George Atkinson

– in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 15th May 2003.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Opposition Whip (Commons) 7:01 pm, 15th May 2003

I have come to the House to speak on behalf of my constituent, Mr. George Atkinson, whose birthday, incidentally, it is tomorrow, and who will have spent six years, two months and 15 days in prison in Dubai. He is our longest-serving prisoner in the middle east region. I know that not from the answer that I received from the Minister on 5 March at column 1070W, because he chose to withhold the information on the grounds that it was privileged—on the grounds of privacy; I know it because I was told it by Fair Trials Abroad.

I owe the House an explanation, because I have raised the matter before. I raised it in Adjournment debates in the House on 12 June 1998 and on 13 January 1999. In those debates I concentrated on my conviction that Mr. Atkinson's conviction was entirely unsound and unjust, and my concern about his arbitrary detention. But that is all water under the bridge. What I owe to the House now is an explanation of why I have been silent these four years. Having raised the matter twice, why have I been silent for so long?

I have been silent because Ministers told me to shut up. I distinctly remember being given that message clearly by Ministers at meetings—"Be quiet, Mr. Swayne. Leave it all to us. Keep quiet about it, and we'll fix it." We were promised as a quid pro quo for not raising the matter, for not asking parliamentary questions, and for not raising it in the House and outside, that we would be provided with a package of support. People may raise their eyebrows, but I distinctly remember Baroness Symons promising that we would be provided with expertise from the Arabists to assist us in framing the right approaches to the right people. We got nothing. As a consequence of my silence, Mr. Atkinson's release date has come and gone, but I shall return to that shortly.

As I have been silent for so long, I shall briefly update the House about two events that have taken place in the intervening period. First, those who study these matters may recall—and if they check the record they will find—that Mr. Atkinson was convicted largely on the evidence of one Steven Trutch. That evidence was supplied to the court in Dubai by affidavits, so Mr. Atkinson's lawyers were unable to cross-examine him. Since I raised the matter in the House, Steven Trutch has been convicted and imprisoned in this country for swearing false affidavits. I think that that thoroughly undermines Mr. Atkinson's conviction.

Equally—it was shameful that I was silent about this, but I stuck with the advice that I was given by the Minister—I was silent when, last year, Mr. Atkinson was taken from his cell and savagely beaten. I asked the Minister about the matter only recently, and he replied on 3 April:

"During the visit, Mr. Atkinson told our consular staff that some prisoners, including himself, had been beaten during the disturbances at the prison on 30 July 2002, when, we understand, police were called to quell fighting among local prisoners." —[Hansard, 3 April 2003; Vol. 402, c. 828W.]

That might be strictly true, but it creates an impression that is entirely false. Mr. Atkinson was not the victim of getting caught in the crossfire of a riot in a Dubai jail. He was deliberately taken from his cell and beaten by police officers with rubber truncheons. I wonder why. That event took place not long after the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention reminded the Government of Dubai of its opinion 17/1998, which said that Mr. Atkinson had been arbitrarily detained. I wonder whether those two events are connected.

As a consequence of the opinion that Mr. Atkinson had been arbitrarily detained—this is the only time when the Foreign Office acted with any spunk, if that is a permissible term, during the entire process—the Government presented to the Government of Dubai a note verbale. I recently made an inquiry of the Minister about the note verbale and I received an answer on 12 May. I had asked him what happened and

"what measures he took to follow up the note verbale."

He replied:

"On 4 April 1999 the Government of Dubai replied to the Note stating that they had been in contact with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention . . . and had received confirmation that UNWGAD had accepted the Dubai Government's clarifications."—[Hansard, 12 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 84W.]

Apparently, everything is all right, as the working group and the Government of Dubai have agreed. Mr. Atkinson is in prison and it is okay. What a false impression to give. The working group has written to me and told me that its original opinion stands. It has confirmed that opinion in its subsequent opinion 16/2002.

In trying to pursue the matter, I asked another question of the Minister. Again, he replied on 12 May:

"We have advised Mr. Atkinson that questions about the application and interpretation of Dubai law should be pursued through his legal representatives." —[Hansard, 12 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 84W.]

We have pursued the interpretation through legal representatives. Indeed, I now have an opinion from Professor W. M. Ballantyne, QC, the primary jurist with expertise in jurisdictions under Arabic laws. His opinion is that Mr. Atkinson's sentence was completed on 31 August 2001, after his having served four and half years of a six-year sentence and obtaining one quarter of it in remission for good behaviour. That is the learned gentleman's opinion.

The question arises about whether that remission for good behaviour is discretionary or mandatory. Professor Ballantyne says that article 44 of the relevant law is absolutely clear. Only two conditions have to be met—public safety and good behaviour, for which the Arabic term is "mugim", which literally means "going straight". It is mandatory for all prisoners to have that relief if those two conditions are met.

The Attorney-General in Dubai argues that an extra six months must be served owing to the non-payment of a fine. Professor Ballantyne has considered that issue, too. Article 302 of the relevant law provides for the maximum of an additional six months, but it is not automatic—it must be the result of a formal process that is properly initiated and notified. The professor concludes that as there was no such notice or formal process in the case of Mr. Atkinson, he should have been released on 31 August 2001. Those are the facts. Let us imagine that there was a formal notice procedure whereby Mr. Atkinson was advised, "You haven't paid your fine, so you're going to serve an extra six months." That would take us to 28 February 2002—but Mr. Atkinson is still in prison. The Attorney-General said that Mr. Atkinson should not only get an extra six months for the non-payment of his fine, but lose his remission for good behaviour. We know that that cannot be true, because it would be double jeopardy. Professor Ballantyne is absolutely clear. He says:

"In my view such a construction is entirely untenable."

The fact is that the Dubai authorities were working to the assumption, however mistaken, that Mr. Atkinson would receive an additional six months for the non-payment of his fine. That might be wrong, but it was nevertheless their assumption. Towards the end of February 2002, the prison authorities told him that he had to cough up another smaller fine of £16,000, and that if he paid it he would be released. He therefore paid it. The prison authorities wrote to the Attorney-General in Dubai asking for the return of Mr. Atkinson's passport so that they could release him and deport him. So why is he still in prison?

Ministers have told me throughout this business that they cannot interfere and have referred me to the interpretation of the law by our legal representatives. The difficulty in dealing with the authorities in Dubai is that they will not respond. On 10 July last year, the Attorney-General wrote to Mr. Atkinson's legal advisers in these ringing terms: "This correspondence is at a close: we are not interested any more." For 10 months, we have had no communications because they simply do not reply; they do not deal; they are not prepared to talk. It is no good the Foreign Office saying, "You've got to talk to legal representatives and sort it out with them", if the other side will not respond.

Ministers cling to the idea that we cannot interfere, must not get involved, and can do only what is proper in consular terms. That is a load of nonsense, because we do it all the time. I recall that when there was an outrage in Yemen in which a number of British subjects were rounded up, the next day the Secretary of State came to the House and told us that he had been on the phone to his counterpart in Yemen. We continually make representations on behalf of people in prison in Morocco, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Gary Onions came back on 9 May as a result of such action. Why has Mr. Atkinson been left behind? Why should not he have a fair deal? He was a businessman who paid his taxes: why is he not getting the benefit of the protection of the British authorities?

Dubai—and the United Arab Emirates, of which it forms part—is a friendly nation. We do an enormous amount of trade with Dubai. There are not only formal trading links but a huge amount of social intercourse between our nations. A formal and an informal network could be exploited. Why has that not happened?

During the six years in which Mr. Atkinson has languished in a foreign jail, how many ministerial visits have been made to Dubai? How many times did Ministers raise Mr. Atkinson's case with their counterparts, as I urged them to do through faxes to their offices whenever I discovered that they were going to Dubai?

The position cannot be allowed to continue. A British subject cannot simply be abandoned in that way. It is monstrous and an outrage.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 7:15 pm, 15th May 2003

I am grateful to Mr. Swayne for raising the case of George Atkinson, a British citizen who is imprisoned in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates for financial crimes. I note that the hon. Gentleman has raised the case on at least two previous occasions, in June 1998 and January 1999. I appreciate his continued interest. We, too, are interested in it. I am sure that Mr. Atkinson, his wife, family and friends are also grateful for the hon. Gentleman's commitment.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, through its consular staff in Dubai and London, is similarly committed to providing all the appropriate consular assistance to Mr. Atkinson. He is allowed to call our embassy almost daily and, as his family knows, our staff visit regularly to ensure his welfare and discuss aspects of his case. Our consular officers visited Mr. Atkinson most recently on 7 April. They confirmed that he is in good health. Another visit is planned for the end of this month.

Mr. Atkinson completed a six-year sentence in Dubai for financial crimes on 28 February 2003. However, in accordance with Dubai law, he is now serving an additional six months for non-payment of fines.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Opposition Whip (Commons)

That is very generous. Given that I secured the debate, I wonder that the Minister is prepared to give way only once. Does he claim that his interpretation is correct and that Professor Ballantyne is mistaken?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I shall come to Professor Ballantyne shortly. I said that I would give way only once because the hon. Gentleman knows that the time is normally divided, and I have much to say. He has made allegations, some of which I find dubious to say the least—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I ask the Minister to continue.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am not questioning the hon. Gentleman's honour but his hyperbole and theatrics.

The Dubai authorities have informed Mr. Atkinson's lawyers and the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention, to which I shall refer later, that he can expect to be released on 1 September 2003.

As well as receiving a custodial sentence, Mr. Atkinson was ordered to pay a fine of 7,720,322 dirham, which is approximately £1.5 million, and a compensation amount of 99,822 dirham, which is approximately £19,964. After contacts in 2001 between the director of the ruler's court and a British lawyer acting on his behalf, Mr. Atkinson signed a letter to the ruler acknowledging his guilt, apologising for it, and commenting on his financial situation.

However, the letter did not appear to give a full and detailed schedule of assets to show why Mr. Atkinson could not pay the fines. That omission appears to be crucial in the eyes of the Dubai authorities.

Early in 2002, Mr Atkinson paid the £19,964 compensation. In the light of that, his solicitors, family and friends believe that he should have been released after having served three quarters of his sentence, as can be the case under UAE law. Mr. Atkinson shares that belief. However, I am told that, under UAE law, the decision to release a prisoner early is at the discretion of Dubai's Attorney-General and not automatic. The Attorney-General appears to have refused to exercise his discretion in this case.

In 2001, the Dubai ruler's court told Mr. Atkinson's solicitors their legal position. It explained that, by refusing to pay the fine in full or demonstrating why he was unable to do so, Mr. Atkinson should expect to serve his full sentence plus another six months. In July 2001, the Dubai Attorney-General visited Mr. Atkinson in prison, a month before he expected to become eligible for parole, to reiterate the Dubai authorities' known position. The ruler's court repeated this advice in a letter to Mr. Atkinson's UK solicitors in May 2002, and also in its recent letter to the UN working group on arbitrary detention on 9 November 2002, a copy of which was also sent to Mr. Atkinson's lawyers. I am told that FCO officials understand that Mr. Atkinson's lawyers have not acted on the advice of the ruler's court, and have not instructed local UAE lawyers to take this matter forward. If that situation has changed, I would be interested to know about it.

On 31 May 2002, our consul general wrote to Mr. Atkinson's lawyers, advising them of the need to take advice from a Dubai-based lawyer, and offering to provide a list of local lawyers. I am told that, to date, this offer has not been taken up. On 7 April this year, Mr. Atkinson's new UK solicitors wrote to the director of the Dubai ruler's court. They explained to the ruler's court why they thought that Mr. Atkinson should have been released early, after serving three quarters of his sentence. They also enclosed an opinion by a legal expert, Professor Ballantyne, expanding on this belief and citing relevant UAE laws. The Dubai ruler's court replied on 11 May, explaining that it maintained its position that

"by refusing to pay the fine or demonstrating why he is unable to do so, Mr. Atkinson must serve his full sentence plus another six months."

Our advice remains that the questions asked by Mr. Atkinson have to be addressed within the UAE legal system—not the ruler's court—by an appointed UAE lawyer.

As I have said, we continue to provide all appropriate consular assistance to Mr. Atkinson. However, I would like to remind the hon. Gentleman of what he was told my one of my predecessors in the Adjournment debate on 13 January 1999. He was told:

"it is not the role and responsibility of the Foreign Office to act as lawyers in court."—[Hansard, 13 January 1999; Vol. 323, c. 285.]

Nevertheless, in line with our consular responsibilities, our consul general in Dubai raised Mr. Atkinson's case when he called on the Dubai ruler's court on 19 January. The ruler's court reiterated Dubai's previously stated position that Mr. Atkinson could expect to be released at midday on 1 September 2003.

On 1 March 2003, our vice-consul met the head of the prison's public relations department to discuss the case. The official confirmed that Mr. Atkinson would have to serve an additional six months from his release date, as he had not paid the court fines in full. He told us that the jail administration had written to the Dubai public prosecutor in mid-December 2002 to advise them of the completion of sentence. The prison authorities, however, had not received any instructions from them to release Mr. Atkinson on 28 February. Our Embassy followed up this information with the public prosecutor's office and received confirmation of the procedure.

The hon. Gentleman has tabled 12 parliamentary questions concerning Mr. Atkinson's case over recent weeks. The hon. Gentleman is not known for his silence. Indeed, he has demonstrated his capacity for holding court and commanding the House with his oratory today. I will talk to my right hon. Friend about the hon. Gentleman's comments that he was asked to be silent. As far as officials are concerned, they tell me that they are not aware that this was said, but the hon. Gentleman is an honourable Gentleman, and if he says that that was said, obviously I shall take that at face value and inquire with my colleagues. So far as I am concerned, I have certainly made no such suggestion to him, and would not seek to do so.

A number of questions have been asked very publicly in recent months, and a number of those in turn raised questions about the stance of the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention in the case of Mr. Atkinson. As the hon. Gentleman said, the group investigates cases of individuals who have allegedly been detained either arbitrarily or in a manner inconsistent with the provisions of the universal declaration of human rights or those of UN human rights treaties. It does that by seeking information confidentially about details of the detentions from Governments, non-governmental organisations or other concerned individuals. It then gives a public but non-binding opinion on each case, issuing recommendations for corrective action to the relevant Governments.

The working group has been involved twice in Mr. Atkinson's case. Its opinion 17/1998 of 17 September 1998 concluded that he was being detained arbitrarily, and that the Dubai Government should take the necessary steps to remedy the situation. Our embassy in Dubai sent a note verbale to the Dubai Government in November 1998, asking them to implement the working group's opinion. The Dubai Government replied that they had established contact with the group to address the open issues involved in opinion 17/1998. The Dubai authorities last corresponded on 9 November 2002 with Mr. Louis Joinet, then chairman of the UN working group. We have been made aware that there have been more contacts recently.

In paragraph 18 of its second opinion, 16/2002 of 29 November 2002, the working group concluded:

"With regard to the present period of detention, dating from 14 December 1999, the Working Group considers that it does not have sufficient information to give an opinion on whether or not the continued detention is of an arbitrary nature, which would involve interpreting a domestic regulation on the granting of early release".

The hon. Gentleman interpreted Foreign Office comments on that as somehow suggesting that we think it all right for Mr. Atkinson to be detained. That is complete nonsense, as the hon. Gentleman knows. We continue to provide consular assistance, although, as I have said, we cannot act as the lawyer of someone who has been detained. That is not a role that the Foreign Office adopts.

The working group went on to say:

"Since 14 December 1999 (Day of sentencing) not enough elements were found to state the arbitrary character or not of the detention."

That is the view that we currently have from the group. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have repeatedly advised Mr. Atkinson that a local lawyer would be best placed to address the issues that the group raised, within the Dubai legal system.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, a letter-writing campaign on Mr. Atkinson's behalf is under way. Since mid-April, 65 supporters have submitted a template letter to the Foreign Secretary expressing their

"deep dissatisfaction with the way in which the case of George Atkinson has been handled and continues to be handled by your office".

The letter raises two points. It cites the opinion of Professor Ballantyne that Mr. Atkinson should have benefited from an early release according to Dubai law, and it points out that the UN working group's opinion of 29 November 2002 endorsed its opinion 17/1998.

I have to say that that interpretation of the working group's recent opinion is, to say the least, not complete. Indeed, it is somewhat unfortunate. Although the working group upholds its previous opinion that Mr. Atkinson was arbitrarily detained until his sentencing on 13 December 1999, the thrust of the latest opinion is that the group cannot confirm whether he has been arbitrarily detained since 14 December 1999. The group states that it does not have enough information to give an opinion on that aspect.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, our opinion is very clear. We think that the matter must be taken up in the UAE legal system, and we are prepared to provide a list of lawyers capable of dealing with it. No doubt Professor Ballantyne is a wonderful lawyer. I am a lawyer myself, and I must say that whenever I had to deal with a case in another country I got hold of a lawyer who knew and was involved in the law in that country, who would be able to operate in the system there, who knew the individuals concerned, and who would ensure that I was properly briefing someone who knew exactly what he was doing. I do not wish to undermine the professor's academic qualifications—I am sure that they are excellent—but local knowledge does help. That is why we have consistently said that that is the way in which to approach this issue.

The hon. Gentleman knows our position. We have often stated that the application of Dubai law is a matter for the Dubai legal system. An external approach could not translate into local legal results. The idea that we can wave a political wand is pure nonsense, and to hold out that hope to the family is unfortunate. The Foreign Office is not prepared to engage in a political game. We must deal with reality and treat the law seriously. Mr. Atkinson's detention is a serious matter, and that is how we have treated it and how we will continue to treat it. I very much hope that the family can seek Mr. Atkinson's release using the proper legal procedures in Dubai.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Seven o'clock.