Hubli (AsiaNews) Charged with "Christian evangelisation", Brian Savio O'Connor spent seven months and seven days in a Saudi jail, at times in chains and tortured. The 36-year-old Protestant man from the Indian state of Karnataka is now a free a man once again after he was released in early November thanks to an international campaign launched by AsiaNews and other Websites, Catholic and non Catholic, around the world.
From his town of Hubli in Karnataka where he lives with his brother and family, O'Connor spoke to AsiaNews about his ordeal.
Mr O'Connor is an Anglo-Indian. On April 15, 1998, he arrived in Saudi Arabia to work as a baggage handler for Saudi Arabian Airlines. In his spare time, he organised Bible study sessions in the privacy of his home, especially with Pakistanis and Arabs. He had a hundred or so DVD with biblical themes: quotes, documentaries, films on biblical characters. He also had over 60 Trinity Broadcasting Corporation videotapes showing Rev Benny Hinn's sermons. He had also installed a digital Bible in his computer.
The Saudi Kingdom is home to Islam's two holiest sites: Mecca and Medina. The country is ruled by a fundamentalist ideology that prohibits all forms of religion except for Islam. Its religious policethe infamous Muttawahis ever vigilant against Bibles, rosaries, crosses or Christian gatherings. Although Saudi princes have said that non Muslim religious practices are possible in private, the Muttawah makes no difference between private and public.
Mr O'Connor, how were you arrested?
On the evening of March 25, at around 5:45 pm, I received a phone call from a stranger who called himself Joseph. He said that a friend, Orlando, wanted to talk to me about Christianity. I did not know any Orlando and grew suspicious. But even so, I invited him to come, along with this Orlando, to my room (the quarters my Muslim employers provided me).
This man, Joseph, insisted that we meet in a coffee shop just outside my room. I asked him who he was and from where. He claimed to be an Egyptian national, but I was sure that he had a marked Saudi accent.
As soon as I stepped outside my room, there was a convoy of three cars waiting for me with religious police who had night binoculars. I realised then that I had been under surveillance for some time.
I was bundled into one of the waiting cars and driven to a mosque. Inside, the Islamic police chained my legs together.
I am about 5'6'' and this huge 6'2" tall, hefty policeman hangs me upside down, swinging me from left to right by the chains on my feet. Often in my cell at night I could hear the sound of the chains ringing in my ears.
I was battered in this upside-down position for more than an hour. I was kicked and punched and whipped. I was unable even to ward off the punches to my face, as my hands were tied behind my back.
It was nearly midnight and I was weak from the torture when a policeman brought some papers. In between the torture sessions, he forced me to sign statements in which I confessed that I had in my possession Biblical DVDs and CDs and was engaged in evangelising activities.
I told them that private religious meetings were not illegal, but they kept on saying that any religious activity other than Islam was prohibited.
I was then asked to sign a confession in which I acknowledged that I was selling alcohol.
I may have been in severe physical pain and I may have been exhausted, but I refused to sign this false statement. I told the Muttawah officer, how could I, a preacher and believer in Jesus, be selling alcohol? [Evangelical Christians refuse and prohibit alcohol use.]
Tell us about your life in prison . . .
I was miserable and, at times, frightened, not knowing what new false charges would be levied against me, all my personal belongings confiscated, my room ransacked.
I was also worried about the distress my arrest and imprisonment would cause to my family back home in India.
I was imprisoned in a cell with 17 other inmates, people convicted on charges ranging from murder to drug peddling and other such heinous crimes.
The section of the prison where I was confined had 14 cells. There were few guards but our movements and conversations were closely monitored by cameras which monitored our every move.
There was no problem with regards to food as Indians and Saudis more or less eat the same things.
I did manage to maintain some contact with people outside with the help of "illegal mobile phones" which were smuggled in for me by the guards for a price.
Did they let you pray?
Initially, whenever I tried to pray, I faced stiff resistance and antagonism from my fellow cell mates. Within a month of my arrest however, I had befriended some of the 17 convicts who petitioned the jailer to allow me to pray. I did, but only between Muslim prayers. I had to keep a strict discipline and remain silent during their five daily prayers.
How would you describe your time in prison?
As a blessing in disguise. I feel privileged for suffering in the name of Jesus. Besides, my time in prison has meant that 21 people have come to know Jesus. Thanks to this ordeal I have emerged stronger in faith and endurance. The Lord has confirmed my mission as an evangelical preacher.
Are you sorry you ever went to Saudi Arabia?
No! As I said, it was a blessing in disguise. In 2003 I was offered a job in Great Britain but I turned it down. Perhaps, it was the Holy Spirit's doing. If I had accepted I would not have been able to bear witness to the Gospel in a Saudi prison.
On September 15, 2004, Mr O'Connor was brought to court on charges of selling alcohol, drug use, possession of pornographic material and spreading Christianity. Under Saudi law, these charges are punished by life in prison.
The judge however decided to separate the evangelisation charges from the rest. For this charge, he was supposed to be tried by the High Court. For the others, he was tried there and then with Muttawah agents called to testify.
In the meantime, a campaign for Mr O'Connor's liberation was launched. Eventually, Prince Naif, the second ranking prince in the Saudi royal family, wrote to the court ordering it to drop all charges. But on October 20, despite the Prince's intervention, the court met to try him for his alleged alcohol sale.
How could they charge you with selling alcohol?
According to the prosecutor, a man sent by the Muttawah told the religious police that he bought alcohol from me paying with marked banknotes. They alleged that I was found with the marked banknotes and charged me with selling alcoholic beverages. They said that I had sold ten 1-litre bottles of alcohol. I then threatened to appeal to the High Court and asked them for proof: whether they had my fingerprints on any of the bank notes or on the ten bottles. They said that they had no such system in Saudi Arabia. I was then sent back to my cell.
You were sentenced to 10 months in jail and 300 lashes, what happened to you afterwards?
The seven months I had already served were a part of the 10 month sentence for selling of alcohol. Praise the Lord! I was not whipped. This only proves that [. . .] there is no coordination between the Saudi police and the Government. Then, one night I was driven to a Saudi airport and put on a flight to Mumbai, where my brothers in Christ picked me up.
An interesting point is that my colleagues in Saudi Arabia said that I was still scheduled to appear before the court on November 6 on the alcohol charges. How ridiculous . . . Such efficiency!
As you may be aware, Asia News launched an international campaign to secure your release . . .
I am very grateful to AsiaNews for the international campaign that was launched on my behalf. I am also thankful to 'Christian Solidarity Worldwide' and 'All India Christian Council' for their assistance. I especially want to thank the readers of AsiaNews for the postcards and letters that kept pouring in from around the globe. But please tell the world that there are many more Brians in Saudi Jails waiting for some help.