It was the early morning hours of December 17, 2000. William Sampson had his breakfast and was about to leave home to his workplace. Sampson was a Canadian-British consultant who was working in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia. Just as he was about to leave his house, a large number of Saudi security personnel raided his home. Handcuffed and blindfolded, Sampson’s life was about to be changed forever.
Sampson had no clue why he was being taken by the Saudi security. But the beating had already begun. From his home to the police station, he was kicked everywhere in his body. Saudi security beat first and ask questions later.
At the police station, he was tied to a door. More security men volunteered to kick him. As time passed by, the beating got more severe. Sampson still had no clue what he had done wrong. This is what many prisoners in Saudi share in common. It takes years for some of them to know exactly what they are accused of. According to a report endorsed by the British MPs, there are people in Saudi prisons who have been denied any contact with their lawyers or family members for over a year. Yumna Desai, originally from South Africa, was arrested alongside her sister and they were told they had committed ambiguous ‘electronic crimes’ after one year of being in prison.
It did not last that long for Simpson to be discover his alleged crime. He was told by the Saudi interrogators that he was accused of masterminding an explosion which had killed a British engineer. Sampson denied the charges immediately. Sampson’s denial kicked off 9 days of non-stop torture. On day 9, he was raped twice. it broke him. He was now ready to confess to anything.
“No matter how long it takes, they will break you, and you would confess that your own mother was a mad bomber if they wanted you to,” Sampson said.
Saudi authorities have always denied accusations of torture. But the number of stories, testimonials and rare leaked pictures and videos from inside the prisons prove that torture and physical abuse are widespread practices inside the Saudi prisons. While it is mostly political prisoners who face systematic abuse, the situation inside general prisons is no better.
Political prisoners are generally held at maximum-security prisons run by Mabathith, Saudi’s internal security organization. But many activists are held in general prisons before they are transferred to the Mabathith prisons.
Mohammed Qahtani, a Saudi economist, was sentenced for 10 years in prison in 2013 for criticizing the government. He is serving his sentence in the al-Haer general prison. Al-Qahtani told Washington Post that he is put with drug traffickers and other violent criminals. Per al-Qahtani, one inmate has committed suicide after he was put in solitary confinement for one month.
According to World Prison Brief Data which has used self-reported Saudi government data from 2017, Saudi had a total prison population of 61,000. The data has not been updated since then. They are divided on 20 regional prisons which are equivalent to the U.S. town jails. These prisons are overcrowded and dangerous.
Inmates in these general prisons are said to be subjected arbitrarily to strobe lights, loud music, cold temperatures, and long periods of solitary confinement.
Compared to what prisoners like Sampson in maximum-security prisons face, the inmates in general prisons are still better off.
Sampson was made to watch his friends while they were tortured. They were being broken one by one and made to watch others. Sampson and three of his friends confessed in writing and in video. Their confessions were broadcasted by the Saudi state TV.
Sampson’s tragic experience in the Saudi prisons is not a rare incident by any means. Since 2000, many more Saudi and non-Saudi activists, scholars, and writers have faced similar treatment inside the Saudi prisons.
The Guardian newspaper obtained a leaked medical document which had been prepared by a Saudi medical team for the Saudi royal court. The team had examined a number of prisoners of conscience. According to the leaked document, the prisoners were suffering from malnutrition, cuts, and bruises. The document was said to be the first hard evidence from inside the royal court which shows widespread abuses against the prisoners.
The following are some of the quotes from the medical report obtained:
In January 2019, Amnesty International announced that they have obtained new evidence which show that a number of detained activists had faced torture, physical abuse and sexual abuse . these took place when they were held at detention facility at an unknown location
These abuses were particularly directed at the Saudi women activists. They were photographed naked and these photographs were put in front of them during their interrogation. They faced physical sexual abuse by guards including being groped in sensitive places while handcuffed. They were ordered to carry out inappropriate acts together and when refused, they were brutally beaten. At least one of the activists, Loujain al-Hathloul, was threatened with sexual abuse. All these were carried out under the direct supervision of Saud al-Qahtani, a close aide to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Sampson was lucky to get out the Saudi prison alive. After spending more than two years in jail, he was released. Although he had been sentenced to death by beheading, he was released after a high level British diplomatic effort.
Some Saudi prisoners of conscience never came out of the prisons. They went in alive and well and came out dead.
Sheikh Suleiman Dweesh, a prominent religious figure, was reportedly killed under torture. He was arrested in April 2016 less than a day of posting critical content about MBS on social media.
Dweesh is not the only prominent Saudi scholar who has passed away under torture or due to medical negligence in Saudi prisons. The Saudi prisons are slowly turning into a graveyard for the prisoners of conscience.
Sheikh Fahd al-Qadi was detained in 2016 after writing a letter to the Saudi Royal Court criticizing the Ministry of Education. He died in prison.
Dr Abdullah al-Hamid, a prominent Saudi academician, also passed away in prison. For days, his family and Saudi activists called on the Saudi authorities to give him necessary medical help after he had suffered a stroke, but these calls fell on deaf ears. He remained in prison despite being in coma. He passed away in April 2020.
After his release, Sampson became an advocate for human rights in Saudi. His attempts to sue his Saudi tortures failed but he continued his struggle. He published his miserable days inside the Saudi prisons in a book; Confessions of an innocent man: torture and survival in a Saudi prison. Sampson says that had not been for the continuous campaigning of his family and friends, the beheading sentence would have been implemented.
But many of the Saudi activists do not have the chance to be defended by their family and friends and enjoy no diplomatic support. Many of their families are banned from travel and in some cases, their family members are also subjected to imprisonment and torture.
William Sampson died of a heart attack in his home in North England in 2012. Before his death, he gave a passionate talk about his experience in Saudi prisons. He ended his speech by saying,
“I am free now, but I also know that there is someone new chained up, bleeding.”
Grant Liberty is a London-based human rights organization which focuses on the plight of the Saudi prisoners of conscience. We stand for justice and freedom and call you as well to join us in our cause.