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13 Jan 1999 : Column 282

George Atkinson

1.30 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): I first raised the matter of the detention in Dubai of my constituent, Mr. George Atkinson, in an Adjournment debate on 2 June 1998. Prior to that and subsequently, I have raised the case in a number of parliamentary questions and also outside the House.

Some colleagues have cautioned me to take care not to damage our relations with Dubai. I share their concern. The United Kingdom benefits from excellent relations with Dubai. Our business men prosper in Dubai because of the competitiveness of their products, their expertise and their professionalism, as well as the professionalism of the business people of Dubai. The relationship is of great mutual benefit. The growing trust between our two peoples is encouraged and nurtured by the lasting friendship of the Maktoum family. The friendship is mutual--we have a great affection for them.

It is not my purpose to criticise the Government of Dubai. I hold no such brief. I was elected to hold to account the Government of the United Kingdom. In making my criticism, I do not demur from the views that I expressed on 2 June last year, in which I made clear my appreciation for the assistance that I had received from Ministers and from the Foreign Office.

Indeed, I go further. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) has been extremely generous with his time, as has his ministerial colleague, Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean. Their staff have been assiduous in dealing with the issues and questions that I have raised.

In August this year, I met our consul-general, Mr. Nicholas Armour. I found his advice of great value. I take this opportunity to put on the record once again my gratitude and appreciation to Mr. Armour and his staff, and to Ministers and the staff of the Foreign Office.

In all my dealings on the case of Mr. Atkinson, it has been my purpose to secure contact at ministerial level between the United Kingdom and the Government of Dubai. In that, I perceive that I have failed. That is in stark contrast to the statement made by the Foreign Secretary to the House on Monday afternoon, when he referred to the five British nationals currently detained in Yemen. He said:

Quite. Surely the relatives of those detainees have every right to expect such a robust defence from their Foreign Secretary. However, that contrasts rather sharply with the case of my constituent, Mr. George Atkinson, who was imprisoned for some 13 months before formal, clear, understandable charges were brought against him. I make no criticism of the Government of Dubai for that. It was a complex and difficult investigation. Nevertheless, the question of bail should have arisen at a ministerial level--indeed, I invited Ministers to take it up.

It was only when Mrs. Atkinson--Mr. George Atkinson's wife and my constituent--secured the intervention of the United Nations working group on

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arbitrary detention that a formal note was sent from the Foreign Office to the Government of Dubai relating to the fact that Mr. Atkinson had been denied bail, despite the court in Dubai ordering that he be released on bail. I hope that, after the relaunch of the Government on Monday, we can expect a more robust approach from Ministers in the future.

I shall deal now with events in Dubai. In mid-December my constituent, Mr. George Atkinson, was found guilty by a court in Dubai on charges that amount to the defrauding of the Government of Dubai. As a consequence a substantial fine was imposed on him and he is to be imprisoned for five years. Nevertheless, I persist in my belief in Mr. Atkinson's innocence. I do so on two grounds.

First, Mr. Atkinson was convicted largely on the testimony of one Steven Trutch, a former employee of Al Naboodah Laing. I have seen affidavits also sworn by Mr. Trutch that were not brought to the attention of the court in Dubai, which flatly contradict the version of events given by Mr. Trutch's affidavit submitted to the court in Dubai. I therefore believe that Mr. Trutch is not a credible witness--so much so that I sought advice from Law Officers whether the crime of perjury had been committed, given that some of the affidavits were sworn in our jurisdiction.

Of course, no charge of perjury can be brought unless we can first establish which of the three different versions of events is the true one. I do not believe that the appeal court in Dubai will be of any assistance in the matter. I believe that the appeal court will deal with the question not whether Mr. Trutch is a reliable witness, but whether he is a witness at all. I believe that the lower court in Dubai erred in accepting testimony in the form of an affidavit by Mr. Trutch, when the law in Dubai clearly requires that evidence be given in person. I am confident that the appeal court in Dubai will quash the conviction of Mr. Atkinson.

My second ground for persisting in my belief in Mr. Atkinson's innocence is the fact that he negotiated with the Government of Dubai in 1994 a waiver of all claims against him. As a consequence of his part of that agreement, he handed over substantial assets. The lower court decided that that agreement applied not to all claims, but only to civil claims against Mr. Atkinson. I believe that that is mistaken.

I have a statement signed on 5 January by a Mr. Giles Dixon, who is a solicitor. At the time of the negotiation of the agreement in 1994, he acted for Mr. Atkinson as a partner in the London firm, Turner Kenneth Brown. It is a lengthy statement, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and with your permission I shall quote only briefly from it. Mr. Dixon states:

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    I believe that when this powerful evidence is presented at the court of appeal in Dubai, it will be a telling argument. I am confident that Mr. Atkinson's conviction will be quashed.

On 2 June 1998 the Minister pointed out that Dubai has a sophisticated legal system. I agree with him. It is a system that shares many principles with our legal system. In addition, it encompasses principles from the Sharia law and the Napoleonic code. I have been mightily impressed by the speed with which Mr. Atkinson's appeal has been organised. As a visitor over some years at Her Majesty's prisons Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs, I know many prisoners who would have counted themselves fortunate had their appeals been organised so swiftly in this country. I am confident that the legal system in Dubai will show its strengths and that my constituent, Mr. Atkinson, will be released so that the House need not return to this subject again.

1.41 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Derek Fatchett): I congratulate the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on yet again raising the issue of George Atkinson and his family. I appreciate the keen interest that the hon. Gentleman has taken in this case. I take the opportunity of thanking the hon. Gentleman for his warm personal words both to me and to my noble Friend Baroness Symons, and also to the respective staff of our two private offices. I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's words are conveyed to the staff of these offices. They will much appreciate them. It is a reassuring moment for them to be thanked by Members. Too often, the messengers are shot down rather than those who have taken the policy decision. I am sure that the staff will appreciate the hon. Gentleman's comments.

Having created that broad element of consensus, I may at some stage suggest that in the hon. Gentleman'sspeech there was perhaps a profound element of misunderstanding about the powers and role of the United Kingdom Government and the Foreign Office. Before I break the warm consensus that flows from the hon. Gentleman's speech, however, it may be useful if I set out some of the up-to-date background to the case and some of the action that has been taken on behalf of the hon. Gentleman's constituent, Mr. Atkinson.

The House will be interested to know, as the hon. Gentleman said, that we last debated this issue on 2 June 1998. We have subsequently had the opportunity of bringing the House up to date as a result of questions asked mostly, if not entirely, by the hon. Gentleman.

Since our debate on 2 June, Mr. Atkinson's trial has been concluded. He was found guilty and sentenced on 13 December to a total of six years' imprisonment. An appeal was heard on 10 January and the hon. Gentleman's comments about the speed of that appeal will, I have no doubt, be noted in appropriate places. I am sure that there will be warm approbation for his comments about the sophisticated nature of the Dubai legal system and for the way in which it moved quickly from first hearing to appeal. We understand that a decision on that appeal will be announced at about the end of next month--it is suggested, on 28 February. In some respects, the case therefore remains sub judice, as it is part of the legal process in Dubai.

It may be worth while saying to the hon. Gentleman that there is an apparent misunderstanding of the Foreign Office's role in terms of the eloquent contribution that

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he made in opening the debate. I had the impression on occasions that he was pleading his constituent's case. I see nothing wrong in that. Indeed, I thought that he was arguing his case with great skill and eloquence. I am sure that if I ever need the services of a constituency Member or a lawyer who can put forward a case, I shall be tempted, as a result of the professional and efficient way in which the hon. Gentleman advanced his argument, to approach him. However, it is not the role and responsibility of the Foreign Office to act as lawyers in court. We do not have that role; nor do we have that expertise. Nor can we be expected to provide that sort of service to every Briton who is arrested and charged overseas.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not expect us to provide such a service. The demand on our time and resources would be enormous. We must ensure, however, that there is a fair trial under the legal system that exists. We must try to inject our standards of fairness as far as we can. Those are the procedural points about due process. We must ensure that we have access to the United Kingdom citizen, that we assist that citizen in whatever way possible and that we make it possible for that citizen to have access to lawyers who can represent him or her during the legal process. Those are our procedural responsibilities.

We do not have the substantive responsibility of representing individual British citizens. If the hon. Gentleman thinks about it, that would be an invidious position in which to be cast. Some British citizens overseas will be innocent of the charges laid against them. Others, sadly, will be guilty. The fact that someone is British does not necessarily mean that inevitably and intrinsically he is innocent of the charges laid against him. It is not our responsibility to prove guilt or innocence in certain circumstances. However, it is our responsibility to ensure that due process takes place and that the British citizen involved gains proper access to the consular services that the Foreign Office offers. We have tried to do that in George Atkinson's case.

I realise that the hon. Gentleman, in 12 minutes of consensual debate, could not resist one moment of lowering his standards and having a side-swipe at my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I understand that. It seems to be an irresistible temptation. Let me offer the hon. Gentleman a word of advice: it does not seem to be doing the shadow Foreign Secretary much good. Every time the right hon. and learned Gentleman succumbs to that temptation, it seems to damage his career even more. The hon. Gentleman has a longer career ahead of him than the right hon. and learned Gentleman and I advise him to maintain the more consensual approach, when he was doing much better.

All that my right hon. Friend was saying in his statement on Monday in the context of Yemen--as he would say in the context of any other similar case--was that it is the responsibility of the British Government, through the Foreign Office, to ensure that there is consular access, that there are consular services and that, as far as possible, due process is followed. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, what has happened in Yemen and what will happen in other cases is on all fours with what has happened in the case of George Atkinson. In every case we shall try to ensure due process and access for the British Foreign Office and our consular and embassy staff.

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Our staff have been active in their contacts with Mr. Atkinson. I think that the hon. Gentleman--not on this occasion but in the Adjournment debate on 2 June 1998--made it clear that he was satisfied with the support given by the consular staff. He is right in saying that. That activity has gone on from the very first day. It has been our consular staff's responsibility to do what they can through this process to support Mr. Atkinson and his family. It is fair to say that the staff have carried out that responsibility with great skill, patience and sensitivity. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that they will continue to carry out that responsibility for however long it is necessary to do so. I hope that I can join the hon. Gentleman in expressing my thanks to the consular staff in Dubai for the work that they have done and will continue to do.

The hon. Gentleman said that there was a ministerial responsibility to raise the case with the Dubai authorities and that Ministers should have intervened. Again, I think that there is an element of misunderstanding in that statement. What the hon. Gentleman so temptingly and tantalisingly offered to Ministers was almost that we should take on the role of advocacy on behalf of his constituent. We cannot perform that role. Certainly, we can ask that due procedure take place, and the hon. Gentleman knows that my noble Friend Baroness Symons called in the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to make a number of points about the George Atkinson case to ensure that due process was followed. She emphasised that, if necessary, he should be charged and that, if not, he should be freed. She also made it clear that there should be access to lawyers and legal advice.

That action took place at ministerial level, so the hon. Gentleman has no valid grounds for criticism of the Foreign Office. We cannot go to Dubai and initiate a substantive argument about the case, Minister to Minister and Government to Government. That is not our task, which is to ensure that due process works, and we have delivered that message to the United Arab Emirates ambassador. In that way, we have discharged our ministerial responsibilities, as I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the long period during which George Atkinson was held without charge. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have said recently in the context of Yemen, our principle is always that people should be either charged or released. That is the basis of United Kingdom law, and it is an essential freedom and human right.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention, one of the 21 thematic mechanisms set up by the UN Commission on Human Rights. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the working group came to a specific view on the George Atkinson case, but I remind the House that the group's decisions are not legally binding on Governments. However, we took immediate action, as we believe that it is the responsibility of any Government to accept the working group's advice, decisions and guidance. On 10 November last year, our consul-general, in a note to the Government in Dubai, stated that the embassy

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    The hon. Gentleman can therefore be reassured that the Government, acting on the opportunity provided by the UN working group judgment, asked the authorities in Dubai to release George Atkinson. It may sound harsh, but what we were really saying was that George Atkinson either had to be charged or released. We hoped that he would be released, which would have been consistent with the working group judgment, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we made those representations on behalf of his constituent. We shall continue to make those representations whenever it is necessary or possible.

From what I have said, the House will understand that the Foreign Office has been active, persistent and committed in carrying out its responsibilities through our consular services. We have provided advice and support for Mr. Atkinson and we have taken up his case with the Dubai authorities. We shall continue to take an interest in his case and to ensure that all procedures are followed. We are not the Government of Dubai and we can only discharge our own responsibilities. We do not have the power to enforce, only the power of influence, argument and representation.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the authorities in Dubai and the Government of the United Arab Emirates are friends of the United Kingdom and we have a close relationship with them. Indeed, it was the previous Conservative Government who signed a detailed defence

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arrangement with the United Arab Emirates, an arrangement which is unique for a country outside NATO. That shows clearly that a close relationship exists between our two countries. In the context of that friendship, it is right, if we feel that one of our citizens is not being treated according to due process, that we should draw the matter to the attention of the host Government. We have done that, and we shall continue to do so whenever the case of George Atkinson requires it.

To sum up, the Government have discharged our responsibilities and will continue to do so. We can act only on the procedural points, not on the substantive points. We cannot make a judgment on the facts, or bring in a verdict. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman--and, through him, George Atkinson and his family--that the Foreign Office will continue to provide the services that Parliament asks us to provide, with all the commitment and resources that we have.

It being before Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.

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