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Biography & Autobiography Political

Confessions of an Innocent Man

Torture and Survival in a Saudi Prison

by (author) William Sampson

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Oct 2006
Political, Survival, Arabian Peninsula
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2006
    List Price

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Out of print

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"What was it that I did to survive? Where did those ideas come from? Where did I find the resolve to enact them? At the time of my release, I had no ready answers beyond that I did what seemed natural and necessary. In looking back, I realize that the peculiarities of my personality helped me to adopt strategies that allowed for the reclamation of my identity and my integrity while in the hands of barbarians. Yet what I did is neither remarkable nor courageous nor beyond the capabilities of any person that finds himself in similar circumstances. What I have come to believe is that there exists in all of us the potential to stand and fight and reclaim."
— William Sampson

On Sunday, December 17, 2000, Canadian engineer William Sampson stepped outside his house in Riyadh only to be hauled into a car and beaten by two Saudi men he didn’t know. Within an hour, he was incarcerated in one of the city’s most notorious jails. Within two months, he was tortured into a confession of responsibility for a wave of car bombings he did not commit. Sometime in that first year, he was sentenced to death in a secret trial. For two and a half years, Sampson was continually subjected to beatings and torture, convinced his death was just around the corner. Inept diplomacy failed him but human rights groups took up his cause and on August 8, 2003, he was finally freed in a controversial prisoner exchange. It wasn’t until February 2005 that Sampson’s name was officially cleared when a British inquest exonerated him of the crimes.

Angry, intelligent, and compelling, Sampson places his personal story within the context of the geopolitics that engineered his fate, and in doing so has crafted a searing exposé of Western foreign policy in the Arab Middle East.

About the author


  • Nominated, Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize

Contributor Notes

William Sampson was working as a marketing consultant in Riyadh at the time of his arrest. He holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and an MBA from Edinburgh University. The British Court of Appeal recently awarded Sampson and his fellow detainees the landmark right to sue their torturers in Saudi Arabia.

Excerpt: Confessions of an Innocent Man: Torture and Survival in a Saudi Prison (by (author) William Sampson)

THE fall

At 7:00 a.m. my alarm clocks began ringing at their allotted intervals, dragging me to consciousness. I felt tired and unrefreshed. The previous weeks had been tense and stressful, leaving little time for relaxation and making what rest I had fitful and inadequate. When I finally roused myself, I was running late. It was Sunday, December 17, 2000.

I showered, shaved, and dressed, proceeding downstairs to the kitchen. Preparing my extra-strength espresso, a concoction I referred to as rocket fuel, I began trying to order my thoughts. I was in the midst of preparing a report on water treatment and purifi­cation in Saudi Arabia, which was due for submission at the end of the week. I was finding it difficult to concentrate on it. A wave of car bombs had begun in November 2000. I was certain that my friend Raf Schyvens, almost the victim of one such bomb, was being framed for these events. He had been arrested seven days earlier. I still did not know where he was being detained, and my mind constantly returned to thoughts of his fate. I mapped out in my mind my contact list for the day: the first counsel of the Belgian Embassy, a couple of Saudi friends, and a couple of our mutual associates. Some were sources of information; others were friends I had promised to keep informed as I searched for our friend.

As I walked from the kitchen to the living room, I began drinking my coffee and lit a cigarette. Thus, my breakfast was complete — an infusion of legal stimulants necessary to jump-start my higher functions into operation. I turned on the television to catch Sky News on satellite. The time was 8:00 a.m. I wondered if the latest bombing in Saudi Arabia would be reported. The most recent bombing had occurred the previous Friday in Al Khobar on the east coast of the country. A friend had called and told me about it, but had provided few details as the local news service had not been informative. It was the third in a recent series of attacks on western expatriate workers.

The other bombings had occurred in Riyadh. The first bomb exploded on November 17. It had killed Christopher Rodway and injured his wife, Jean. The second exploded on November 22. It severely injured Mark Payne. Three of his friends in the same car suffered less severe injuries. Each of these attacks had targeted British nationals. Raf had witnessed the second bombing and had provided emergency medical assistance — for which he had been arrested.

To say I was worried was an understatement. In Saudi Arabia, whenever a major crime occurred, the authorities immediately looked to the expatriate communities for a scapegoat. There exists a culture of denial in which all malfeasance was blamed on foreigners or external influences. It was the most culturally and politically xenophobic country in which I had lived. I was certain that the local police and intelligence services would be looking for a khawaja (foreigner) to blame. The arrest and disappearance of Raf had all the hallmarks of such a conspiracy. Because we were close friends and because we saw each other frequently, I realized that I might be implicated through nothing more damning than my association with him. I believed that my time of freedom was probably limited. I worried about my fate, and also about the fate of other friends who might be implicated in a fabricated conspiracy simply because they were my friends. I hoped that they had listened to my warnings, but feared they would not heed my advice.

With these thoughts worrying me, the news program reported on the most recent bombing. Another Briton, David Brown, had been injured in the blast. Would the authorities be forced to admit the true nature of the problem, now that there was a trio of incidents across the Kingdom? As the news round finished, I called my father to tell him of the new event. We chatted about my plans for Christmas, and my desire for a break from life in the Kingdom. I did not tell him of my fears.

I collected my briefcase and headed out the door into the morning air. It was 8:15 a.m.; the weather was clear and cool, but still warm enough for just a long-sleeved shirt and tie, no jacket. I walked past the swimming pool to the front gate, resigned to another day of frustration and stress. As I stepped through the front gate, I caught sight of my Nissan Patrol 4 by 4. It looked odd and it was a second or so before I saw that it had a flat tire. This hardly improved my mood. Swearing under my breath, I headed off to one of the main streets nearby to hire a taxi. I had no intention of changing a tire while dressed for work. I was late. I should have been in the office by eight, but true to form, I had timed my departure to arrive there at eight-thirty or so.

As I turned away from my car, something caught my eye at the T-junction fifty metres away. It was a grey beige American four-door sedan. For some reason the model name Intrepid has stuck in my mind. Why I should remember such a detail, I have no idea. What my eye had noticed was movement. As the sedan pulled out of its parking space and rapidly turned onto my street, I caught the look on the driver’s face. I knew. I knew at that instant that it was coming for me. I had nowhere to turn, nowhere to hide, and little time to react. The car pulled up within a couple of inches of me, causing me to jump back. Much later I realized that a corpse at this stage would have ruined their tortuously planned scenario. At that moment it appeared I was going to be run over. Two Saudis dressed in thobes and ghutras burst from the passenger doors. The first to reach me was a man in his twenties, stockily built and about my height. He had a broad sallow face and thin slit-like eyes. His pencil-line moustache brought to mind pictures of Frank Sinatra from the 1940s.

He grabbed my briefcase with one hand and my wrist with the other. The driver, a slender man slightly taller than I with a dark pockmarked face and a wispy attempt at facial hair, had sprinted around the car, grabbed my other arm, and began stripping me of the rest of my possessions. The third individual, short and squat, with a neatly trimmed beard and moustache, waved a warrant card in his left hand and a revolver in his right. These three I would come to know intimately, more intimately than ever I would have wanted.