Tuesday, May 31, 2005

LONDON — For nearly three years, Sandy Mitchell was held in a Saudi Arabian jail and tortured until he confessed to a bombing he did not commit. He says he has only hatred for “the savages” who put him through it.

“I’m self-sufficient now. I earn enough to support my family, and I’m not dependent on benefits.” The pride in Mr. Mitchell’s voice is unmistakable. Given what he has been through, it is also justified.

Five years ago, the tough Glaswegian was earning his living working in a hospital in Saudi Arabia as an anesthetic technician, inserting catheters, checking doses and weighing patients before they had operations. He and his Thai wife had just had a baby. He was happy and prosperous.

The nightmare begins

Then, on Dec. 17, 2000, he was kidnapped by Saudi Arabian police as he got out of his car to walk into the hospital. Handcuffed and thrown into a police van, he was taken to an interrogation room at a prison in Riyadh. At that point, his nightmare began in earnest.

“Two men came into the room,” he remembers. “They were Capt. Ibrahim al-Dali, who introduced himself as an officer from Saudi Arabian intelligence, and Lt. Khalid al-Sabah, the interpreter. Ibrahim was short — hardly over 5 feet, 5 inches, but very strong. Khalid was tall and had rotting teeth. They told me I had to confess or they would do things to me that would make me go mad.

“I was totally confused. I had no idea of what I was supposed to confess to. I tried to ask them. Their response was to start hitting me with a pickax handle. They beat me all over my body. They brought in a huge 300-pound Saudi to sit on me while they beat the soles of my feet. They forced a metal rod between my knees and hoisted me upside down, and beat me on my exposed buttocks. It was excruciating.”

False confession sought

Mr. Mitchell’s two torturers eventually told him they wanted him to confess to planting a bomb that had killed another Briton, Christopher Rodway. “They said my wife and son were involved too. It sounded like a joke: My son was a year old.” The two interrogators were in deadly earnest. “They kept on hitting me. The only time they broke off was when they went to pray.”

That night, covered in blood and bruises, Mr. Mitchell was chained standing up to a steel door in a room 5 feet by 8 feet. Bright lights burned in his face throughout the night. The moment he looked as though he had fallen asleep, a guard came in and prodded him or hit with a stick to wake him up. And next day, Capt. Ibrahim and Lt. Khalid were there again, ready with their pickax handles.

After three days of torture, the intelligence officers summoned a doctor to examine Mr. Mitchell. The doctor took his blood pressure. It was dangerously high. “Try to relax more,” the doctor suggested helpfully to Mr. Mitchell. When Mr. Mitchell protested that he was being tortured, the doctor calmly replied: “They all say that. You’ll just have to cope the best you can.”

And the moment the doctor left, the torture began again.

Wife, baby threatened

Capt. Ibrahim then told him that they were going to arrest his wife and son. “We will torture them. When you hear their screams, you will know that they are suffering because you haven’t told us the truth.”

That threat was enough to break Mr. Mitchell. “I was starting to hallucinate because of the sleep deprivation. But I knew I couldn’t let them harm my wife and child. I would have done anything to avoid that. I was very frightened for my son and for my wife. Ibrahim said that because she wasn’t British, it was even easier for them to make her disappear.”

Mr. Mitchell’s torturers wanted him to sign a confession implicating Simon MacDonald, an official in the British Embassy who is now the British ambassador to Israel. “They had his picture,” Mr. Mitchell remembers. “They wanted me to say he had ordered the bombing and that I was working for MI6. It was all absolutely crazy. I invented some names of people I said had ordered me to do the bombing. They discovered the names were invented the next day and beat me extra hard as a result.”

Charge preposterous

Mr. Mitchell signed a preposterous confession in which he claimed to have detonated the bomb that killed Mr. Rodway while he was driving his car.

“That was easily disprovable. I had receipts which proved that my car was being repaired when I was supposed to have detonated the bomb. The Saudis knew we were innocent from the start,” he insists. “I had friends in the police force who told me that they knew the bomb had been planted by Islamic extremists, probably al Qaeda.”

Dr. Bill Sampson, another Briton, was arrested on the same day as Mr. Mitchell. Raf Schyvens, a Belgian nurse who knew Mr. Mitchell, had been arrested and tortured several days earlier. Mr. Schyvens had named Mr. Mitchell and Dr. Sampson as co-conspirators in his nonexistent bomb plot.

“I don’t blame Raf for that,” said Mr. Mitchell. “Everyone has their breaking point.” Why the Saudi Arabians wanted to frame Mr. Mitchell and Dr. Sampson remains a mystery. Prince Naif, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, was determined to blame Westerners for the bomb: He simply refused to accept that Islamic militants were responsible. That Mr. Mitchell and Dr. Sampson were chosen as culprits may have been just bad luck.

Prince Naif implicated

“It was odd,” said Mr. Mitchell, “because I had assisted anesthetists twice when Prince Naif was being operated on. I had had him prone on the operating table twice. He had even given me a gold watch as a present for my work. But I was tortured because of the orders of that man.”

After he made his confession, Mr. Mitchell was forced to go on television with Dr. Sampson and Les Walker, another Briton, and repeat it. He thought the torture would then stop. It didn’t. “They kept coming to beat me. They would do it for no reason at all. ‘What do you want me to say?’ I would ask them. ‘What questions do want me to answer?’ They would reply: ‘There are no questions. We just want to beat you.’ They enjoyed it. These men were savages.”

There was one occasion when they made him kneel down and told him they were going to execute him. He felt a sudden blow to his neck, passed out — and awoke a few minutes later, covered in his own excrement. Capt. Ibrahim was laughing at him.

Next, windowless cell

After four months of violence, Capt. Ibrahim and Lt. Khalid noticed a sudden deterioration in Mr. Mitchell’s condition. “I kept passing out for no apparent reason,” he remembered. They sent for a doctor, who examined him and sent him to the hospital. The stress of the beatings and sleep deprivation had given him a potentially fatal heart condition. “They gave me beta blockers as medication. The beatings stopped after that.”

He was then placed alone in a tiny cell with no windows. He would remain there for 15 months. “I wanted to die. I thought I was going to die anyway. I was convinced that the only way I would get out of that prison was in a coffin.” Earlier, he had been taken out for a trial in a building on “Chop-Chop Square,” the location of Riyadh’s public beheadings. The trial lasted 10 minutes. The chief prosecutor was Capt. Ibrahim, the man who had been his chief torturer.

The judges asked Mr. Mitchell if he had confessed to the bombing. He tried to explain that he had been tortured — they dismissed that, and announced his punishment: crucifixion, then partial beheading, after which his body would be left out to rot in public.

Victim lost hope

“In solitary confinement, I lost hope. The routine was soul-destroyingly monotonous. I would hear the call to prayer at 5 a.m. A guard would shove bread and lentils in at about 7 a.m. Then — nothing, nothing at all. Just silence. The tedium was all-enveloping. I was still on the beta blockers for my heart condition. I split each one I was given and saved one of the halves. When I had what I thought would be enough to kill me, I swallowed the lot. But I survived. The only effect they had was to make me feel ill. I then thought, perhaps I’m not meant to die yet. Maybe God has something else in store.”

Mr. Mitchell was finally released more than 2½ years after he had been arrested. The bomb that blew up an American military base in 2003 seemed to have made it clear even to Prince Naif that al Qaeda was responsible for the bombings in Saudi Arabia.

“The first I heard of it,” recalled Mr. Mitchell, now 49, “was when the Saudi lawyers came in and said I would be released if I signed a letter to the king apologizing for the bomb. I refused. We all did. They came back the next day and said I just had to sign a piece of paper thanking the king for his clemency. I signed that, and soon afterwards, I was on a plane home with the others. It all happened so fast, I hardly had time to take it in.”

Book published in May

Mr. Mitchell now lives near Sowerby Bridge in Yorkshire, working part time as an anesthetic technician, filling in for those in permanent jobs when they are on leave. For now, he said, it is all that he can manage. He still feels nothing but hatred for the men who tortured him — “they will burn in hell for what they did to me” — but, as he wrote in his new book, co-written with Mark Hollingsworth and published in early May, he’s also very bitter about the way he has been treated by the British government.

“The fact that I and the other Britons who were picked up and tortured were released had very little to do with any activity from the British government. The Americans got Mike Sedlak [a U.S. citizen also arrested for the bombing] released within two months. We had to wait nearly three years. Why? Simply because our government is terrified of upsetting the Saudis. They’d rather help British businessmen sign arms deals with the Saudis than stop British people being tortured by them.”

What irks him most is that the Foreign Office still hasn’t made a public statement to announce the total innocence of Mr. Mitchell and the other men and criticize the Saudi Arabians for framing and torturing them. “They won’t do it,” he said. “The Saudi version of what happened is blatantly ridiculous. Yet the Foreign Office won’t contradict it.”

Even worse, the British government is supporting the Saudi Arabian government in its appeal to the Law Lords to overturn the decision by three judges on the Court of Appeal to allow Mr. Mitchell and the other tortured Britons to sue the Saudi Arabians for compensation.

London blocks lawsuit

“Jack Straw [Britain’s secretary of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs] says that it would be a violation of state sovereignty. He says that the principle that states can’t be sued in national courts is one that it is in the interest of Britain to protect — so sorry, we’re supporting the Saudis on this one. It’s disgusting.”

Fortunately, Mr. Mitchell has other concerns. He and his wife are expecting a new baby in August. His son, Matthew, now 6, “keeps telling me that he hopes the baby will be a girl, because then he won’t have to share his toys. It’s things like that which keep me sane.”

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