Briton's Tale of Torture Offers View of Saudi Justice

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.

After another bombing in December, a Belgian friend of Mitchell's was arrested and held for two weeks. Then on Dec. 17, as Mitchell pulled up for work outside the hospital, he was seized by a group of men, hooded, handcuffed and bundled into a waiting car. He said he feared he was being kidnapped. Instead, he was taken to the Mabatha Interrogation Center where Ibrahim and Khaled, the two men who were to be his chief interrogators and tormentors, awaited him.

"Before you leave this place," Mitchell recalled Khaled telling him, "you'll either confess to these bombings or you'll go insane."

They broke him in stages, Mitchell said, beating him each day until their arms grew tired and chaining him at night to his cell door so that he couldn't lie down to sleep. By the fifth day, he said, he confessed he had killed Rodway by detonating a remote-control device from his car -- even though on the day in question, the car was in a shop for repairs.

But Ibrahim and Khaled wanted more -- names of co-conspirators, details and motives. When he faltered, Mitchell said, they provided him with false information to embroider his tale.

Eventually, he confessed to being an agent for MI6, the British intelligence service, and carrying out the bombings under orders from two British diplomats. The crime's purported motive was to discredit Saudi Arabia's government and make it more beholden to Britain.

"These were stupid lies," Mitchell said. "But I was willing at the point to tell them anything they wanted to hear."

Even after he confessed on Saudi television in February 2001, the beatings continued because, he suspects, his interrogators believed this would make certain he did not retract his admission. Later in the year, he and William Sampson were sentenced to be beheaded.

A Diplomatic Stalemate

Back home in Sowerby Bridge, Mitchell's sister knew nothing about her brother's plight until she turned on the television one morning to see his videotaped confession. "He was so small on the television, really pale-faced and shaking, and I convinced myself it wasn't him," Dunn recalled. But when he repeated his name, she said she "went to pieces."

Dunn said she telephoned the Foreign Office, where officials told her they were doing all they could and that she must not talk to the news media. "They said, 'You have to give us time to do our job.' And being quite naïve, I thought, this is the Foreign Office, they know what they're doing. I thought these people had Sandy's best interests at heart. I found out differently."

British authorities contend they brought up Mitchell's case with Saudi cabinet ministers and officials at every opportunity. "We did everything we could," the Foreign Office official said. "For two and a half years, our ministers and officials raised the issue repeatedly with the Saudis and remained in constant contact with the families."

One diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the fate of the Britons may have become part of a power struggle between Nayef, the Saudi interior minister, and rivals within the Saudi royal family. Nayef had insisted that no members of the al Qaeda terror network were operating within Saudi Arabia and would have lost face had he conceded terrorists were responsible for the bombings.

The stalemate continued for more than two years. Then, in May 2003, suicide bombers attacked three compounds housing foreign workers in Riyadh, killing 35 people, including seven Americans, and wounding 200 others. The attacks proved a turning point in demonstrating beyond a doubt that al Qaeda was operating in the kingdom.

Around the same time, American officials released five Saudi detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into Saudi custody. Three months later, Mitchell and the others were freed. The New York Times later reported that the release was part of a secret U.S.-British-Saudi deal that included the five Saudi terrorism suspects.

Dunn said some British officials, including Derek Plumbly, then the ambassador to Saudi Arabia, showed genuine concern for her brother. But she said her queries generally were ignored or brushed off, and that British officials were mostly concerned that she not go public and embarrass either government. "All I wanted was somebody to talk straight to me, no matter how bad it got," she said. "And I never got that from anybody."

She visited her brother in prison in the presence of Ibrahim and Khaled, the two interrogators. Khaled sought to endear himself by speaking about his children. When Khaled told her that he wanted Sandy's ordeal to end, God willing, she replied: "It's not God who's keeping him in this place, it's you. All you have to do is send him home."

She said Khaled responded, "If I did that, I'd be put in his place."

When Mitchell and his colleagues were released, the Saudi Embassy in London said in a statement that the men had been granted clemency by King Fahd because he believed they had already spent sufficient time in prison.

Mitchell said all he really wants is an acknowledgment of his innocence and an apology. The British government has told the men it will oppose their legal case, citing a 1978 act granting foreign states immunity from court proceedings in other countries.

Mitchell still suffers from a heart condition he developed while in prison. He has settled in this picturesque former mill town, where he, his wife and their 6-year-old son live just across the valley from his sister.

"I'll never let him out of my sight again," Margaret Dunn said, her arms around her brother's waist. "It was bad for us; it was hell for him."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company