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7.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I am grateful to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (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.

Mr. Swayne: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: On this one occasion.

Mr. Swayne: 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?

Mr. O'Brien: 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—

Mr. Swayne: Is the Minister questioning my honour?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I ask the Minister to continue.

Mr. O'Brien: 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

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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

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:

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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.

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

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

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

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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

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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.

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