Briton's Tale of Torture Offers View of Saudi Justice

Sandy Mitchell, here with his sister Margaret Dunn, was accused of killing a Briton in a bombing in Saudi Arabia.
Sandy Mitchell, here with his sister Margaret Dunn, was accused of killing a Briton in a bombing in Saudi Arabia. (By Glenn Frankel -- The Washington Post)
By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 19, 2005

SOWERBY BRIDGE, England -- During the first two months he was imprisoned, Sandy Mitchell alleges, his Saudi interrogators beat him every day. And even after he told them what they wanted to hear and confessed on television to a crime he insists he didn't commit, they were not finished.

They came to his jail cell one morning, he recalls, restrained him with ankle chains, handcuffs and a blue velvet blindfold and marched him to another room. When they made him kneel on the floor, he was certain he was about to be executed.

"It felt like an eternity -- I started thinking about the mistakes I made in my life and about my family, all these things that pass through your mind," he recalled, sitting in a pub in his native Britain last week. "Then I got this thwack on the back of my neck. I must have passed out for a few seconds. I thought I was dead. And when I came to, I heard them laughing."

The mock execution was only one of the types of torture Mitchell says he underwent during the 32 months he spent in Saudi custody charged with killing a fellow Briton in Riyadh. Mitchell says he was also punched, kicked, spat at, beaten on the soles of his feet with an ax handle and chained for nine days to a steel door frame in his cell. His interrogators threatened to arrest and torture his wife. After he confessed, he was sentenced to death at a 10-minute hearing.

Mitchell's story offers a view of the methods and mind-set of the oil-rich Middle Eastern ally of the United States and Britain. But he and his sister, Margaret Dunn, who traveled to Saudi Arabia five times to press for his release, also contend the British government put commercial and diplomatic interests above its duty to protect its citizens, leaving Mitchell and a half-dozen other foreign nationals to their fates.

The Saudi government has denied that Mitchell was mistreated. Jamal Khashoggi, spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Britain, said torture is illegal in Saudi Arabia and that Mitchell and the others could pursue a legal case in the kingdom if they had evidence of mistreatment.

The Saudi government eventually released five Britons, including Mitchell, and two other foreigners convicted of involvement in a series of car bombings five years ago. But Saudi officials continue to insist that the attacks were carried out by foreigners engaged in a turf war over illegal liquor, and not by home-grown Islamic terrorists, though similar attacks continued after Mitchell and his alleged co-conspirators were arrested.

Mitchell is pursuing legal action in Britain against the kingdom and has just published a book, "Saudi Babylon," about his ordeal, written with a British journalist, Mark Hollingsworth. The details of his personal account cannot be independently verified, but human rights groups have long accused the Saudi government of condoning torture.

A Scotland Yard detective dispatched to Saudi Arabia to investigate the bombings told an official British inquest in February that he had been given no proof that Mitchell and a fellow prisoner, William Sampson, were involved in the bombings. And a British Foreign Office spokesman, who under government rules could not be identified, said: "We're not aware of any credible evidence that the men were guilty of what they were charged with."

A Spirit Broken in Stages

Alexander H. Mitchell, 49, known to all as Sandy, is a red-haired, soft-spoken man with wary eyes and the rhythmic accent of his native Glasgow. He was a paramedic in the British army, then worked in hospitals in Oman and Iraq before going to Saudi Arabia in 1992 for a job as chief anesthetic technician at the Security Forces hospital in Riyadh.

Mitchell said he developed good relations with the local police and became known for his ability to use wastah , the Arabic word for influence. He said he helped run a small bar, part of Riyadh's thriving underground culture of speakeasies, the drinking clubs operated in compounds of foreign workers with the tacit consent of the police.

In November 2000, a car bombing killed Christopher Rodway, a British engineer working in Riyadh, and injured his wife in one of a series of attacks against foreigners. The Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef, blamed other foreigners for the attacks, although Mitchell says one of his police contacts told him early on that the bombings were clearly the work of Islamic extremists.

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