Willing to break the law?

Mark Thomas on the continuing saga of the government, BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia

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Documents released at the Royal Courts of Justice show the British government would be prepared to go as far as breaking international law in order to scrap the investigation into allegations of bribery between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia.

On top of this the UK government appears, once again, to have kept back embarrassing documents from the OECD (the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development) who are examining the government’s role in the affair, perhaps because these documents tell a different story to the one UK officials have been peddling at the OECD. Not only that but I, your humble comedian, had to instigate legal proceedings in order make this public.

The documents are the British government’s official response to the court action brought by the Corner House and Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) against the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). The Corner House and CAAT claim that the SFO has broken international law and government pledges to abide by the OECD Anti bribery Convention, by dropping the BAE/Saudi enquiry. Article 5 of the OECD convention, to which Britain is a signatory, expressly forbids influencing investigations, for the sake of “national economic interest, the potential effect upon relations with another State or the identity of the natural or legal persons involved.”

But, while CAAT and Corner House are pursuing their legal action, a bizarre twist has occurred, with the government and the Court Service refusing to make public the SFO defence papers submitted in the first round of legal action. So in a major case of public interest that challenges the British government’s adherence to the rule of law, we are not allowed to see their legal defence.

However, for the princely sum of £100 (and lawyer’s fees of course) payable at the RCJ, one can file an Application for Disclosure listing the reasons why documents should be made public. Believing in the somewhat outdated notion that citizens should know what their government is doing, I decided to challenge the Court Service decision, parted with my £100 and filed. And now, after four weeks of legal jostling, a request for a full oral hearing and serving the Ministry of Justice and the SFO, the Court Service finally gave me copies of the government’s defence. Some might consider it ironic that in a Judicial Review over bribery allegations, I had to pay £100 to see the governments defence. Yet this irony is but a prelude to the contents of the documents.

More cynical observers might think it unsurprising that the SFO initially refused to allow the document to be made public as there are serious questions to be asked as a result of them. The documents say that although the Director of the SFO does not believe the decision breaks international law, “this was not for him a critical or decisive matter [my emphasis]: the threat to national and international security was such that, even if consideration of those matters had been contrary to that provision, he considered them to be of such compelling weight that he would still have taken the same decision [my emphasis]”. In short the man charged with upholding the rule of law is prepared to break international law.

Curiously this is not the message that the British government is sending to the OECD Anti Bribery Working Group who are currently looking at Britain’s handling of the BAE/ Saudi fiasco.

On the 12th of January 07 the Attorney General Goldsmith and the head of the SFO wrote for the OECD that they “at all times had regard to the requirements of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention.” Yet five months later the SFO say the adherence to the OECD convention was not “a critical or decisive matter.”

A spokesman for the SFO said: "The decision to halt the investigation was not the government's but that of the Director of the SFO. He does not believe his decision was incompatible with the OECD treaty. Nothing in it prevents consideration of issues of national security when there are innocent lives at risk. This is at the heart of the matter and is why it was the only decision that could be made. It is completely wrong to assert that the decision was made for the benefit of BAE or the "regime" in Saudi Arabia.”

Nick Hildyard from Corner House said “We are genuinely shocked that the government was prepared to breach international law to terminate the inquiry. It is clear the UK government has been telling the UK courts one thing and the OECD a completely different story"

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