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Confessions of an Innocent Man: Torture and Survival in a Saudi Prison

by William Sampson

In an age of tell-all memoirs that often tell very little, William Sampson provides instead a challenging memoir that spares no details in his account of surviving three years of torture, detention in solitary confinement, and the threat of beheading.

Sampson, an expatriate Canadian who’d been working in Saudi Arabia as a water purification consultant, was abducted in 2000 following a series of bombings in the nation’s capital that cast an unwelcome air of suspicion over the foreign work force. Held on trumped-up charges, Sampson was tortured into producing false confessions and sentenced to death.

Sampson’s frankness about his ordeal places readers in the awkward position of feeling like sadistic voyeurs. We’re almost dared to read on as page after page is filled with Sampson’s recall of horrific acts of physical and psychological torture, rape, and the surreal relationship he develops with those who brutalize him. Indeed, the first half of Sampson’s book is about as difficult a journey as most readers will ever make, from the descriptions of his bruised genitals to the torture-induced heart attack Sampson miraculously survives. And while this is an important and necessary firsthand account of an experiance that too many people across the globe continue to face, it is possible that many readers may give up for lack of a strong stomach.

That would be a shame, for although Sampson has chosen the difficult path of full disclosure, he rewards his readers with an equally detailed and even hopeful account of his growing resistance to repression, a guide to how he managed to survive the most unspeakably inhuman acts imaginable. Sampson punctuates his account with moments of gallows humour. At one point his captors tell him that, like Cool Hand Luke, he needs to get his head right. At others, Sampson seems to have taken his cue from rebellious characters out of The Great Escape.

Sampson’s first career is not writing but science, and it shows in the strangely detached way in which he presents his story. As with many victims of abuse, it is almost as if he is watching his ordeal from the outside, detached from his physical self. Beyond his personal experience, though, Sampson also presents a cautionary tale for any Canadians who find themselves in a similar situation overseas. He describes the overwhelming uselessness of Canadian officials, who appeared more interested in placating his Saudi captors than in helping someone whose interests they were supposed to fight for.

Regardless of whether Canadian officials actually read Sampson’s book, he has called them to account, and the published presence of his confessions will no doubt haunt, with good justification, those overseas officers who continue to turn the other way when faced with detained individuals abroad, whether their names be Maher Arar, Ahmed El-Maati, or William Sampson.