Thursday, September 26, 2002
Bill Sampson, the Canadian man sentenced to die in Saudi Arabia for allegedly planting two car bombs, was forced to confess after police hung him upside down, kept him awake for more than a week and threatened to harm his family, court documents say.
Police in Saudi Arabia also slapped and punched Mr. Sampson while he was bound in chains, even promising to free him if he confessed "to the bombings in a manner dictated by the investigator," the documents allege.
The accusations are contained in a confidential brief Mr. Sampson's lawyers submitted to Saudi Arabia's Supreme Judicial Council, the court that has ultimate authority to overturn the death sentence given to the Vancouver man in March.
The 10,000-word submission, obtained by the National Post, is the crux of Mr. Sampson's final appeal. Two previous appeals have been denied.
The brief's arguments focus on a series of confessions that Mr. Sampson and five accused wrote after their arrests in December, 2000, when they were picked up in connection with a series of remote-control bombings that killed one person and injured five others.
Ahmed al-Tuwaijri, the men's lawyer, says in the submission that his clients were repeatedly tortured and "shackled with a chain" while investigators beat confessions out of them.
"The confessions were illegal and were obtained by coercion and force," reads the brief, submitted to council on July 24. "They were always antagonized and threatened by the investigator, so they caved in for fear for their lives and so as to avoid more physical, mental and psychological abuse."
The submission says such investigative techniques "gives ammunition to those who criticize the application of [Islamic law]" and "undermines the reputation of the judicial system in Saudi Arabia."
"If all or parts of these claims are true, and we tend to believe that most of them are true, they are enough to dismiss the convictions that are based on the confessions."
Reynald Doiron, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs, would not address the alleged torture of a Canadian citizen, saying he could not comment on a judicial matter that is under review in a foreign country.
Mr. Sampson, a 43-year-old biochemist, had been in Riyadh since 1996 and had been working for the Saudi Industrial Development Fund, a government agency that provides loans to industrial ventures.
Nearly two years ago, he and five other foreigners were arrested and accused of planting two car bombs.
In January, 2001, a tired and ragged Mr. Sampson was seen on Saudi Arabian television, alongside two other Westerners, confessing to the bombings that authorities linked to a feud between alcohol bootleggers in the country's expatriate community.
Mr. Sampson and the others later recanted their confessions, saying they are scapegoats for the Saudi royal family, which is reluctant to pursue an anti-government terrorist group likely responsible for the bombings.
In the court brief, Mr. Sampson's lawyers expand on the questions surrounding the confessions, arguing that none were affirmed by Saudi judges -- a clear violation of Saudi law.
In fact, the lawyers argue, when the men appeared before the courts to declare their innocence, the judges only asked whether the men's signatures on the confessions were their own.
"No questions were asked about the content of the confessions and whether they were given voluntarily and willingly," the brief reads. "Save for sending our clients back for a short period of time, the judges paid no attention to their claim that they were coerced and tortured."
The accusations do not come as a surprise to James Sampson, Mr. Sampson's father, who suspected all along that his son was being abused and tormented by Saudi authorities.
"I knew he had been tortured," the retired Air Canada pilot said yesterday from his home in Surrey, B.C. "It's not new to me."
In May, 2001, James Sampson was transferred from his solitary jail cell to a Saudi hospital after suffering a crushed vertebra, trauma to his feet and scratches on his wrists. Saudi authorities said he had tried to commit suicide, but his family dismissed the claim.
Mr. Sampson had displayed his customary stubbornness during his confinement, refusing to bathe or dress and cursing the prophet Mohammed to his Muslim captors.
The key argument in the court submission revolves around the validity of Mr. Sampson's confession, but it also raises other questions about the investigation:
- The sentencing document that orders Mr. Sampson to be put to death "does not contain any independent or conclusive evidence" other than the confessions.
- The lead investigator only speaks Arabic, the brief alleges. "The person in charge of translation was another officer with an inferior rank who has only a rudimentary knowledge of English, which he learned in a summer course at his own expense."
- The alleged bombers were arrested at the end of 2000, but between then and July, 2002, their lawyers had no opportunity to defend them. Their first chance came with the July 24 submission after the death sentences had already been handed down.
- All hearings, from the lower court to the Court of Cassation to the Supreme Judicial Council, were held without the accused or their lawyers being notified. "[The accused] thought they were participating in some preparatory procedures that would eventually lead to trial, which they were looking forward to attending in order to clear their names and put an end to their long suffering."
- Despite repeated requests, Mr. Sampson's lawyers were denied access to investigation reports and other related documents. "We were not able to obtain any written material from our clients because they were denied access to a pen and a piece of paper to do so," the submission reads. "Whatever they wrote during our interviews with them was confiscated by the prison authorities and we have not received them yet."
- All the accused used similar wording in their confessions. "The fact that the accused did not meet each other during the whole period of investigation, which lasted more than a year and a half, raises serious questions about the credibility of the identical phrases used in their confessions," the brief reads.
- The bombings have continued since the men were arrested.
- One of the suspected bombers, a Belgian man, was allegedly told by his country's ambassador to Saudi Arabia not to retract his confession in the hope he would receive royal pardon. His testimony was then used "in order to fabricate charges against the rest of the accused," Mr. Sampson's lawyers argue.
Although the submission is openly critical of the way authorities allegedly violated Saudi laws and procedures, Mr. Sampson's lawyers stress they "do not want to point the finger at any official." In fact, they go to great lengths to point out that recent laws have been passed to ensure a transparent legal system in Saudi Arabia.
They put some of blame for the debacle on the fact that such serious crimes rarely occur in Saudi Arabia.
"So it is only natural that the security authorities lack the experience that other security agencies have; and we should not be ashamed of that," the brief says.
The brief concludes by asking the five members of the Supreme Judicial Council to dismiss the case for lack of evidence, release the accused, and "find, later on, ways to compensate" them.
A final decision has not been rendered, but Mr. Sampson's family has been told to expect an announcement by the end of the month.
Asked whether he was confident that Mr. Sampson's was getting due process -- it took Canadian authorities more than a month to confirm that he was sentenced to death -- Mr. Doiron, the Foreign Affairs spokesman, said the department is regularly in touch with Saudi authorities and is hopeful "transparency" will no longer be a problem.
According to Islamic law, if the guilty verdict stands, the victim's family may demand an execution, spare the life of the murderers, or ask for blood money in exchange for the convicted person's freedom.
The family of Christopher Rodway, who was killed in the Nov. 17 bombing, has already indicated it does not want the defendants executed.
THE LEGAL ARGUMENTS:
Excerpts from a brief to the Supreme Judicial Council in Saudi Arabia, prepared by Ahmed Othman al-Tuwaijry and Salah al-Hujailan, lawyers for imprisoned Canadian Bill Sampson:
The sentences against our clients are based on written confessions that are allegedly genuine and legal.... The judge or judges who affirmed these confessions and handed down these sentenced should have tried to uncover the flimsiness and weakness of the basis upon which these confessions were built. The confessions were illegal and were obtained by coercion and force.
The sentencing document does not contain any independent or conclusive evidence that may convict our clients.... Despite our constant requests to the officials in charge of the case and to high-ranking officials in the Ministry of the Interior to provide a single piece of evidence that may convict our clients, our attempts were to no avail. The investigator has nothing to say but to repeat the above-mentioned confessions.
THE LANGUAGE BARRIER
Despite the gravity and ramifications of the crimes committed in this case and ... despite the fact that all the accused in this case are foreigners who do not speak Arabic, the official in charge of the investigation and prosecution is an officer with the rank of captain who does not speak any foreign language at all. The person in charge of translation was another officer with an inferior rank who has only a rudimentary knowledge of English, which he learned in a summer course at his own expense.
LACK OF NOTICE
Though we were appointed as defence counsels for our clients in October, 2000, we have not been given any opportunity to defend them, except for this brief.... It is worth noting that this case has been tried ... without us being notified and without the knowledge of our clients, who told us countless times that they were not aware they were facing trial.
LACK OF DOCUMENTS
Despite our constant requests, we have not had access to the investigation reports or any other related documents.... We were not able to obtain any written material from our clients because they were denied access to a pen and a piece of paper to do so. Whatever they wrote during our interviews with them was confiscated by the prison authorities and we have not received them yet.... Our clients still do not know the content of the sentences passed against them. Moreover, even their lawyers were unable to obtain a copy of the sentencing document.
All our clients insist they are innocent and that they were forced to give their confessions. They claim the confessions were extracted from them by torture. They say they were subjected to the following abuses:
1) Sleep deprivation ranging from one week to 10 continuous days. They were forced to stand up while their hands were shackled to the top of the door.
2) Sudden slapping on the face and punches to the body.
3) Their feet and hands were shackled and their bodies were hanging upside down.
4) Threats to harm relatives.
5) Promise of pardon and quick release if they confess to the bombings in a manner dictated by the investigators.
There is a striking resemblance between the phrases used by all the accused in their confessions, which lack the elements that distinguish genuine and voluntary confessions, be they written or videotaped. The fact that the accused did not meet each other during the whole period of investigation, which lasted more than a year and a half, raises serious questions about the credibility of the identical phrases used in the confessions.
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