When it's foolish to go scuba diving

Observations on the war on terrorism

David Heaton has lost his home, job, friends and fiancee because he went scuba diving. The British expat language teacher was suddenly deported from Saudi Arabia this month after 44 days of detention in a secret police prison. Back in Britain, his prospects are not looking too rosy, with national papers reporting that his arrest was "on suspicion of terrorist links". The Times wrote that he was "allegedly helping al-Qaeda terrorists scout targets". Heaton's protestations of innocence and denunciations of terrorism received almost no coverage.

"Flying planes into buildings that contain innocent men, women and children is an evil and cowardly act," he says. "I am innocent, but this has ruined my reputation and my life. Anyone who knows me will tell you that to put my name in the same sentence as the word 'al-Qaeda' is completely ridiculous."

Heaton, 24, originally from Ashford, Kent, is yet another casualty of the so-called war on terror. From Guantanamo to Gloucester, from Brooklyn to Belmarsh, the aftershocks of the atrocities of 11 September 2001 are still wrecking lives. Armed with new powers, intelligence services across the globe detain innocents caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, frequently on flimsy evidence, for weeks and months on end.

Having lived in the kingdom for half his life, Heaton considers Saudi Arabia to be his home. He, his parents and sisters moved there when he was 12, after his father got a job with the national airline. As a teenager, he mixed easily with the locals and quickly picked up Arabic. He began wearing the traditional male robe garment, and around four years ago converted to Islam. "I converted because I learnt Arabic and I read the Koran, and it felt like the right thing for me," he says. Plans for an arranged marriage to a local woman are now in tatters because of the harm his arrest has done to his reputation.

Heaton's mistake was to go scuba diving at Al-Nakheel, a Red Sea beach resort, with Abdullatif Ibrahim Bilal, an American colleague at the language school where he worked. Abdullatif Ibrahim's brothers, Ahmed and Muhammad, face lengthy prison terms after admitting charges of conspiring to help al-Qaeda. They and five others, known as the Portland Seven, were accused of plotting to travel to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban against US forces. Somebody who knew of these family connections - and thought it odd for Muslims to be diving during Ramadan - apparently tipped off the authorities. On 26 November, Heaton was arrested at his home in Jeddah and taken to the notorious Ruwais prison, run by the internal security service. Handcuffed, shackled and blindfolded, he was put in solitary confinement in a grubby cell measuring 9ft by 8ft.

"I was not badly treated in prison," Heaton says, "but the light was on non-stop and it was so boring I thought I was going crazy. I ended up having a pet ant and a pet fly. They asked me about diving and the boat trip repeatedly. I knew I was in serious trouble, but I had no idea what it was about." After six weeks of questioning and investigations, the Saudi authorities realised they had blundered. On 9 January, Heaton was escorted on to a flight from Jeddah to Heathrow. Asked why he had been deported without charge, the Saudi embassy in London said: "We have no information on that case."

Now staying at his mother's house in the north of England, Heaton just wants to clear his name and go back to Saudi. "It is where my home, job, my friends and the woman I was planning to marry are."

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