Victims lose Saudi torture case

The UK Governments position on torture was made clear again earlier this week in a case concerning Britons detained and tortured in Saudi Arabia.

From The Guardian

Four men who were arrested and subjected to “severe torture” in Saudi Arabia today lost their bid to sue those responsible for their treatment. Five law lords unanimously overturned a court of appeal ruling from October 2004 that cleared the way for Sandy Mitchell, Les Walker, Bill Sampson and Ron Jones to claim damages from the Saudi government and its officials.

The Saudi government, supported by the British government, argued its agents were protected by the State Immunity Act 1978 from proceedings in Britain

The four men today said they were “devastated” by the ruling and vowed to take the case to the European court of human rights.

Solicitor Tamsin Allen, who represents Mr Mitchell, Mr Sampson and Mr Walker, said: “The House of Lords have chosen to support the rights of states, including those who torture, over the rights of torture victims.

“Our clients, who were all so severely tortured in a Saudi Arabian prison that they suffered damage to their hearts and permanent debilitating psychiatric damage, have been told that they are not entitled to bring compensation proceedings in the UK against the men who tortured them.”

She said the men would campaign to ensure the government fulfils its obligations under international law to pursue alleged torturers and would take their case to the European courts.

Mr Mitchell, Mr Walker and Mr Sampson were arrested after a series of terrorist bombings in the Saudi capital Riyadh and Khobar in eastern Saudi Arabia six years ago. They claimed they were tortured into admitting responsibility.

The fourth man, Mr Jones, was seized after being injured in a bomb blast outside a bookshop.

His treatment by captors, which included being beaten on his hands and feet, suspended by his arms, deprived of sleep and force-fed mind-altering drugs, has been independently confirmed.

All the men were released after an al-Qaida attack in May 2003 by nine suicide bombers in Riyadh that disproved official Saudi claims the attacks resulted from an alcohol turf war by westerners.

One of the features of the case is that the British Government intervened in support of state immunity.

A spokesman for the Saudi Arabian embassy in London said: “The decision upholds the principle of state immunity for both the state itself and the officials. This important judgment serves the interests of the international community and it respects and protects the right of every legitimate sovereign state to govern within its own borders, free from civil suit in the domestic courts of another state.”

A spokesman for the Department for Constitutional Affairs said of the ruling: “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.”

Mr Sampson said the State Immunity Act 1978, which prevents individuals acting for a state from being sued, was “a bad law and needed to be changed”.

“I am not surprised because the Lords were having to make an adjudication based upon law that should have been changed years ago but for the hypocrisy of the government, which is quite happy to maintain the state immunity law denying citizens the right to seek redress against states that torture them,” he said.

He said the British government’s position was influenced by trading links with the Arab kingdom.

Mr Walker said he felt “betrayed” by the British government: “We are disgusted. We think it is all down to money and oil and airplanes. We are pawns.”

The chief executive of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, Simon Carruth, said the government had a responsibility to protect the men.

“Nationality carries with it a right to state protection. Instead, the government is ignoring the suffering of its own citizens to back the servants of a state that routinely uses torture,” he said.

Mr Jones, from Crawley, was held for 67 days in an interrogation centre after being arrested in 2001. He confessed to the bombing after a catalogue of abuse that included being punched and beaten as well as being hung from his cell bars.

He has said his hands and feet were caned and beaten with a pick axe handle, and that he had been subjected to sleep deprivation, beatings and psychological duress.

“You name it, they are capable of it,” he said at the time. “You would confess to murdering your own mother to make it stop.”

Mr Mitchell, Mr Walker and Mr Sampson claim it was similar violence that led them to make television confessions to the series of bombing raids. Each televised admission was almost identical in detail and each individual wore exactly the same drained expression of submission.

The law lords were told at a hearing in April that it was the first time the House of Lords had considered whether a foreign country could claim state immunity over civil proceedings brought against its officials for damages for personal injuries caused by alleged torture.

The four men were backed by Amnesty International, the Redress Trust, Interights and Justice.

Lord Bingham said in his judgment that the issue at the heart of the case was the relationship between two principles of international law.

One was that a sovereign state will not assert its judicial authority over another. The second, and more recent, principle was one that condemned and criminalised the official practice of torture, required states to suppress the practice and provided for the trial and punishment of officials found guilty of it.

To establish their right to sue, the four claimants had to show that the grant of immunity to the Saudi defendants under the 1978 State Immunity Act would be disproportionate and inconsistent with normal international law. They had failed to do so.

Mr Mitchell, from Glasgow, and Mr Sampson, a British citizen who had emigrated to Canada, were paraded on Saudi state television in February 2001.

They appeared to be reading from a script as they said they were acting on “orders” from an unspecified source when they carried out two bombings in Riyadh three months earlier. Christopher Rodway, a Briton, died in the first on November 17.

Then in August 2001, Mr Walker, from the Wirral, along with fellow Britons James Cottle, from Manchester, Peter Brandon, from Cardiff, and James Patrick Lee, appeared on television to admit their role in a number of attacks between December 2000 and March 2001.

Again, apparently being prompted, they confessed to three bombings in Riyadh and Khobar. The men later withdrew the confessions.

Two years after their televised confessions, the six were released from their prison cells at the notorious Al Haier jail after being granted clemency, heralding the end of a long and painful battle to secure their freedom.

One of the torture techniques the interrogators are said to have used is hanging inmates for days in positions that prevented sleep. Investigators are also said to have used axe handles and iron bars to extract a confession from Mr Mitchell.