INDEPTH: THE WILLIAM SAMPSON STORY|
Death Sentence: The William Sampson Story
An interview with Peter Mansbridge, Part I.
CBC News Online | Updated September 30, 2003
Two years, seven months, three weeks and two days. Think about it. It's a long time. An eternity if you're in solitary confinement, cut off from everything you love, existing in a place where terror and rage overshadow everything else. Now whatever you're imagining, William Sampson lived through far, far worse. He's in London recovering from his ordeal and there he talked with Peter Mansbridge.
Part 1 |
William Sampson: There is a part of you that no matter what they do to you they can't own, they can break you. They can put you through so much pain you wish to die, but somewhere in the middle of that, somewhere deep down in the bottom, there is buried a part of you that they can never get, they can never have.
Peter Mansbridge: William Sampson is free these days to enjoy the most ordinary of things: the sights and sounds of daily life in London.
William Sampson: I see things somewhat differently than I did before, the smell of flowers, the sound of kids, all of those little things that have been absent from my life for two years.
Peter Mansbridge: His pleasure in the mundane and simple is understandable, given what he left behind so recently. When I met him in a London hotel he talked of the medical tests and procedures that keep him busy. But he also described a period in his life where he is, to use his own words, chilling out.
Peter Mansbridge: Is it a period where you're trying to forget what happened, or trying to understand what happened, or trying to accept what happened?
William Sampson: To forget what happened, well to be honest with you, that would be impossible. What I went through is not something you could ever forget. So it's just the gradual process of going over it, making sense of it, sorting it out. One of the biggest questions I still have is why it happened. That's a question that still hasn't adequately been answered either by myself or anyone else.
Peter Mansbridge: Bill Sampson told us home is wherever he happens to have an apartment. In 1998, home became Saudi Arabia, a country that had always fascinated him. With his scientific and business background, he took a job in Riyadh as a marketing consultant and he indulged his interest in desert trekking and adventure. But social life for western expatriates in Saudi Arabia was becoming more difficult.
William Sampson: Just about every aspect of what you would take for granted is technically illegal in SA. Sitting in a room with someone, having a cup of coffee with someone you are not married to, or who is not a member of your family, who is of the opposite sex, is illegal. And you can be stopped, you can have your identity checked, and if that person you are sitting with is of the opposite sex and you're not related to them, you will be arrested. And there are frequent occurrences of that.
It didn't used to be that way, in that the laws were there, but they were never applied that strictly. But I noticed just after I moved there in 1998 that the atmosphere was getting stricter and stricter. More and more people that I heard about and knew were being picked up for what were relatively minor offenses. The muttawa [religious police] were a lot more aggressive in patrolling the supermarkets at prayer time, and much more aggressive in arresting people who they thought were window shopping, and therefore in violation of the law.
Peter Mansbridge: And why do you think that shift in attitude was taking place?
William Sampson: The problem came amongst the larger bulk of the population, large sections of the less affluent sections of the society, and this resentment seemed to be building during the time I was there
Peter Mansbridge: Alcohol is officially forbidden in Saudi Arabia, but it was a familiar part of expatriate life. Most westerners had homemade beer or alcohol in their homes. There were even re-creations of British style pubs, with names like the Tudor Rose and the Celtic Corner. Bill Sampson found them a convenient place to meet friends. But there were risks.
William Sampson: And there were a number of raids of places during the year 2000 on what I would call off-compound clubs. I knew the people who ran those places, because I frequented those places. I knew the people that ran them, and I was involved in helping them smooth their way out. And in one particular case I helped a man get his way up to Dhahran so that he could get to Dubai, and unfortunately he managed to get himself caught in Dubai, so my name would have probably come out to the authorities.
Peter Mansbridge: So very quickly, over that year 2000, you're becoming a name on the radar screen of the Saudi police?
William Sampson: Yes, my name would probably have become more frequently noticed by them during that time. I was operating with my friend Sandy Mitchell, and he's been doing that for years. He'd been doing that for as long as he'd been out there helping people who had bumped into the wrong side of the law on anything from shopping offences to having a woman in your car who you're not married to, through to alcohol offences.
Peter Mansbridge: On November 17, 2000, a car bomb in Riyadh killed British engineer Christopher Rodway. On November 22 and December 15, there were more bombs. Saudi authorities later claimed they were linked to the western alcohol trade. Bill Sampson has his own suspicions.
You're thinking al-Qaeda or some other group?
William Sampson: Around the time of the bombings, we know that there was a statement released by Osama bin Laden that demanded that all non-believers be out of SA by the time of that Ramadan.
Peter Mansbridge: So in mid-December, you're leaving your home one morning, three to four weeks after the death of Rodway. What happens?
William Sampson: I walked out of the front of my villa. The gate would have been an eight-foot-tall iron gate along the wall, about the same height. I walked out, shut it behind me, and there's my car with a flat tire. My immediate instinct, as I was already late for work, was rather than change it I was already dressed for work was just to go over to the main streets and grab a taxi.
And at exactly the moment I turned away, I saw a grey four-door saloon pull up towards me at very high speeds. Three people got out of it, I was grabbed, my briefcase was stripped off me, my wallet, my money, my phone, all of it was taken. I was beaten, punched, pushed into the back of the vehicle.
About six or seven days before that they had arrested a friend of mine, Evans, having already interviewed him prior to that. They said they were going to arrest him because they knew he was one of the bombers. They then arrested him a couple days after that, and began the process of trying to pin the bombings on him.
Peter Mansbridge: I guess what I find interesting is that in these minutes after you were picked up, you were already physically abused, that you were connecting these dots about who these people probably were, and why they were picking you up.
William Sampson: I don't think they ever suspected us of being involved in the bombings, I suspect they were trying to find a convenient group of people to pin the bombings on that were not Saudi Arabian.
Peter Mansbridge: But your bottom line on this is that you don't believe they ever really thought, because, let's face it, we see police make mistakes…
William Sampson: This wasn't a mistake. This was an attempt to fit people into a frame … so that they wouldn't have to externally admit that they have internal dissent, a problem with political internal dissent, which is now culminating in the form of political terrorism. Of that I'm convinced. The Saudi Arabians, even when it comes to minor crimes, would attempt immediately to pin the blame on an expat, or on the expat community.
Peter Mansbridge: Police blindfold Sampson and take him to an interrogation centre. It was the first of two prisons where he would spend the next 2½ years.
So you're now in custody. Within an hour, the torture begins. What are you saying, or are you given the opportunity to say anything?
William Sampson: I was given a few punchings, punched in the behind, and thrown around the room before I was allowed to say anything. Then they took me over, sat me down, and took me through what I had actually done on Nov. the 17th and the 22nd. And also on what would have been December the 15th. Then I was given another round of beatings "that isn't true, that isn't true" and then they made me sit down and go over it again.
Peter Mansbridge: This is beatings, as in kickings and punching?
William Sampson: Beating, kicking, punching, being bounced off the wall, being knocked to the floor, being kicked while I was on the floor.
Peter Mansbridge: And how many people were doing this?
William Sampson: At that time only three. There were three of them in the room during that process. I was sometimes left in the room with one of the people who had been pushing me around, while the two principals would go off to do something else. Now I wasn't sure what that something else was, but now I do know that it was to beat the hell out of someone else. They were rotating their brutality between different rooms. And if nothing else, that gave me a break for a few minutes, although the anticipation of them coming back wasn't too healthy either.
Peter Mansbridge: Now I know it wasn't that way, but in the retelling, and I guess through telling of friends, it almost sounds matter-of-fact now. Clearly it wasn't like that when it was happening.
William Sampson: I was absolutely bloody terrified. I was being accused, I wasn't even being accused, I was being told that I had committed a murder. Now in Saudi Arabia murder carries a death penalty. Mind you there are a large number of things in Saudi Arabia that carry a death penalty homosexuality, murder, adultery. In fact it's the longest list of crimes that result in the death penalty that I've ever heard of.
Peter Mansbridge: And this is death by beheading?
William Sampson: This is death by beheading. There is an extreme sanction called al-Had where your head is partially severed and you are fixed to an X planted in the ground, and allowed to expire that way. That's the most extreme sanction allowed under law, which is what I was ultimately sentenced to. But at the time this was going on, what they were stating I was guilty of was a crime that would result in my being beheaded, and I was terrified.
But I believed, or hoped at that stage, and that was the point where in prison I did have a certain amount of control, that I could endure what they were going to do to me, and the embassy, or some embassy British, Canadian or whatever would get wind of what was going on, and put some pressure to bear to bring it to an end.
As the days went on I realized that that wasn't going to happen, that they in Saudi Arabia had locked down the situation so tight that no embassy was going to get a look and no one was going to be able to find me, which unfortunately heightened my terror. And I spent the next month, day in and day out, living in fear, fear that I was going to be beaten to death, and fear of the constant pain until such time that being beheaded sounded like a good idea. It was a welcome possibility.
Peter Mansbridge: This is going to sound bizarre, but of the torture that you endured in those first days, what was the worst?
William Sampson: There are two ways of answering that. One is that the worst that I endured mentally, as I look back on it, is different than the worst of it that I endured at the time. The worst that I endured of it at the time was being hung upside down and beaten across the backside, the feet, the scrotum. The pain from that is just incredible. I just felt like my entire body was about to explode out of my ears and my eyes. And your pulse rate is thundering throughout that, you're in constant pain, and parts of your body feel like they've set light to them, they are so inflamed and sore.
And it doesn't let up when they stop that for a while, because the pain doesn't die down because the beating is so severe. The pain stays and it only builds for the next session, and even when they stop the beating and chain you back to the door, then you have the next few hours standing on your feet, in my case which are swollen and bloody, which are in agony but you can't do anything to relieve them, so they're actually getting more sensitive by the minute, and you know you've only got this to go back to the next day or the day after.
But when I look back at it, I can recall this rather dispassionately, certainly now I can, but the thing I have the most difficulty with is that the bastards made me watch them beating a friend of mine. To make sure I would be kept under control they made me watch Sandy Mitchell being beaten. And that still bothers me. It still is something that I have difficulty remembering without having an emotional reaction to it.
Peter Mansbridge: When did that happen, how did that happen?
William Sampson: That happened I know that on the second day of my arrest I heard Mr. Mitchell's voice at the prison, in the interrogation centre. There were two locations I was held at. I was held at the first location for 11 days, and was brought back there at one occasion after that.
The next place was [a prison] south of Riyadh. It was while I was there. I was in the process of being given a beating. By this stage I had already confessed. I had already confessed to being the bomber and to being a British spy. But they were going through, changing the confessions, making them mesh, making sure that everybody who they had arrested were all singing off the same song sheet. And they quietly brought me into one of the rooms where he was being interrogated and made me watch them question him while he was being stood up and whipped across the lower back and buttocks.
Peter Mansbridge: This is in the same room?
William Sampson: I'm made to stand in the same room and be quiet. My interrogator was standing beside me, holding me, motioning that if I'm not quiet, I'm going to get some more of the same. And I had just been through a beating session of my own, so I wasn't interested in having another one.
That would have been about the 15th day, that I saw that happen. And that is one of the hardest things for me to handle since I've come out of this.
Peter Mansbridge: Because of what you saw, or the inability to do anything about it?
William Sampson: The inability to do anything about it. It is again the thing that bothers me the most. A lot of what has happened to me, I can get over it. I haven't had any problem dealing with the pain and suffering that it has caused me. It sounds pretty crazy, but it's been one of those things I've been through. The thing I still have the biggest difficulty with is the pain and suffering they caused my friends in prison and my friends and family outside of Saudi Arabia. I mean, seeing videos of my father since coming out, of interviews during the time I was in prison, and seeing the stress, the almost lethal stress, that my imprisonment was causing him has reduced me to a blubbering idiot on more than one occasion. And that is something I know is going to stay with me for a long time.
Peter Mansbridge: The first that Canadians heard of William Sampson was in February 2001, when his taped confession was broadcast around the world. But he actually gave his Saudi tormentors what they wanted to hear earlier than that, six days after the brutal treatment began.
William Sampson: Day 6, I'd had enough. I made the decision over the night before that I'd been broken then. I mean all that they had to do was come to me and ask for me to sign anything, and I would have done it then. But on Day 6 they came out, and I was beaten again, and then I begged to confess, and they let me confess. Now throughout my interrogation they had been chanting all the details out, you went here, you did this, we knew where you were, so all I did was repeat back to them what they told me.
Peter Mansbridge: Six weeks later, William Sampson had his first meeting with officials from the Canadian Embassy.
I want to try to understand that meeting. Because here you have your fist opportunity to meet a representative of the country from which you hold a passport. What happened in that room?
William Sampson: I was instructed exactly how I was to behave, otherwise it would go very, very badly for me. And I knew exactly how badly it could go for me, so I didn't need instructions on what they would do. I was told to tell them that everything was fine, and that I was being treated like I was in a four-star hotel, in fact. And I was perfectly happy to comply with that because I had no desire to go back to being tortured. I was too frightened.
What could have happened? With the two embassy officials there, could they have stormed out of the place with me in tow? Unlikely. All that could have happened is that the Saudi Arabians would have pushed them out of the room and I would have been taken back downstairs to the same building where I had been tortured and beaten initially, locked back in a one-man cell, and I knew what was coming. So I did what I was told.
I'm not proud of the fact that I didn't make an attempt to communicate what was happening to me at that stage. And I'm not particularly proud that it took me as long as it did to start to communicate that.
Peter Mansbridge: A few weeks after the Canadian visit, the first Canadian visit, Canadians get to see you on television. With a videotaped confession. Tell us about this, what goes through your mind when you watch that?
William Sampson: I look like a zombie. If I was to watch that video and see somebody doing that, to me they look like they've been through hell, and the first question I'd be asking myself as a disinterested viewer is what's been done to them to make them do that, to make them say what they're saying, because I look like death warmed up, I really do.
Peter Mansbridge: Did you hope that's what people would see when they saw that.
William Sampson: I was hoping that that would be one thing that would be picked up on. You see, just before I did the confession, I was taken through my story and effectively given a script for my confession, and I convinced my captors that my English was particularly good and maybe I should write my own script, and I attempted, in doing that, in certain parts of it, to make the language so convoluted that somebody might pick up on the fact that that isn't him speaking. And apparently my cousin William, and my father realized that this is there's a subtext in here somewhere, and he's trying to indicate this is all bullshit, or this isn't him speaking. In reality it was me speaking, but I was trying to make it as stilted as possible. That particular segment was, unfortunately, relatively clear.
End of Part 1
Sampson's torture suit bid denied (June 14, 2006)|
Canadian Sampson wins right to sue Saudi captors (Oct. 28, 2004)
Canadian businessman sues Saudi captors (Feb. 24, 2004)
Sampson threatens to sue Ottawa (Nov. 10, 2003)
Canadian government failed me: Sampson (Nov. 6, 2003)
Tough talk hurts Canadians imprisoned abroad: Graham (Nov. 5, 2003)
Kick out Saudi ambassador: Day (Sept. 10, 2003)
Sampson told Canadian officials of torture (Aug. 13, 2003)
Prince Charles instrumental in freeing Sampson: U.K. papers (Aug. 10, 2003)
Canadian convicted in Saudi bombings released (Aug. 8, 2003)
Sampson may be free in weeks: lawyer (May 20, 2003)
Ottawa no help, says father of man in Saudi jail (Jan. 8, 2003)
Lawyers hope to save Canadian from Saudi execution (Nov. 15, 2002)
Group lobbies Saudi ambassador to free Canadian from death sentence (Nov. 2, 2002)
Cdn. businessman sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia: reports (April 26, 2002)
Saudis dismiss accusations they tortured Britons, Canadian (Jan. 31, 2002)
Saudi prince cancels Ottawa visit (May 31, 2001)