Saudi torture: a Whitehall cover-up

It is not just in arms deals that Britain twists the law to please the Saudis. The human rights lawy

The sudden decision to drop the Serious Fraud Office investigation into allegations of bribery by British Aerospace after Saudi protests came as no surprise to me. My experience in seeking redress from the Saudis for torture and false imprisonment of British citizens over the past three years has revealed how far the UK government will go to pander to a rogue state which abuses human rights on an industrial scale.

The victims of Saudi repression are, of course, mainly the Saudi people themselves, but expatriates living and working there have also been targeted. When a Briton, Christopher Rodway, was murdered in a car bomb in November 2000 scapegoats were found among his compatriots. Sandy Mitchell, Bill Sampson and Leslie Walker were among those arrested for the murder and for further bombings, although they had nothing to do with them. They were tortured and forced to sign confessions dictated by their captors. The "confessions", videoed and then televised, ludicrously claimed that they had been acting on the instructions of named officials of the British embassy. At a sham trial (condemned later by a UN special rapporteur), the confessions were rubber-stamped by the judges. Sandy and Bill were sentenced to execution by crucifixion.

After nearly three years in jail they were released in August 2003. British ministers had applied some pressure for their release, but there is evidence that the key was actually a secret agreement with the US government to exchange them for Saudis held at Guantanamo Bay.

On their return to Britain, the three men hoped that the Saudi kingdom could be persuaded to acknowledge its responsibility for their cruel mistreatment and do what it could to repair the damage. These were men who had loyally served the Saudi economy over many years. They had been injured, physically and mentally, by state officials. They had been made destitute: their possessions seized (and as yet not returned), and their salaries unpaid from the time of their arrest. Until then they had lived comfortably and had good relations with their Saudi employers and colleagues.

In late 2003, I wrote on behalf of Bill, Sandy and Les to the Saudi ambassador in London, Prince Turki al-Faisal, detailing their injuries and financial losses. I requested a meeting to discuss an amicable settlement. I also sought assistance from the British government. Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, delegated the matter to his minister of state, Baroness Symons. I had the first of several meetings with her and her successor, Kim Howells. Later we also met Straw and Margaret Beckett.

No UK minister has doubted the innocence of the men. They could hardly have done anything else. Torture was verified independently by medical evidence. At the inquest on Christopher Rodway, held at Trowbridge, Wiltshire, in 2005, the coroner accepted the testimony of a senior officer of the Anti-Terrorist Branch at Scotland Yard, who had flown with colleagues to Riyadh to investigate the murder, that there was no evidence found by his team or claimed by the Saudi police which implicated any of those arrested.

We never had our meeting with the ambassador, and the diplomatic route met only prevarication. Though the Foreign Office advised caution, we concluded that the only way to make progress was to issue legal proceedings. Saudi Arabia was, like the UK, party to the UN Convention Against Torture, which gave the UK courts jurisdiction over torture in the territory of any other state party. There was, however, a legal problem in suing the kingdom of Saudi Arabia: state immunity. A few years earlier, I had sued the Kuwaiti government on behalf of a torture victim, Suleiman al-Adsani. The State Immunity Act 1978 affirms a general immunity for foreign governments in British courts, but there are exceptions. Though common sense suggests that torture should override immunity, English judges were not persuaded. Challenging the UK law in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, we failed again, but only by the narrowest possible margin: nine votes to eight - and the president of the court voted in our favour.

This time we tried a different tactic. We sued the torturers, the head of the prison, and the minister under whose authority they had acted, Prince Naif. The kingdom claimed that these officials were equally protected by state immunity, but the Court of Appeal (led by Lord Phillips, now Lord Chief Justice) upheld our claim. Unfortunately, the House of Lords overruled the Court of Appeal and we are now on our way to Strasbourg again.

British ministers were keen to assure us of their good relations with their Saudi counterparts, to whom they spoke informally. After one such conversation, which took place after our victory in the Court of Appeal, I met the Saudis' London lawyer. I anticipated a settlement proposal but none was forthcoming. I was later told that nothing could be done until after the House of Lords had given its ruling. It is now more than six months, and we are still waiting.

Legal process is subordinate to international affairs, so we have to rely on our politicians to secure justice. What is a British subject abroad entitled to expect of his government? In 1974, not long after Pinochet's coup, I went to Chile for the Labour Party. As Foreign Office minister, the late Joan Lestor promised that if there was any trouble she'd come out herself and rescue me. Fortunately, I did not need her help. At that time, our passports contained a splendid commitment to our safety by the foreign secretary of the day.

Warm words

Since their release, these victims have received nothing from their government but warm words. There has been no effective diplomatic action. Our ministers have flatly denied - like Lord Goldsmith in the BAE bribery case - that this has anything do with reluctance to upset these sensitive customers.

Indeed, far from helping their citizens to get justice, the UK government has hindered them in a number of ways. Most remarkably in our particular case, it intervened on the side of the Saudis. In the Lords, the government's counsel even supported the Saudi claim to immunity. That lawyer was Professor Christopher Greenwood QC, the same man who advised Tony Blair that the invasion of Iraq was lawful, against the views of nearly every other international lawyer.

Furthermore, in spite of the private protestations of ministers, the government has declined to state publicly that the murder convictions were wrong. This is important because, branded as criminals, the men have been unable to get employment. By contrast, the FO speedily exonerated its own officials who had been named in the false confessions as colluding in the "plot". Both have been promoted, one to ambassadorial rank. On top of this, the government has been asked to seek extradition of the torturers, whose names we know. This, too, has been refused.

On 6 March 2006 we met Howells. A few weeks later, he wrote: "I found it useful to hear from your clients and I recognise their frustration. As you know, we fully support your clients' efforts to seek fair and reasonable compensation. To that end, we have for some time been asking the Saudi authorities to instruct their lawyers to discuss an out-of-court settlement. The Foreign Secretary, Baroness Symons and I, have all raised the issue with the Saudi authorities. As I said when we met, I last wrote to the Saudi Ambassador on the matter in late February."

In November 2006, after the Lords ruling, we met Beckett. She received us courteously, but before the meeting had even begun, she explained her approach: never pursue a course of action that you know is bound to fail. In short, the Saudis were not going to budge, so she was not going to waste her time pressing them to do so. She had been told that the king still believed the men were guilty. She conceded that if an opportunity arose she would pass on our concern to the Saudis. Evidently, she felt no obligation to draw the king's attention to the findings of Her Majesty's coroner or to persuade him that he had been misinformed.

Perhaps the new Foreign Secretary was simply being realistic. If so, the government has a serious problem that cannot be brushed aside. All other British expatriates in Saudi Arabia are vulnerable to arbitrary attack. They cannot expect help from their government. This must also be true of expatriates in other rogue states that flout international judicial standards and deny the rule of law.

And yet, ironically, Saudi Arabia does set some store by international acceptability. Two years ago it even held a conference on human rights. Prince Naif, who as Interior Minister at the time of my clients' incarceration was in charge of the prisons system, gave the main address. After Sandy Mitchell published an account of his torture, Prince Turki told the Guardian, as though he had previously been unaware of the case, that allegations of torture are fully investigated and the perpetrators punished. We have yet to hear of any investigation in this case.

Sandy and the others may be the victims of a mistake. If so, why not admit it? It is human to err. An honourable government, which we would all like the kingdom of Saudi Arabia's to be, would acknowledge an injustice and seek to remedy it. And an honourable British government would do everything possible to achieve that outcome.

Geoffrey Bindman received a knighthood in the 2007 New Year's honours list for services to human rights