Saudi Justice?

Dissident Says Saudi Arabia Framed Britain For Riyadh Bombings

Why did the Government of Saudi Arabia frame seven westerners for a series of car bombings they didn't commit?

Those car bombings, which began in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in November 2000, killed three members of the expatriate community and severely injured several others. To western observers, they were clearly the work of Islamic fundamentalists.

But the Saudis were not about to admit that. So five Britons, a Canadian and a Belgian found themselves arrested, systematically tortured into false confessions and eventually convicted of those bombings.

Since the release of the men from a Saudi Arabian jail last summer, it's emerged that the Saudis were secretly using them as pawns in a bigger game - a game that for two of the men almost ended in a terrible death. Correspondent Ed Bradley reports.

One of those men was Dr. William Sampson, a Canadian who now lives in England.

Six years ago, Sampson had taken a job as a business consultant in Saudi Arabia. But in November 2000, two cars bombs went off in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, killing a British engineer and injuring several other westerners.

Three weeks later, as Sampson was leaving his home in Riyadh for work, a grey sedan pulled up beside him. "Three Saudis in traditional dress came out of the sedan. One of them waved a warrant card and pistol in my face," recalls Sampson. "The others pinned my arms behind my back, stripped me of my belongings, handcuffed me, began punching and beating me, and pushed me into the vehicle."

Sampson was blindfolded and driven to a closely guarded building on the outskirts of Riyadh, which is the detention center of the Mabahith - the Saudi security police. There, he was tortured into confessing that he had carried out those bombings.

"It initially started with punchings and kickings, and that progressed from beating me on the soles of my feet to being hung upside down in a position known as the chicken -- with your feet uppermost and your feet and backside exposed, readily available for beating," says Sampson. "And between interrogation sessions, I was returned to the same cell and handcuffed to the door, so I couldn't sit down and I couldn't sleep."

He said that after being beating on the soles of his feet and chained to the door, he stood in agony: "There's no way you can, I could even kneel down in that position, and so I'd be standing on my feet which were swollen, so badly swollen that they were actually exuding plasma through the skin."

How long did it take before he confessed? "On the night of the sixth day is when I started to confess, when I would, I couldn't take any more," says Sampson. "At that stage, I mean, I used to pray that, I would pray during the beatings that I would black out, and I never did. And by that stage, I was actually praying that I would just die."

Sampson, however, wasn't the only one who wanted to die. One of his friends, Sandy Mitchell, who is British, was also tortured into confessing to those bombings.

At the time of his arrest, Mitchell was living in Riyadh with his Thai wife and son, and working as the chief anesthetic technician in a hospital.

"As bad as the pain was, the breaking point, when I got to the extent that I would say anything to please these people, was when they said, 'We're going to arrest your wife. She's a Thai national, we can do anything we want to her,'" says Mitchell. "And at that stage, I decided I would confess to anything. They knew we were innocent. They had to tell us what to say."

Mitchell and Sampson's confessions were taped and shown on Saudi TV. And the men's zombie-like appearance left western observers no doubt that they'd been forced to make these statements against their will.

But what wasn't broadcast was the men's alleged motive. What reason were they forced to give for carrying out those bombings?

"I'd made a false confession saying that I'd carried out the explosions at the request of the British embassy," recalls Mitchell, who says he was told to say that.

"And to my dying day, I'll hate myself for this because I was ashamed of having to falsely accuse two innocent men, and I had to name two British diplomats … who they identified for me in pictures and I did. And I'm sorry about that, but I couldn't endure any more pain."

Sampson says that the diplomats were supposed to have given them the orders, and supplied them with the explosive devices.

The Saudis then accused those diplomats of master-minding the bombings. And as unlikely as those allegations were, the British had to take them seriously.

In London, the Foreign Office will only say that Scotland Yard was sent to Saudi Arabia to investigate those diplomats and found them to be completely innocent.

Falsely accusing a group of expatriates is bad enough. But why would the Saudis try to implicate the British Government?

Dr Sayed al-Faghi, head of a Saudi dissident organization in London, says that according to his sources in the security apparatus in Riyadh, the Saudis had set up the British to try to get back at him and his group.

"Because we are a political opposition to the Saudi regime, and because they've tried all means to harm us, to convince the British that we are doing wrong things - they failed," says al-Faghi. "They wanted to use those detainees as a leverage to twist the British arm in order to force them to kick us out of Britain or do something to silence us."

Who does he think planted these bombs?

"We have always said that according to our sources inside the security apparatus, Saudi security apparatus, there are small splinter groups who have the general interest similar to al Qaeda," says al-Faghi.

As car bombs continued to explode in Riyadh and elsewhere in the kingdom, the Saudis kept up the pressure on the British Government and rounded up the usual suspects. In August 2001, three more British men were paraded on Saudi TV to confess their guilt. Meanwhile, Sampson and Mitchell were tried in secret and found guilty solely on the basis of those confessions.

Mitchell says that the same man who was doing the torturing was the prosecutor. Who represented Mitchell and Sampson? "There was no defense. I was asked, 'Did you make that statement?' 'Yes, but under duress,'" says Mitchell. "'Did you make that statement, yes or no?' 'Yes.' That was it, trial over."

Did they tell them what would happen?

"Well, you know what's going to happen to you if you live in Saudi Arabia, but again, by the end of six days,I would have welcomed being taken to Deera Square and executed," says Sampson.

Deera Square in the center of Riyadh is known locally as "Chop Chop Square." It's one of the places where those sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia are publicly beheaded, as a secretly filmed tape shows.

But Sampson and Mitchell were sentenced to something even worse.

"I was sentenced to something called Al-Had, which is the most extreme sanction, punishment, that they have and in that you're fixed to a wooden X, which is mounted in the ground, and you are partially beheaded," says Sampson.

How had Sampson and Mitchell become trapped in this nightmare in the first place? They'd come to the attention of the Saudi security police through a Belgian friend of theirs named Raf Schyvens, a paramedic who was a witness to the second car bomb, and had given first aid that saved a man's life.

But the Saudis discovered that he used to drink in a bar with British expatriates where alcohol was illegally served. This was enough to make them charge Schyvens with involvement in the bombing and to insist that he knew who the bombers were. Schyvens says he gave them the names of Sampson and Mitchell when one of his interrogators opened his wallet and saw photographs of his children.

"And a big smile appeared on his face. And he said, 'Do you love them? Start cooperating, because we know where they live,'" says Schyvens, who adds he had no reason to believe that Sampson or Mitchell were involved in these bombings.

Schyvens, who was sentenced to eight years for his alleged role in that bombing, says he will never get over what the Saudis forced him to do.

"I've been forced to put my own close friends on death row and that's something I will have to live with for the rest of my life," says Schyvens.

Sampson and Mitchell sat on death row in Al-Hajr, Saudi Arabia's high security jail, for the next two-and-a-half years, expecting that any day they would be taken out and executed.

During that time, Mitchell twice attempted suicide and Sampson suffered a heart attack and nearly died as a result of the continued physical abuse he received.

"They could physically destroy me, but there were places in my own mind they could never get to. That's one thing that I learned about this. I learned that George Orwell was certainly wrong in his idea that there is a Room 101 where they can strip all aspects of your identity away. There isn't," says Sampson.

"They can make you say anything. They can make you say anything with extreme fervor that everybody believes you. But there is one place that they just cannot seem to get to throughout all the pain, throughout all the destruction that they subject you to."

The torture and abuse that Sampson and the other men were subjected to by the Saudis came to an end last summer when car bombings in the kingdom reached a climax.

Islamic extremists devastated western compounds in Riyadh, and even the Saudis could no longer pretend that the only acts of terrorism in their country were carried out by a handful of British expatriates.

Following a personal appeal by Prime Minister Tony Blair to the Saudi royal family, the men were granted an act of clemency, or royal pardon from King Fahd. But the Saudis made it clear that it was just a pardon and as far as they were concerned the men were still guilty.

So what do the Saudis say about the allegations of torture? Their ambassador in London was the head of Saudi intelligence at the time the men were arrested. After twice postponing an interview with 60 Minutes in the end, his Royal Highness Prince Turki al Faisal declined to talk with us.

But in a letter to a British newspaper, he denied that the men had been tortured into making false confessions. He says torture is illegal in his country and anyone doing it would be punished.

"They're lying. Plain and simply they're lying. My principle torturer was a man named Ibrahim Al Dali who was promoted from captain to major as a result of his torturing me and getting me to confess," says Sampson.

"They say that they still regard you and the others as guilty of those bombings," Bradley says to Sampson. "They say that the only reason that they let you go was because of an act of clemency by King Fahd, in other words a royal pardon. Does that bother you?"

"It bothers me. It's difficult to be bothered by the statements of the individuals who run a regime of such totalitarian brutality as the Saudi Arabians," says Sampson.

"I know the members of their government are hypocrites. I know the members of their government are liars, and therefore I do not expect anything better from them than that. I do not expect anything other than them to continue playing their hypocritical games."