Burton's list

Joel Mowbray

8/31/2002 12:00:00 AM - Joel Mowbray
Arriving in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Thursday night and armed with a sense of purpose--and a list of 14 names--Chairman Dan Burton (R-IN) is leading a bipartisan delegation attempting to do something the State Department has stubbornly refused to do for nearly two decades: rescue kidnapped American children (some of whom are now young adults) trapped in the desert prison. Right as the United States' relationship with the oil-rich nation has been receiving a fresh round of critical scrutiny from foreign policy types--particularly conservatives--the Saudi royal family has an opportunity to reverse course and actually allow Americans held hostage in the Kingdom the chance to taste freedom in the one country where they belong: America. Far from the political caricature he has been reduced to in liberal editorial pages, Rep. Burton is filled with a fighting spirit and a seriousness of purpose. The Chairman of the House Government Reform Committee is on the verge of pulling off a feat that the State Department has not managed despite a supposedly-full time devotion to helping abducted American children. He helped thrust the issue to the front burner of public consciousness this summer when he held hearings on June 12. Centrally featured at Burton's hearings was the woman who first brought the issue of kidnapped kids stolen away to Saudi Arabia to public awareness, Patricia Roush. Roush's two beautiful daughters, Alia and Aisha al-Gheshayan, were kidnapped from the Chicago area by their Saudi national father in 1986. In the 16 years since, Roush has tirelessly championed the cause of not just her daughters, but the plights of other abducted children. The unifying theme across almost all similar cases is the indifference--if not outright hostility--State has shown toward the parents and their efforts to rescue American children. Roush herself has not even seen her own (now adult) daughters since 1995. Though Roush has pioneered the political movement to rescue abducted children, her daughters have received less attention in the week leading up to Burton's trip than Amjad Radwan, a 19-year-old American citizen who suffers tremendously (as Aisha and Alia do) just by virtue of being a woman in a frighteningly backward nation that doesn't even aspire to treat women as well as second-class citizens. Radwan stands perhaps the best chance of any of the children and young adults because of her suddenly high profile. In response to Burton's request of the President that he "convey [his] concerns about these cases to [Prince Bandar]" during the meeting at Crawford this week, George W. Bush discussed Radwan by name--but not Aisha or Alia--with Bandar, which should all but guarantee her safe release. Following Radwan's safe exit from Saudi Arabia, hopefully others will be granted the same treatment. "Burton's list" has a total of 14 names of Americans trapped inside the fiery gates of the Kingdom of Saud, and Burton will make every effort to ensure the safe release of every last name on his list. Burton's delegation of two Democrats and three other Republicans will be meeting with Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal tomorrow and Sunday, demanding that the 14 children and young adults be allowed to leave with the Congressmen. Prince al-Faisal may try to hide behind the fig leaf of misogynistic Saudi law that says women cannot get exit visas to escape Saudi Arabia without the permission of a husband or father. But the beauty of running the Kingdom is that pesky little niceties like Constitutional rights and legal protections that might apply in, say, America, don't even exist in Saudi Arabia. If the House of Saud really wanted to deliver those kidnapees to their rightful and legal parents, all it would have to do is say the word, and it would be a done deal. If Prince al-Faisal tells the ruse that the Americans would rather stay in the desert prison, then the answer should be obvious: send them to America, where no one can doubt that they have the freedom to leave. If one of the kids or young adults decides that unabashed freedom in America pales in comparison to the tyranny of the House of Saud, then he or she would be free to hop on a plane and fly back to Saudi Arabia. Ironically, the New York Times reported this week that the House of Saud is spending truckloads of cash on lobbyists and glitzy public relations efforts-but Americans aren't being duped. Since May, negative public perceptions of Saudi Arabia have risen from 50 percent to 63 percent of the general population. In other words, Saudi Arabia has burned thru $5 million of cash with absolutely no progress to show for it. But Burton's trip presents the House of Saud with a golden opportunity to save face and look a little less despotic--never mind the chance to do the right thing. Although she says she believes "with all [her] heart" that her daughters will eventually return to her loving embrace, Roush is hedging her bets about the prospects for this trip. "I can't afford to get my hopes up. It's just too emotionally draining when the bottom falls out," she notes with emotion weighing heavily on her voice. But the woman who has assumed the role of spokeswoman and advocate for other parents living thru abduction hell is quick to point out the significance of the Congressional trip: "Now is the time, and Dan Burton is the man."