PRISONER OF RIYADH
IN FEBRUARY, CANADA’S BILL SAMPSON APPEARED ON SAUDI ARABIAN TELEVISION TO CONFESS TO MURDER. INSIDERS SAY HE IS THE VICTIM OF TORTURE AND POLITICAL INTRIGUE
Time. Bill Sampson has no way of measuring it. Immediately after his arrest on Dec. 15, the guards at his prison in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, took away the waterproof divers watch he’d used for years. There is no window in his cell from which to mark the passage of the sun. Instead, there’s the constant glare from the light dangling from the ceiling in the middle of his cage—the one that is never shut off, turning his life in solitary confinement into one endless, mind-destroying day.
Other than when he reads out loud to himself, or yells at his prison walls in frustration, the only English 42-year-old Sampson hears is when he speaks with officials from the Canadian Embassy on their rare visits to check on his health. He was arrested along with two other foreigners, Alexander Mitchell of Britain and Raf Schyvens of Belgium, in connection with two car bombings last November in Riyadh in which a British citizen died and five foreigners were injured. No one knew how much trouble he was in until a dazed Sampson confessed to the crimes on Saudi television on Feb. 4. Now, although Sampson doesn’t know it, his imprisonment has landed him at the centre of a growing dispute between Canada and Saudi Arabia, forcing Crown Prince Abdullah to cancel his visit to Ottawa earlier this month.
The Saudis claim Sampson and his two accomplices, known around Riyadh as “the three musketeers,” murdered their victims in a turf war over the country’s illegal alcohol trade. True, Sampson, Mitchell and Schyvens had reputations—as men who liked to live it up and weren’t intimidated by authority. But through interviews with top diplomatic sources in Saudi Arabia and those involved in the expatriate underworld, Macleans has learned that the three could well be the victims of anti-Western political and religious intrigue in the secretive Arab country. They could yet be beheaded, in a Riyadh plaza known to expats as “chop-chop square”—as a lesson to all foreigners who would break the country’s strict Islamic code.
Saudi Arabia’s royal family, headed by King Fahd, has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1932. About 7,000 princes now make up the royal family; each receives a monthly stipend from the country’s vast oil wealth. And to ensure domestic political peace, Crown Prince Abdullah is trying to transform the nation from one solely dependent on oil exports into a diversified industrial state.
To do so, the Saudis have had to import thousands of Western professionals. Nearly six million foreigners now live in the country of 20 million, handling nearly every line of work, from taking care of children to delivering the latest in health care. In the hot desert kingdom, an ice-cold beer is a precious commodity to a Westerner. But the consumption of alcohol remains forbidden in the strict Muslim state, leading to the creation of a thriving underworld trade in booze reminiscent of Prohibition-era Chicago. It’s a lucrative market: a litre botde of locally brewed wine or beer costs $60, a case of Budweiser $250 and a botde of Johnny Walker Black Label scotch goes for $225.
Even some of the kingdom’s princes have been swept up in the decadence, and now control much of the alcohol smuggling, either direcdy or through bribes and kickbacks. A veteran diplomat, who worked in Riyadh and asked not to be named, told
SOME OBSERVERS SAY ANTI-WESTERN MILITANTS COULD HAVE PERPETRATED THE BOMBINGS THEMSELVES TO INTIMIDATE FOREIGNERS INTO LEAVING THE COUNTRY
Maclean~ he has attended parties thrown by a member of the royal f~mily in one of their vast compounds. At one event, held in a spectacular ballroom, waiters in white coats handed out drinks while prostitutes imported from Morocco plied their trade. "You have to know the right people to get invited," says the diplomat. "But the princes like Western faces at the parties. It
shows they are important." Sentimental British expatriates have even opened replicas of their neighbourhood pubs back home, complete with long polished wooden bars, dart boards and bil liard tables. Being found out, or paying bribes to the police to stay away, are not the only drawbacks. It's not always possible to smuggle British beer in by the keg, so the owner has to brew his own, often with disappointing results. Many of the foreign compounds, and there are hundreds in the city, have bars. Sampson would frequent one of the most prominent-the
Celtic Corner, which was once partly owned by his co-accused Alexander Mitchell. Sampson arrived in Riyadh in 1998. Raised in Vancouver, he had previously lived in Scotland, where he earned a PhD in bio chemistry and a master's in business administration, both from the University of Edinburgh. After a fiiiled business venture, Samp son, who has no wife or children, returned to Vancouver in the late 1 990s to visit his f~ther. There, he saw an advertisement for jobs in Saudi Arabia. He applied, and was hired by the Saudi In dustrial Development Fund to examine proposals by companies wanting to develop a pharmaceutical industry in the country Like most foreigners, Sampson was overwhelmed by the searing
heat, Temperatures often reach almost 500 C during the day, before plummeting to a comparatively cool 25° C at night. But the dis comfort was offset by the lifestyle he could afford in a country where foreign professionals earn top salaries and don't pay taxes. Sampson quicklytookadvantage ofhis newwealth. He moved into a spacious, walled villa with an outdoor swimming pooi.
A gregarious man by nature, Sampson soon made friends in Riyadh's underground drinking clubs, including Mitchell and Schyvens. Annie Goldsmith of Cardiff, Wales, who lived in Riyadh from 1992 to December, 2000, remembers meeting Samp son for the first time in an illegal pub in 1998. "on the outside, he is hard and a bit of a bore," says Goldsmith, 58. "But inside, he is as soft as putty He was soon over at our house almost every evening." Goldsmith and her husband, Peter, 59, would learn just how loyal a friend Sampson could be.
By the mid-1990s, the Saudi religious police, the Muttawa, had become increasingly outraged over what they perceived as deca dent behaviour. The Muttawa, whom one diplomat in the city called "freelance fanatics," are recognizable by their full beards. To enforce their authority, some carry whips, which they use to hustle the tardy and unfaithful into mosques for prayers. On Oct. 10, 2000, three members of the Muttawa burst into the Goldsmiths' villa. The couple believes they were mistakenly targeted by the religious police, who were searching for Ken Hart ley, their neighbour and a part-owner of two pubs. "They punched me and spat at me and put us in a car," says Annie Gold smith. "They smashed my house up, stole my jewelry and killed
my macaw.” Sampson, who had expected to enjoy an evening with the Goldsmiths, arrived in the middle of the fracas. The police immediately turned on him. “He tried to intervene,” Annie Goldsmith says. “But all he got was a punch in the mouth.”
The Goldsmiths spent the next six weeks in jail. Sampson was also impris-
oned, but he was released after three days.
He brought money to the jail so the Goldsmiths could buy bottled water, and contacted their daughters,
Sally and Jane, in London, who lobbied the Saudi government to show mercy. The two were finally released, and returned to London on Dec. 14. “If it had not been for Bill,” says Annie Goldsmith,
“I don’t think we would
be out of prison now. It was through his generosity.”
Such generosity, friends say, helped put Sampson firmly in the authorities’ sights.
Until the late 1990s, the Muttawa usually left foreigners alone.
What expats did in their own homes and compounds was not an issue. But to stave off religious dissent, the royal family gave the Muttawa more leeway. Now, some experts say, zealots are openly attempting to intimidate foreigners—who they believe are corrupting the country’s strict society— into leaving the country. Last week, for example, a top Saudi judge criticized Canadians working in Saudi Arabia, accusing them of “defiling” the nation. “It serves a propaganda purpose,” notes Judith Yophe, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies in Washington. “It’s not to say these guys are innocent,” she says of Sampson and his friends. “But it’s important to make a very public display that they are corrupting the Saudi youth.”
Some observers believe the intimidation campaign has gotten bloody—and that Bill Sampson and his friends are the latest propaganda tool. Since November,
there has been a series of bomb blasts targeting Westerners in Saudi Arabia—one of them deadly. The first was on Nov. 17, 2000, when Christopher Rodway, a British citizen, was killed and his wife badly injured after a bomb placed under the driver’s seat of their four-wheeldrive vehicle exploded in Riyadh. Then on Nov. 22, 2000, two men and two
women were injured when a bomb exploded in their vehicle.
In the wake of the Nov. 22 bombing, the Muttawa and the ministry of the interior stepped up the campaign against illegal drinking in the capital. Authorities arrested Sampson, Mitchell, Schyvens and nearly a dozen other Westerners, ostensibly for alcohol-related offences. But on Feb. 4, Samp-
son appeared on television and confessed to both the Nov. 17 and Nov. 22 bombings. During the same broadcast, Mitchell and Schyvens also confessed to their role in the bombings (Schyvens, who in the Nov. 22 incident had been riding in a car behind the bombed vehicle, reportedly saved the life of one of the victims by wrapping a tourniquet around his severely damaged leg). “I admit and acknowledge,” said a dazedlooking Sampson, “that I participated with Mr. Alexander Mitchell in setting up an explosive device on the vehicle belonging to Mr. Christopher Rodway. Two days later, Mitchell ordered me to set up a second explosion with the participation of Mr. Raf Schyvens.”
People who knew Sampson in Riyadh were shocked, claiming neither he nor his two friends were capable of committing such a crime. Many believe Sampson and his co-accused may have deeply angered the police authorities by interfering in attempts to clamp down on foreigners and the alcohol trade. Late in 2000, the three men helped Gary O’Nions, a British man who owned a bar called Shenanigans and was wanted on alcohol-related charges, escape across the desert to the United Arab Emirates. “I think Sampson was arrested,” said Peter Goldsmith,
IN SPITE OF SAMPSON'S PUBLIC CONFESSION, HIS CASE IS PROCEEDIN
“because the Saudis didn’t like the fact that O’Nions got away.” (O’Nions was later deported to Saudi Arabia and jailed.)
The three also drew the attention of the authorities when they acted as fixers for foreigners in Saudi jails, lobbying embassies to help get them out and regularly visiting prisons. “Bill came four times a week when I was in jail,” said Peter Goldsmith. “He brought me clothes and money and boosted my morale.” Goldsmith also remembers Sampson and Schyvens visiting him shordy after Rodway was murdered, and neither showing signs of guilt or concern. “Schyvens asked if I knew anyone named Chris Rodway,” Goldsmith recalls. “He said, ‘Well, he got killed yesterday,’ but it came out in a natural part of the conversation.” Sampson returned to Goldsmith’s cell a week later to report that there had been another bombing. “They weren’t the actions of a man who had just set off bombs—walking into a prison and talking openly about it,” Goldsmith says. It was clear, though, that Sampson was growing concerned about the bombings. A British resident who knew him well remembers checking his car for bombs in the immediate wake of the Nov. 22 blast. “There was a great deal of apprehension,” he recalls. “Bill saw me checking my car for bombs and came over and told me I wasn’t doing it right, that I had to get right down and get my shirt dirty.”
Some observers claim anti-Western elements perpetrated the bombings themselves—not only to intimidate outsiders, but also to tarnish the reputation of Westerners by blaming Sampson and his friends for the violence. Other theories abound. For one thing, the arrests of the three men did not end the bombings. Since Nov. 22, four more blasts have occurred, the most recent on May 2 when a parcel bomb exploded in the face of an American doctor at his office in the eastern city of Khobar, leaving him in critical condition. Dr. Saad Al-Fagih, distandy related to the Saudi royal family and director of the London-based Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, believes a small group of Islamic extremists opposed to the royal family could be involved. Incapable of hitting hard targets like military bases, they are staging bomb
attacks on foreigners to embarrass the government. “If the three men are in jail, why is the bombing going on and on, again and again?” asks Al-Fagih. “It is impossible for me to believe that foreigners would involve themselves in so much terrorism in a country obsessed by internal security.”
There is also the possibility that Sampson could be the unwitting victim of a murderous dispute within the expatriate community that authorities have exploited to their own benefit. One source in the foreign community told Macleans that a former U.S. military officer, who had been involved in training Saudi soldiers and would have had access to explosives, was caught stealing money from people in his compound, including Rodway. Confronted by his neighbours, he was forced to make good—but may have subsequently targeted Rodway and the others. That man, the source says, was also arrested immediately following the Nov. 22 blast and is still in prison. But the authorities could have exploited the bombing as an excuse to highlight the decadent behaviour of all foreigners and used it as an excuse to make sweeping arrests—including those of Sampson, Mitchell and Schyvens.
Until Bill Sampson's appearance on television, his father, Jim, had no idea how desperate his son's situation was. When
they talked in early December, Bill said he would be leaving Saudi Arabia during Christmas holidays. When he didn’t call again, Jim phoned his son’s company and learned he had been arrested. Then, while vacationing with his wife in England, Jim was watching the BBC news when his son’s confession suddenly appeared on the screen. “I felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach,” says Jim, his hand sliding involuntarily over his abdomen as he sorts through pictures of his son at his condominium in White Rock, B.C. “It still burns, from the time I wake up in the morning.”
After Jim lobbied Foreign Affairs for weeks, in May the Saudis finally agreed to Ottawa’s request and Canadian officials told Bill his father was to arrive on May 15. Bill later told Jim he then lost
track of time. Finally, guards appeared outside his cell carrying a blue-checked dress shirt, grey slacks and a pair of black dress shoes, telling him to change out of the prison uniform he had been wearing since his arrest. The pants were baggy. They were also too long, and looked awkward when they had to be rolled up. But for a man whose footwear had been confiscated, the shoes were another matter. They felt good on his feet, which had become sore from pacing, in sandals, nearly 20 km a day like a caged zoo animal in his cell. He was marched into a long, narrow room that was empty except for a table and a couch covered in a red and grey cloth. Then his 70-year-old father, thin, bald and aggressive, walked in, accompanied by officials from the Canadian Embassy.
Jim Sampson knows his son well. They like single malt scotches and British beer and have read many of the same books, including the classics and John Le Carré s spy thrillers. They have also climbed mountains together. Just two years earlier, they drove through the Saudi desert following the route taken by the Damascus to Mecca railway that T. E. Lawrence, the British soldier and writer known as Lawrence of Arabia, attacked near the end of the First World War. Above all, Jim loves his son. But there would be no hugs or tears—this would be a reunion in the stiffest of British traditions. “Were vastly outnumbered,” said Jim, firmly shaking his sons hand. “And how is it?” he asked. Bill, pale
and drawn, put up a brave front. “The beds are lumpy and the food is bad,” he replied in a flat voice.
They had been told by the Saudis not to discuss the bombings. So for the next 30 minutes, Jim said they spoke almost casually, listening intendy for the hidden subtext in the seemingly innocuous sentences passing between them. Jim said Bill asked him to send him books and, because he was not allowed footwear with laces, a pair of running shoes with Velcro straps. Then they rose from the couch and shook hands again. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” Jim said in Latin to his son, who smiled in acknowledgment. Following their brief meeting, Jim analyzed in his mind every sentence Bill had uttered. Afterward, he told Macleans, he was sure of only one thing after seeing his son. “He is being beaten and drugged in prison,” said Jim. “He told me.”
Sampson’s friends are convinced of that as well, and fear for his mental and physical health. “When we saw them on television,” said Annie Goldsmith, “you only had to look at them to know they had been drugged. Bill, particularly—I just wept.” She believes all three men are close to breaking. And Sampson’s physical health is apparently failing; since his arrest, he has twice been taken to hospital to undergo angioplasty procedures to clear blocked arteries.
On May 17, Sampson was taken to hospital for a third time. Saudi authorities claimed doctors wanted to examine the results of the angioplasty procedure. But when officials from the Canadian Embassy visited him on May 28, they discovered he was suffering from a variety of injuries, including a suspected broken toe, cuts on his wrists and numerous bruises to his arms and leg.
The Saudis then claimed the injuries resulted from a suicide attempt, and that guards had to subdue Sampson. In fact, a medical report obtained by Macleans makes it clear that Sampson did attempt suicide. “He confirmed that he tried to kill himself by cutting his wrists,” wrote a doctor who was asked by the Canadian Embassy to examine Sampson. “And he stated that it was entirely possible that he would attempt to kill himself again. He felt that there is no hope’ for him and that he was a political pawn.’ ” Sampson also referred in the doctor’s report to “the scum who have done this to me.”
Amid reports that Sampson had been tortured, Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley triggered a diplomatic war of words when he said he was “appalled” by Sampson’s treatment. The Saudi ambassador to Canada, Mohammed Al Hussaini, immediately dismissed such comments, saying Saudi Arabia is a “civilized country.” And Crown Prince Abdullah, who was to travel to Canada in June to open a new embassy, cancelled his trip, which Saudi officials privately attributed to Canadian meddling.
The standoff between Canada and Saudi Arabia may last for some time, as Sampsons case slowly winds its way through the complicated Saudi justice system. In spite of his public confession, he has not been charged with a crime. If convicted, he will have access to appeals. But in the end it will be left to the royal court to decide whether Sampson will be taken to chop-chop square to be beheaded. That thought is something Jim Sampson has trouble dealing with. “I can’t think about it,” he says, placing his hands on his chest. “I have a bad heart. I will boil over.” In the meantime, Sampson will continue to pace back and forth, in a cell with no view, where day and night are the same.