Special Report: 'You're going to confess. We can do anything to you'
Falsely imprisoned for bombings in Saudi Arabia, tortured and beaten, Scotsman Sandy Mitchell thought the worst had already happened. Then he was sentenced to death by crucifixion. Now, eight years on, he has been pardoned and released, but where can he turn for help to pick up the pieces of his shattered life?
SANDY MITCHELL remembers Christmas day 2000. His clothes were soaked in his own blood, faeces and vomit. Chained to a steel door in a filthy cell, Mitchell was enduring his eighth day in detention in the Mabatha Interrogation Centre. Known as the Confession Factory, the feared facility sits on the outskirts of the Saudi Arabian city Riyadh. Mitchell, consumed by his Orwellian nightmare, was running over events in his mind: arriving at 7am outside the hospital where he worked to start his shift; the flash of blue as a car suddenly pulled up; a hood put over his head; being thrown over the bonnet; darkness and confusion; handcuffs; the screech of tyres as the car sped off; blindly trying to fend off punches and kicks.
The images flashed back to Mitchell, alone in his cell, like scenes from a horror movie. He recalled being dragged from the car and the sudden brightness of the room as the hood was removed. There was a row of Saudi policemen standing in front of him, who then stripped him of everything apart from his trousers before marching him upstairs to a room. He remembers the door slamming shut, being left alone, then two men entering; dark figures he would come to fear and despise.
"What do you know about the bombings?"
"Nothing. Why should I?" Mitchell replied.
"You know about the bombings."
"No. I am innocent."
One of the men sighed while the other smiled wryly. And then the violence began. Punches and kicks that knocked out Mitchell's teeth. Over and over again he was battered around the head. The beatings were relentless, only ceasing briefly when his assailants stopped to catch their breath. "Tell us who ordered the bombing. You are going to confess. We can do anything to you."
His interrogators, Khaled and Ibrahim, seemed to revel in their work. At times, Mitchell would be suspended upside down with his legs over a steel bar while they battered his body and feet with the handle of a pick axe. As they tortured Mitchell, they would also cover him in their spit. "Who gave you the orders to carry out the bombings?" Khaled screamed. At one point, disorientated and on the verge of passing out, Mitchell's mind turned to medieval times, when women were tortured until they confessed to witchcraft. It was ironic, he thought, that sorcery was still punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. But Mitchell's ordeal was far from over. "We have authority from the very highest level to obtain your confession. You have a wife in Saudi Arabia. We will bring her in here and you will listen to her screams."
On that Christmas Day, alone in prison, Mitchell was a broken man. Exhausted from sleep-deprivation, he began to hallucinate that he was having conversations with his mother who had died six years previously. She assured him that he was innocent but Mitchell was in despair; to protect his wife he confessed to being a spy, a terrorist and a murderer. And life was about to get even worse for the Glaswegian; the death sentence he would be handed down would be the most brutal and extreme punishment under Sharia law – crucifixion.
"UNDER torture, I would have confessed to anything. It was so bad I even tried to kill myself," Mitchell says. Five years after being released from his Saudi purgatory, now living in Halifax, West Yorkshire, he is still recovering from the ordeal that has ruined his life. Unfortunately his story is far from unique, as Bijoux Moudan and James Cottle can attest. As innocent people, they too have been tortured in Burundi and Saudi Arabia respectively. Moudan, a refugee in Glasgow, was raped, while Cottle, a Mancunian, suffered a similar fate to Mitchell in Saudi Arabia. Along with an estimated 1,000 other victims across the UK, they are supporting a new bill that would allow people to seek compensation through British courts for having suffered violence abroad. The Torture (Damages) Bill, a private members' bill making its way through parliament, would bypass the State Immunity Act 1978, under which foreign states are immune from the jurisdiction of the UK courts. If the bill is successful, liability would encompass not only an individual but also any state whose representatives committed torture.
A similar bill was introduced by Lord Archer of Sandwell in the 2006/07 session of parliament but did not progress beyond first reading. The current bill is going for its third reading but its supporters fear the government may stall over fears that the proposals might be damaging to the international relations of the UK.
Opponents of the bill argue that any attempt to seize the assets of a state could lead to retaliatory action against UK interests. But Redress, a charity supporting victims, says that justice is a survivor's right and the proposed law is a fundamental test of the government's commitment to human rights. "Public acknowledgement of the wrong committed, and compensation for the physical and psychological consequences of torture, are an essential part of the healing process," says Carla Ferstman, director of Redress. "Yet, torture survivors in the UK are currently unable to seek justice in the courts for torture they endured overseas. This bill would send a clear signal to perpetrators that torture will not be tolerated, wherever it takes place."
IN GLASGOW, Norma McKinnon deals with the legacy of torture every day. She works for the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, a charity set up by a nurse who aided Holocaust survivors in the aftermath of the Second World War. The centre has been open since 2004, and last year treated 161 torture victims from 22 countries – which included the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Costa Rica. "We currently deal with 60 individuals and 19 families, and since January we have had 104 new referrals. We only have eight staff, and I feel there should be more support made available for survivors in Scotland," she says.
To help people cope with their trauma, psychotherapists offer a holistic approach to treatment through one-to-one, family and group therapy. Victims often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, flashbacks, hallucinations and chronic pain from physical injuries. For legal purposes, McKinnon also produces forensic reports on scarring. "We deal with people who have been detained without trial and subject to severe beatings, whippings and other horrific forms of violence. We see men and women who've been raped and children who've been tortured or have witnessed torture," McKinnon says.
Moudan, from Burundi, attends the centre at least once a week. In 1993, her two brothers and sister were abducted by Tutsi soldiers and have not been seen since. Four years later, her parents were murdered in another attack on the family home. "In 2003, they came back, and my husband and I were targeted because we supported the Frodebu party," she says. In that attack, Bijoux was raped twice in front of her husband. Her attackers then shot him dead. Bijoux's son, aged two, had crept into the room and was hiding in a corner, so one of the men decapitated him with a machete.
"Bijoux receives on-going therapeutic support from our family therapist, as she has been troubled by flashbacks, recurring nightmares and intrusive thoughts. She has experienced profound grief, and her body bears the scars of her ordeal," McKinnon says.
But despite the physical scars Cottle bears from his ordeal in Saudi Arabia – "they knocked out all my teeth; I ended up looking like Steve McQueen in the film Papillon" – it is the emotional trauma he has found it hardest to recover from.
On February 4, 2001, Cottle watched Mitchell confess on television in Saudi Arabia to causing an explosion that killed Briton Chris Rodway in November 2000. "I placed the explosive device under the driver's seat," a gaunt Mitchell told the world in a broadcast that greatly unsettled Cottle. He could not believe what he was seeing, and not make sense of recent events in a country he had lived in for 17 years. "I'd been working as a security fence supervisor in Saudi since 1983 and loved the life," says Cottle. "It was good money and there was a great social life amongst the ex-pat community. The Saudis turned a blind eye to alcohol and the ex-pat bars." He knew Mitchell, and had socialised at the Celtic Corner, a bar the Scot had run in Riyadh.
Up until 2000, terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia were rare, so Rodway's murder sent a shock wave through the ex-pat community. In the following weeks, there were several more explosions, so Cottle was stunned when Mitchell, Canadian Bill Sampson and Belgian Raf Schyvens confessed on TV; the rumour was that Islamist extremists were behind the attacks in a new campaign against Westerners. "Everyone knew these confessions were bullshit and they'd been forced to confess," says Cottle. "Sharia law is in force. There were public beheadings every week, so I was more than aware of what the Saudis were capable of doing."
And it wasn't long before he would understand the full impact of Saudi law for himself. Travelling to Bahrain for a business meeting in June 2001, he was arrested on landing at the airport and taken back to Riyadh. Two days later, he met Khaled for the first time. "Tell me about the three bombings you carried out," demanded the Saudi interrogator.
The question nearly floored Cottle, but his protestations of innocence merely prompted the first of many beatings. At one point, Cottle tried to kill himself by swallowing a fish bone in the hope that it would stick in his throat. "One day they put me in a van and told me I was going to be beheaded. They drove me to Justice Square – or 'Chop Chop' Square, as it's known. It's where the weekly beheadings took place. As we turned the corner, I thought, 'This is it,' but by that point I didn't care as I wanted to die," he says. Cottle endured ten weeks of torture, until he eventually confessed to the bombings. He was later sentenced to 18 years in prison.
During that period, six Britons – Mitchell, Cottle, James Lee, Les Walker, Peter Brandon and Glenn Ballard – as well as Schyvens and Sampson were imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. According to Saudi newspapers, the bomb attacks were linked to a turf war among Western alcohol bootleggers. Mitchell and Sampson were both given death sentences. The former's trial lasted ten minutes, and the state prosecutor was one of his torturers, Ibrahim. Mitchell was sentenced to the most brutal punishment under Sharia law, al-hadi, which involves being tied to a wooden cross and then partially beheaded. The body is left to rot in public for several days as a warning to others. "My trial was in secret, in Arabic, and I didn't even realise I'd been sentenced, never mind being given the death sentence," Mitchell says.
The men were finally given a royal pardon and released following an al-Qaeda attack in May 2003, when nine suicide bombers targeted a compound in Riyadh. The facility housed 900 expatriates, including 300 Americans employed to train and advise the Saudi Arabian national guard, which protects the royal family. Thirty-five people died and 200 were injured in the carnage. This, along with two other Riyadh bombings that month, made absurd the claim that Islamic militants were not operating in the country. Two days after the compound raid, five Saudis were transferred from the US prison at Guantnamo Bay in exchange for the Britons' release.
The imprisoned Westerners were scapegoats in a state cover-up. To this day, neither Mitchell nor Cottle have received an official apology from the Saudi government for the treatment they received, and they remain furious at the British government for the lack of support they had while in prison. The Foreign Office, they say, could have done far more to secure their release earlier, but kowtowed to the Saudis because lucrative arms deals were being negotiated at the time. "Even when I came back, I was refused state benefits because I'd been out of the country for so long," says Cottle. "(The government] did little to help us then, and little since, all because they don't want to upset the Saudis."
ACCORDING to the Ministry of Justice, the government greatly sympathises with those who have been victims of torture, and strongly encourages all countries to sign up to the United Nations Convention Against Torture. "We work with our international partners to eradicate torture, and expect all countries to comply with their international obligations as we comply with ours," a ministry spokesman says.
With regards to reparations through the courts, the government says this is already possible under section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and the International Criminal Court Act. However, the Redress director disputes this. "Under these acts, a torture survivor will not get compensation or any other form of reparation," says Fertsman. "In order to get this, the torture survivor has to bring a civil claim for damages, which is not currently possible against most alleged torturers since they are typically agents of a state and hence enjoy immunity. Also, a criminal prosecution can only take place if the alleged perpetrator is within the UK's jurisdiction: in effect, physically in the UK. So, unless the perpetrator comes here, a victim won't even have the role of being a witness.
"Thus what is so needed is the right to a separate civil action, which is not dependent on the alleged perpetrator being in the UK. That is what the Torture (Damages) Bill is seeking," he says.
Furthermore, with Redress being a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture of 1985, Ferstman says that all UN members have an obligation not merely to abstain from torture, but actively to do what they can to prevent it. Indeed, article 14 of the convention declares, "Each state party shall ensure in its legal system that the victim of an act of torture obtains redress and has an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation."
Amnesty International has been highly critical of the UK government's lack of adherence to this UN convention. Of particular concern is the practice of extraordinary rendition, when an individual is apprehended and extrajudicially transferred from a state such as Britain to one that practises torture. The human rights group says that many countries – including Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US – are using torture under the auspices of the 'war on terror', and that allies such as Britain are complicit in the practice. In turning a blind eye, Amnesty says, they are sending out a message to the world that torture is acceptable in some situations.
TORTURE can also prove devastating for the friends and families of victims, as Cottle's former partner, Mary Martini, will testify. The couple split in 1983 after having three children together, but after hearing of Cottle's plight she led the campaign to free the Britons in Saudi and remains a vociferous critic of both the Saudi Arabian and British governments. But the stress took its toll on her health, and in 2004 she suffered a heart attack. "When our daughter Marie found out Jim had been tortured, she tried to commit suicide," says Martini. "She just couldn't handle it. By the time Jim returned to the UK, in August 2003, he'd lost around six stone in weight during his time in prison. I barely recognised him when he stepped off the plane. He was like a child and couldn't cope with life. I've no doubt the stress of it all caused my heart attack."
Cottle spent three years being counselled, and says he can't hold down a job. He remains furious for what happened to him, and now wants closure.
Mitchell ended up spending 32 months in prison, 15 of those in solitary confinement. "The light was kept on all the time. There was no darkness. I suffer nightmares and get fits of nervousness now, and I'm scared of traffic and loud noises. I'm not a violent person, but I get very angry."
After his release, Mitchell retracted his confession, and in February 2005 an inquest into Rodway's death formally exonerated him and Sampson of the murder.
Cottle and Mitchell tried to sue their torturers, but when Saudi Arabia appealed to the House of Lords, the department of constitutional affairs intervened to support them using the State Immunity Act, and the case was thrown out. Even if the Torture (Damages) Bill is enacted, they cannot take their case back to the British courts. "We support the bill so others will not have to go through what we have," Cottle says.
Five years after being freed, they are pinning their last hopes on a ruling from the Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg. Mitchell says the government's stance helps foreign states to shelter torturers. "I'm not just angry with the Saudi government, but with our government. All I want is someone to say these men have been tortured and Saudi Arabia was wrong to do this. They can't even say that. I'd even accept a private apology." And what of Khaled and Ibrahim, his torturers? "I was brought up a Christian but I cannot forgive them. They will spend a long time in hell for what they did."
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 4 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 17 mph
Wind direction: North east