George Atkinson

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:01 pm on 15th May 2003.

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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.