This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 31, 2005. Partner content is not updated.
TWO YEARS AGO, Canadian William Sampson emerged from a prison in Saudi Arabia with a horrific tale of torture at the hands of sadistic interrogators, who forced him to confess to crimes he didn't commit.
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William Sampson Reveals his Mistreatment by the Saudis
TWO YEARS AGO, Canadian William Sampson emerged from a prison in Saudi Arabia with a horrific tale of torture at the hands of sadistic interrogators, who forced him to confess to crimes he didn't commit. Now, in a new book to be published next week, Sampson says the abuse he suffered while in Saudi custody was even more grotesque and terrifying than previously reported.
In Confessions of an Innocent Man: Torture and Survival in a Saudi Prison, Sampson claims, for the first time, that not only was he savagely beaten for months on end, he was also repeatedly raped by his captors. Aside from its devastating glimpse into Saudi justice, the book also serves as a damning indictment of Canadian embassy officials who, according to Sampson, were ineffectual and condescending, and often seemed more concerned with placating his captors than ensuring his safety.
Last week, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs refused to comment on Sampson's latest statements, saying "it would be improper to comment on a book that we have not read." Officials with the Saudi Arabian embassy in Ottawa also refused to comment on Sampson's case. In late 2003, Sampson was allowed to detail his complaints before a parliamentary committee. But the book is sure to re-ignite controversy about whether the government did enough to help a citizen in desperate circumstances abroad.
Sampson's story begins in December 2000, when he was arrested in front of his Riyadh home by security officers investigating a rash of car bombings that had left one British engineer dead and several others severely wounded. The Saudis were working on the theory that the bombings were part of a turf war between Western bootleggers, fighting for control of the illegal alcohol trade. In fact, the bombings were likely the work of Islamic terrorists attacking Westerners. But because Sampson was friends with some owners of illegal "social clubs" where booze was illegally sold, he was caught up in the Saudi dragnet.
Sampson had been in the country for more than two years, working as a consultant on water treatment projects for a Saudi development fund. By the time he was snatched off the streets and dragged to the interrogation centre across the city, he knew enough about Saudi justice to realize that he was caught in a nightmare. But even he couldn't fathom just how bad it would be.
Much of the book consists of a meticulous reconstruction of marathon beatings interrupted only by Muslim calls to prayer, and meal breaks. Sampson says he was chained up, standing, to his cell door, and prevented from sleeping for days, which led to terrifying hallucinations of giant spiders crawling throughout his cell. He was hung upside down from a metal bar while interrogators whipped the soles of his feet with a bamboo cane or pounded his legs, back, and genitals with an axe handle. Sometimes, he was hog-tied, whipped and kicked. Others, he was punched in the kidneys, and had his testicles squeezed until he wailed in agony.
Sampson describes a surreal merry-go-round in which his accusers tortured him, then lectured him on the depravity of his crimes, then tried to cajole him into confessing. When he insisted he was innocent, that he had killed no one and was not a spy, his captors would explode in rage and begin the cycle anew. Finally, after six days without sleep and in constant pain, Sampson was broken. "I screamed and begged to confess, to tell them what they wanted to hear, but my entreaties seemed to fall upon deaf ears," Sampson writes. "The beating continued, blows fell across my feet, buttocks, and scrotum, no matter how loudly I screamed my willingness to comply." When the abuse finally stopped, Sampson was told to write out an admission that he planted and detonated the bomb that killed British engineer Christopher Rodway.
He hoped that with this confession, even if it was false, his agony would stop. Though he knew he would almost certainly be sentenced to death by beheading, he was beyond fear - death would be a release from the hell he found himself in. But for Sampson the greatest pain and indignity was yet to come. Shortly after he made his first confession, Sampson claims he was dragged to an interrogation room where two Saudi "investigators" raped him. When he lost control of his bowels after the assault, his attackers shoved his face into the mess and severely beat him yet again. It was "the violation of my last vestige of physical and thus psychological integrity," he writes. "When finally I was lowered to the floor, I was a gibbering tear-sodden wreck, with no resemblance to what had once been a man." Sampson had written before about physical beatings, but his horrifying account in the book is the first time he has revealed any sexual abuse while in prison.
Over the next several months, the torture sessions continued as his captors demanded more and more detail be added to his confessions, dragging more innocent men into an implausible plot of revenge and espionage, dictated by his tormentors. Finally, he was forced to say he was a British spy working to destabilize the Saudi regime. Again and again Sampson was dragged into a private room, bound, beaten until his legs, back and genitals were a collage of black and purple bruises, then returned to his solitary cell.
During this time Sampson resorted to a series of tiny acts of defiance to make life tolerable. For example, he developed a means of stealing a few pieces of toilet paper from the lavatory. He would recite lines of poetry and song lyrics to himself over and over again. And he maintained a secret "rice diary," consisting of grains of rice hidden in his mattress, to keep track of how many days he was imprisoned, how long he'd gone without sleep, and how many times he was tortured. All these tiny acts were an attempt to maintain lucidity, and stave off complete emotional breakdown. As it turned out, the threat of physical breakdown was even more pressing. On the 87th day of his captivity, Sampson suffered a heart attack that required angioplasty surgery to open his clogged arteries. His health emergency provided only a brief respite from the abuse, however. Within a few weeks, he was back in his cell, and back to the regular beatings.
Throughout this time, Sampson hoped Canadian embassy officials might be the advocates and protectors he so desperately needed, but he was sorely disappointed. His first visit with Canadian officials came more than a month after his arrest. His torturers attended the meeting and warned Sampson not to let on he was being ill-treated. He did as he was told. In this meeting and others to follow, Sampson came to distrust the embassy officials, sensing that they believed he was guilty and were interested only in fulfilling their most basic responsibilities. They refused, for example, to accept Sampson's power of attorney and later, when he became defiant and abusive to his captors, they chided him for his rudeness. He saw the embassy staff as ineffectual, self-serving bureaucrats, not a potential lifeline to the outside world. Eventually he refused to meet with Canadian officials and the lawyer they had assigned to his case.
Between his heart attack and his disillusionment with Canadian diplomats, Sampson came to accept his death as inevitable, and he started to openly defy his tormentors. He would physically resist prison guards and ignore their orders. This provoked physical confrontations that left him with several broken teeth and a broken vertebrae, but he kept fighting back. Soon, Sampson was the prisoner from hell.
Twice he was taken before a Saudi court, without legal representation, where he refused to recognize the judges and denounced Saudi Arabia as a "politically corrupt, socially regressive, morally bankrupt, and genetically degenerate" country and insulted Muhammad as a "false prophet."
After he'd been incarcerated for about eight months, Sampson intensified his non-violent revenge on his captors. When they took away his soap, toothbrush and clothes as punishment, he refused to accept them back. He stopped bathing and brushing his teeth, and lay in his cell naked. He refused to see the doctor or to exercise. He began to smear his cell walls with his own waste, making it almost unbearable for the guards to enter. When they did, Sampson would sometimes fling his feces at them. On two occasions, he infuriated his guards by defiling the Koran, the Muslim holy book. This so-called "dirty protest" lasted from July 2001 until his release in August 2003.
After two years, seven months, three weeks and two days, Sampson was freed along with the eight other westerners held in connection with the 2000 bombings. It later emerged that Saudi King Fahd agreed to release them in return for several terror suspects held by the United States at Guantánamo Bay. Sampson had been sentenced to death, but thanks to some diplomatic horse-trading, his life was spared.
The Saudi government, however, has maintained that Sampson is a liar and a killer. In letters written to both the National Post and Globe and Mail two years ago, then-ambassador Mohammed Al-Hussaini said Sampson was never tortured.
Canada's government, meanwhile, said its "quiet diplomacy" was instrumental in securing the release of the westerners. But efforts to get to the bottom of the case have stalled. Canada requested an independent inquiry into Sampson's allegations in 2003. The Saudis refused and offered to hold their own internal investigation if Sampson filed a formal complaint. Canada never expelled the Saudi ambassador, and the furor eventually faded from the headlines.
Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, considers that a shame. He says the case exposed serious holes in the ability of Foreign Affairs officials to recognize signs of torture, and exposed Ottawa's sad unwillingness to challenge the Saudis on behalf of Canadian citizens. As it stands, the case can never be truly closed, he says.
Instead, Sampson and others have been left to seek their own redress. Last year, a British court ruled he and other detainees can proceed with a lawsuit against the individuals responsible for their mistreatment. It may be years before the case reaches a resolution, but Sampson seems to have managed to move on. His book ends with a remarkable note to the men who, he says, nearly killed him: "Finally I would like to acknowledge the contribution made by Prince Naif, Brigadier Mohammed Said, Lieutenant Colonel Ibrahim Al Dali, and Captain Khaled Al Saleh. Through your lack of humanity, you helped me find my own."
Now all that's left to be found is justice.
Maclean's October 31, 2005