Sunday, May 15, 2005

WHILE THE MSM and the neocon bloggers are consigning Newsweek to the ninth circle of Hell for publishing a short article about allegations that Gitmo interrogators had flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet, a Scottish medical technician working in a hospital in Saudi Arabia is trying to survive the memories of an experience no human being should have to suffer.

'I'm self-sufficient now. I earn enough to support my family and I'm not dependent on benefits." The pride in Sandy Mitchell's voice is unmistakable. Given what he has been through, it is also justified.

Five years ago, the tough Glaswegian was earning his living working in a hospital in Saudi Arabia as an anaesthetic technician, putt-ing in canulas, checking doses and weighing patients before they had operations. He and his Thai wife had just had a baby. He was happy and prosperous. Then, on December 17 2000, he was kidnapped by Saudi Arabian police as he got out of his car to walk into the hospital. Handcuffed and thrown into a police van, he was taken to an interrogation room in a prison in Riyadh. At that point, his nightmare began in earnest.

"Two men came into the room," he remembers. "They were Captain Ibrahim al-Dali, who introduced himself as an officer from Saudi Arabian intelligence, and Lieutenant Khalid al-Sabah, the interpreter. Ibrahim was short - hardly over 5ft 5in - but very strong. Khalid was tall and had rotting teeth. They told me I had to confess or they would do things to me that would make me go mad.

"I was totally confused. I had no idea of what I was supposed to confess to. I tried to ask them. Their response was to start hitting me with a pick-axe handle. They beat me all over my body. They brought in a huge 22 stone Saudi to sit on me while they beat the soles of my feet. They forced a metal rod between my knees and hoisted me upside-down, and beat me on my exposed buttocks. It was excruciating."

Mr Mitchell's two torturers eventually told him they wanted him to confess to planting a bomb that had killed another Briton named Christopher Rodway. "They said my wife and son were involved too. It sounded like a joke: my son was a year old." The two interrogators were in deadly earnest. "They kept on hitting me. The only time they broke off was when they went to pray."

That night, covered in blood and bruises, Mr Mitchell was chained standing up to a steel door in a room 5ft by 8ft. Bright lights burnt in his face throughout the night. The moment he looked as though he had fallen asleep, a guard came in and prodded him or hit with a stick to wake him up. And next day, Ibrahim and Khalid were there again, ready with their pickaxe handles.

After three days of torture, Ibrahim and Khalid summoned a doctor to examine Mr Mitchell. The doctor took his blood pressure. It was dangerously high. "Try to relax more," the doctor suggested helpfully to Mr Mitchell. When Mr Mitchell protested that he was being tortured, the doctor calmly replied: "They all say that. You'll just have to cope the best you can." And the moment the doctor left, the torture began again.

Ibrahim then told him that they were going to arrest his wife and son. "We will torture them. When you hear their screams, you will know that they are suffering because you haven't told us the truth."

That threat was enough to break Mr Mitchell. "I was starting to hallucinate because of the sleep deprivation. But I knew I couldn't let them harm my wife and child. I would have done anything to avoid that. I was very frightened for my son and for my wife. Ibrahim said that because she wasn't British, it was even easier for them to make her disappear."

Mr Mitchell's torturers wanted him to sign a confession which implicated Simon MacDonald, an official in the British embassy (he is now the British ambassador in Israel). "They had his picture," Mr Mitchell remembers. "They wanted me to say he had ordered the bombing and that I was working for MI6. It was all absolutely crazy. I invented some names of people I said had ordered me to do the bombing. They discovered the names were invented the next day and beat me extra hard as a result."

Mr Mitchell signed a preposterous confession in which he claimed to have detonated the bomb that killed Christopher Rodway while he was driving his car. "That was easily disprovable. I had receipts which proved that my car was being repaired when I was supposed to have detonated the bomb. The Saudis knew we were innocent from the start," he insists. "I had friends in the police force who told me that they knew the bomb had been planted by Islamic extremists, probably al-Qaeda."
After he made his confession, Mr Mitchell was forced to go on television with Dr Sampson and Les Walker, another Briton, and repeat it. He thought the torture would then stop. It didn't. "They kept coming to beat me. They would do it for no reason at all. 'What do you want me to say?' I would ask them. 'What questions do want me to answer?' They would reply, 'There are no questions! We just want to beat you.' They enjoyed it. These men were savages."

There was one occasion when they made him kneel down and told him they were going to execute him. He felt a sudden blow to his neck, passed out - and awoke a few minutes later, covered in his own excrement. Ibrahim was laughing at him.

After four months of violence, Ibrahim and Khalid noticed a sudden deterioration in Mr Mitchell's condition. "I kept passing out for no apparent reason," he remembers. They sent for a doctor, who examined him and sent him to the hospital. The stress of the beatings and sleep deprivation had given him a potentially lethal heart condition. "They gave me beta-blockers as medication. The beatings stopped after that."

He was then placed in alone in a tiny cell with no windows. He would remain there for 15 months. "I wanted to die. I thought I was going to die anyway: I was convinced that the only way I would get out of that prison was in a coffin." Earlier, he had been taken out for a trial in a building on "Chop-Chop Square", the notorious location of Riyadh's public beheadings. The trial lasted 10 minutes. The chief prosecutor was Ibrahim, the man who had been his chief torturer. The judges asked Mr Mitchell if he had confessed to the bombing. He tried to explain that he had been tortured - they dismissed that, and announced his punishment: crucifixion, then partial beheading, after which his body would be left out to rot in public.

"In solitary confinement, I lost hope. The routine was soul-destroyingly monotonous. I would hear the call to prayer at 5am. A guard would shove bread and lentils in at about 7am. Then - nothing, nothing at all. Just silence. The tedium was all-enveloping. I was still on the beta-blockers for my heart condition. I split each one I was given and saved one of the halves. When I had what I thought would be enough to kill me, I swallowed the lot. But I survived. The only effect they had was to make me feel ill. I then thought, perhaps I'm not meant to die yet. Maybe God has something else in store."

Mr Mitchell was finally released more than two and a half years after he had been arrested. The bomb that blew up an American military base in 2003 seemed to have made it clear even to Prince Naif that al-Qaeda was responsible for the bombings in Saudi Arabia.

"The first I heard of it," Mr Mitchell, now 49, recalls, "was when the Saudi lawyers came in and said I would be released if I signed a letter to the King apologising for the bomb. I refused. We all did. They came back the next day and said I just had to sign a piece of paper thanking the King for his clemency. I signed that - and soon afterwards, I was on a plane home with the -others. It all happened so fast, I hardly had time to take it in."

Mr Mitchell now lives near Sowerby Bridge in Yorkshire, working part-time as an anaesthetic technician, filling in for those in permanent jobs when they are on leave. For now, he says, it is all that he can manage. He still feels nothing but hatred for the men who tortured him - "they will burn in hell for what they did to me" - but, as he writes in his new book, co-written with Mark Hollingsworth and published this week, he's also very bitter about the way he has been treated by the British government. "The fact that I and the other Britons who were picked up and tortured were released had very little to do with any activity from the British government. The Americans got Mike Sedlak [a US citizen also arrested for the bombing] released within two months. We had to wait nearly three years. Why? Simply because our government is terrified of upsetting the Saudis. They'd rather help British businessmen sign arms deals with the Saudis than stop British people being tortured by them."

The allegations that military interrogators at Guantanamo desecrated the Koran may or may not be true. Given the many detainee reports of abuse, the testimony of people who used to work there, and the thousands of pages of e-mails, memos, and other documentation the ACLU has obtained, describing all kinds of torture and abuse in excruciating detail, it's really not hard to believe that some interrogator flushed the Koran down a toilet to humiliate a prisoner. It's harder for me to believe it didn't happen than that it did.

But in either case, Newsweek did not publish lies; and neither did they publish unsourced or unconfirmed information. In the issue just out, Evan Thomas explains exactly how the article was put together; and it's clear that Michael Isikoff did his job as a journalist. He knew that internal FBI e-mails recently made public contained allegations of serious prisoner abuse at Guantanamo. He knew that the military investigators who run Guantanamo were checking out the allegations. He wanted to know more about it, as any responsible journalist would.

So he called a longtime reliable source, a senior U.S. government official who was knowledgeable about the matter. The source told Isikoff that the report would include new details that were not in the FBI e-mails, including mention of flushing the Qur'an down a toilet. A SouthCom spokesman contacted by Isikoff declined to comment on an ongoing investigation, but NEWSWEEK National Security Correspondent John Barry, realizing the sensitivity of the story, provided a draft of the NEWSWEEK PERISCOPE item to a senior Defense official, asking, "Is this accurate or not?" The official challenged one aspect of the story: the suggestion that Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, sent to Gitmo by the Pentagon in 2001 to oversee prisoner interrogation, might be held accountable for the abuses. Not true, said the official (the PERISCOPE draft was corrected to reflect that). But he was silent about the rest of the item. The official had not meant to mislead, but lacked detailed knowledge of the SouthCom report.

Is Newsweek to blame for the senior Defense official's lack of detailed knowledge? Isikoff called a reliable source he had used many times before to get information about the SouthCom investigation. That source gave him some new and explosive information, and Newsweek spoke to a senior Defense official to confirm that new information. Isikoff and his editors did their job professionally and responsibly, and there is no reason on earth for them to apologize for that Periscope piece.

But there is abundant reason for the Defense Department and the Bush administration as well as the Blair administration in England to apologize to Sandy Mitchell for cozying up to a government that could commit such atrocities against him -- and indeed to countless others, many of them its own citizens. It is unconscionable and unforgivable that Mitchell's own government would betray him so as not to offend Saudi Arabia. It's unconscionable and unforgivable that, out of bottomless greed for Saudi Arabia's oil and the millions of dollars they put in British and American corporate pockets, the U.S. government would not only tolerate but support a country that does exactly the same things to its people -- and to other countries' people -- that Saddam Hussein did to his.

When George W. Bush and Tony Blair -- devout Christians, both -- apologize to Sandy Mitchell for looking the other way when he and others like him are being tortured, terrified, and held hostage by psychopathic, sadistic murderers, then maybe I will feel less contempt for Bush supporters who think Newsweek has blood on its hands and on its desks.

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