Confessions of an Innocent Man is a Canadian documentary narrated by Martin Sheen. Using interviews, news clips, narration, and a certain amount of dramatization, it tells the story of William Sampson, a half-Canadian, half-English, ex-military, businessman, who, along with several other Westerners caught in the wrong place at the wrong time doing business in Saudi Arabia, were apprehended by the Saudi authorities and imprisoned and tortured for several years on trumped up terrorism charges.
Because the film doesn’t frustratingly limit itself in the now-fashionable Pennebaker documentary style, it’s able to have a coherent, understandable, compelling narrative.
A car bomb killed multiple people in Riyadh in the vicinity of Sampson and other Westerners. Although there was zero evidence they were involved, the Saudis were determined to pin the crime on them, claiming it was murder committed in connection with the smuggling of illegal liquor. (In the areas frequented by Westerners, there were illegal bars that the authorities had long turned a blind eye to, and Sampson and the others frequented some of these places and had trivial dealings with the proprietors.) It’s not entirely clear why.
One theory proposed in the movie is that the Saudis were concerned that if they admitted the car bombing was an act of terrorism by Islamic extremists, which it almost certainly was, then it would scare away investors and tourists and such, so they preferred to paint it as a garden variety dispute among criminals, and thus of no threat to anyone not involved in some criminal activity like smuggling.
The detainees and their families to this day bitterly denounce the (lack of) response from their governments. Their charge (which is certainly plausible) is that the reason Western political and business interests wanted the whole thing hushed up and kept warning everyone that rocking the boat would only further endanger the prisoners, is that they were sucking up to the Saudis, trying not to offend a militarily and economically useful ally. And if a few innocent people had to be tortured to keep the Saudis happy and keep the money flowing, so be it.
Canadian officials state in interviews for the film that they did all they could do, that prodding the Saudis behind the scenes while maintaining ties with them (i.e., “constructive engagement”) was more likely to bring results than grandstanding gestures like public denunciations, withdrawing of ambassadors, etc. Plus, they really weren’t so sure that the men were innocent or that they were being tortured. As one official states, the Canadian government and its various embassies around the world get requests from about a thousand Canadians abroad per week to help them out of legal jams. (That’s at least twenty times higher than I would have guessed.) They’re almost always guilty, but they’re hoping somehow their foreign citizenship can save them, almost like they think they have some kind of diplomatic immunity.
But aside from the shady diplomatic shenanigans, the torture tales are every bit as harrowing as one would expect. As noted in the film, torture in Saudi prisons is routine. They’re very experienced and very skilled. As Sampson relates, he was subjected to beatings on the soles of the feet and in the testicles, sleep deprivation, anal rape, being chained up to the bars of his cell for long periods of time, fake executions, and more.
Within a few weeks, he (and the others) were broken, and made whatever confessions they were told to, and implicated whomever they were told to.
Not that that got them released or anything. Sampson was imprisoned for about three years.
As Sampson describes it, he underwent an intriguing psychological change along the way. He resisted as best he could at first—probably better than most people in fact, due to his naturally obstinate nature and his military background—but still was broken pretty quickly and succumbed to whatever they wanted.
For a while that is. For there came a time he was too broken to be broken. He was so far gone that he couldn’t even cooperate out of self-interest. He no longer cared enough or was capable enough of using instrumental rationality to act strategically. He pretty much became defiantly berserk.
He screamed and carried on, refused to willingly obey prison rules, paraded around naked, smeared feces on himself and all over the cell, etc. Basically he was beyond the point of fearing what more they could do to him.
All of this apparently threw his captors for a loop. They didn’t know quite what to do with a lunatic. Then after he had a heart attack and there was a serious risk he’d die in their custody, they were especially careful with him so as not to trigger an international incident. (The imprisonment and torture should have triggered such an international incident already, but they hadn’t, and the Saudis didn’t want to push their luck that there would be no repercussions if they actually killed innocent Westerners in their prisons.)
When Sampson was finally released, he insisted on leaving the prison naked and covered in his own filth, to graphically display to the world what he’d been reduced to due to the neglect of the Canadian and British authorities who refused to intervene. A fellow prisoner forcefully persuaded him not to, on the grounds that the Saudis wouldn’t release him at all if he tried to do that.
The film is well done, though for whatever reason I almost never react as emotionally to a documentary as to the most intense conventional movies (both “based on a true story” films like Beyond the Gates and fiction like Turtles Can Fly). But this one got to me more than most documentaries, and more than some conventional movies, including Blind Flight, the true story about Westerners held hostage for years by Arab terrorists. It gave me a sense (though thankfully nothing close to what one would learn through experience) of the utter horror of that kind of imprisonment and torture.
And I found Confessions of an Innocent Man mostly persuasive on the point that the Western governments behaved shamefully and hypocritically in letting their own citizens languish in such conditions when they were almost certainly innocent. Can you imagine if a Hugo Chavez-type regime that the U.S. and its allies are currently demonizing pulled something like this?