UK fights to safeguard immunity of officials accused of torturing Britons

From The Guardian (17.04.06)

The government will argue in Britain’s highest court next week that foreign officials who commit torture abroad should be immune from civil action in the English courts.

Christopher Greenwood QC, the international lawyer who advised the attorney-general that the Iraq war was lawful, will argue for the British government, which has intervened in support of Saudi Arabian officials accused of detaining and torturing four Britons in Saudi jails.

Saudi Arabia is appealing to the House of Lords against a court of appeal ruling that, while the state is immune from compensation claims for torture, individual officials who inflict it are not. Civil rights lawyers said the ruling in October 2004 was a historic victory, ending immunity for torturers abroad from claims in the English courts.

The cases of Sandy Mitchell, Les Walker and Bill Sampson arose from a series of terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia six years ago which the Saudis blamed at the time on an alcohol turf war among westerners. The men claim they were tortured into confessing responsibility on Saudi television.

The fourth man, Ron Jones, an accountant, was seized after being injured in a bomb blast outside a bookshop. He was taken from his hospital bed and detained for 67 days, during which his captors attempted to get him to confess to planting the device that injured him. The torture of Mr Jones, which has been confirmed independently, involved being beaten on his hands and feet, suspended for long periods by his arms, deprived of sleep and given mind-altering drugs.

All the men were released after an al-Qaida attack in May 2003 by nine suicide bombers in Riyadh, which made it clear the allegations against them were false. Four other men who were detained with Mr Mitchell, Mr Walker and Mr Sampson could also make claims if the law lords uphold the right to sue for compensation.

The UK government’s intervention, backing the Saudi claim for immunity, follows a House of Lords case last year in which lawyers for the government contended that evidence obtained from torture abroad should be admissible as evidence in UK courts – an argument rejected by the law lords. “The thing we’re quite angry about is that the government has weighed in to support the argument that the individual torturers should not be responsible. They have actually intervened formally and put in an argument in support of the Saudi government’s argument that the individual torturers should continue to have immunity,” said Tamsin Allen of Bindman & Partners, the law firm representing three of the men.

“We’ve been trying to pressurise the government not to do that because we say the inevitable conclusion is that they are supporting the right of torturers to continue to torture with impunity. We’ve got a court of appeal judgment saying that torturers should bear individual responsibility and we should be able to sue them in these courts and provide redress for torture victims, and they’re arguing no …

“Their argument is that state immunity is so important it has to be protected. We say there’s no challenge to state immunity and it’s not being undermined. The Americans have specific laws to allow torture victims to sue wherever the torture happened. We don’t, and the government is trying to argue against the court of appeal judgment that established those rights.”

Ms Allen said some of the men were tortured until their hearts were damaged, one was raped, and all suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Constitutional Affairs said: “The UK government condemns torture in all its forms and works to eradicate it wherever it occurs. The intervention in this case is not about criminal responsibility for torture, nor about the UK government’s attitude to torture. It concerns jurisdiction, and the way in which civil damages can be sought against a foreign state for acts allegedly committed in its own territory.”

How long can the British Government go on?