent letters home. His mother and wife fret that he'll come home from Guantanamo with extremist ideas.

"He used to collect money for the mosque, but he wasn't very religious. He didn't even have a beard," Dakheel said. "There, he became religious."

Just as Fawzan must have changed in nearly six years, so has his family. There are several new nieces and nephews. His mother has streaks of gray in her shiny black hair; his father's eyes have grown sad. His family ponders whether he'll even recognize Riyadh, which in the past five years has blossomed with cavernous shopping malls and sleek skyscrapers.

"Riyadh has grown up in the time Fahd's been away," said his sister, Anwaar, an 18-year-old student. "Even the king has changed!"

Dakheel said she'd just received word from a lawyer that a new batch of Saudi prisoners would be released from Guantanamo by the end of the month. She reread her son's letters for any hints of a pending release, but found nothing to reassure her that this time was real.

"They are releasing them so randomly," Anwaar complained.

"Yes," her mother agreed, "it's like the lottery."


(Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg contributed to this story from Miami. McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Miret el Naggar contributed from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Need to map

Related stories from McClatchy DC