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Confessions of an Innocent Man: Torture and Survival in a Saudi Prison
By William Sampson
McClelland & Stewart
It's hard to believe, but nearly five years have passed since 19 radical Islamists carried out the devastating terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Not surprisingly, a great deal has been written about the nefarious role played by Saudi Arabia in bankrolling and fomenting anti-Western violence and instability. After all, once it became clear that 15 of the September 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals, it was only natural that the secretive desert kingdom and its policy of exporting extremism would come under greater public and international scrutiny.
But while Westerners now have a better idea of the threat posed by Saudi-funded fanaticism, we still know precious little about the inner workings of one of the Arab world's most repressive and autocratic regimes.
This, of course, is partly due to willful ignorance. With the US and European economies heavily reliant on the crude oil that Saudi Arabia produces, many Western decisionmakers prefer not to ask too many questions about pesky matters such as freedom, human rights and the rule of law.
Indeed, as author and former CIA Middle East operative Robert Baer has suggested, America's relationship with Saudi Arabia resembles a "dependence that's so strong it's almost like a narcotic." And as he notes ruefully: "You don't question the pusher."
But a gruesome new book by William Sampson, a Canadian engineer who also holds British citizenship, may begin to change all that.
In Confessions of an Innocent Man, Sampson recounts his harrowing incarceration by Saudi officials for nearly three years on trumped-up charges of involvement in a string of bombings in Riyadh. His tale is raw and gripping, and serves as a damning indictment of Saudi Arabia and its regime, which does not hesitate to use pain, torture and wanton abuse to further its interests.
Sampson, who holds a PhD in biochemistry and an MBA from Edinburgh University, arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1998 to work as a consultant on water projects for a development fund based in Riyadh. He joined the large expatriate community and went about his life and work in a diligent, if somewhat subdued, fashion.
But a series of bombings targeting Westerners, most likely the work of Islamic fundamentalists or their sympathizers, sent shock waves throughout the expatriate community. Unwilling to admit they had an internal problem on their hands, the Saudi authorities looked for foreign scapegoats on whom to pin the blame. Sampson, unfortunately, fit the bill.
And so, on December 17, 2000, Sampson was abducted by Saudi police, who tossed him into a car and beat him. Before he knew it, he was taken to prison and accused of masterminding the wave of attacks, as his jailers tossed aside even his most basic rights in a frenzy of violence and cruelty.
He was thrown into solitary confinement, deprived of sleep for days and mercilessly beaten until he passed out. Sampson's torturers gradually turned up the physical and psychological pressure, determined to force him to confess. He struggled to hold out, not wishing to own up to something he knew to be false and afraid he would be made to implicate friends and colleagues in the imaginary plot.
But after several days of hell, Sampson accepted the futility of resistance and agreed to confess to whatever his guards had in mind. He was forced to write out a long and absurd confession which his tormentors later required him to amend and re-write as they arrested other innocents and spun a wider web of fictional conspiracies.
The reader can't help but grieve along with Sampson, who berates himself for "betraying" some of his fellow expatriates. Although he had little choice in the matter, he is racked by guilt at the thought that others might have suffered because of his actions.
But the forced confessions do not spare Sampson from further mistreatment, which rapidly descends to new forms of depravity. Sampson is assaulted with axe handles and canes, transforming his genitals, legs and feet into painful pulps of flesh.
In one of the most excruciating parts of the book, Sampson's Saudi interrogators rape him and then compel him to consume his own excrement, adding painful insult to grievous injury.
At times, the book is truly difficult to read, as it graphically describes the physical and mental agony to which Sampson was subjected. With inhuman glee, the Saudi officers inflict sadistic and ultimately pointless anguish on this brave and sensitive man. Page after page, the horror continues, seemingly without end. Western diplomats occasionally met with Sampson, but they come across as weak and entirely unconcerned about his fate, prompting his well-justified scorn.
Eventually, however, Sampson develops his own mechanism for coping, as he attempts to reassert an element of control - however minute - over his own life. He taunts his jailers, defying their orders and occasionally fighting back, in the process salvaging not only his sense of self, but a shred of dignity. He plays pranks on the guards which in any other context would seem downright childish, such as making them step unwittingly in his urine. But given Sampson's circumstances, they manage to come across as acts of defiance.
In August 2003, Sampson was suddenly released in a prisoner exchange after an escalating series of bombings in Saudi Arabia made his innocence patently clear. But while a 2005 British inquest formally declared him innocent of the spurious Saudi charges, Sampson now finds himself battling the British government for the right to sue his Saudi tormentors.
Even after what Saudi Arabia did to one of its citizens, Her Majesty's Government would rather hush the whole thing up, preferring to protect the torturers than seek justice for the tortured.
Whether or not Sampson will prevail in his legal battle remains unclear. But one thing is certain: he has written a searing account of Saudi injustice and of Western governmental complicity.
However trying it might be to read his story, Sampson's cry for justice is one that must be heard.