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
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
"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
"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
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
In paragraph 18 of its second opinion, 16/2002 of
"With regard to the present period of detention, dating from
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:
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
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
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.