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The similarity of that case to the prosecution’s claim in the present case, that the words “Let’s get them!” amounted to a plan of a joint criminal enterprise, is striking. Nevertheless, the assize court found that there was no common purpose or joint enterprise between the three boys to kill or injure the victims or anybody else. The supreme court disagreed, suggesting that the assize court had erred in law. Indeed, the only argument that I have heard in favour of the boys’
conviction without a retrial is that the appeal concerned only a point of law. I do not believe that reasoning to be robust.

What the supreme court really meant by an appeal on a point of law was that it placed a different interpretation on the facts. Even the prosecution admitted when making its case that the evidence against the boys was “circumstantial”. Instead of examining each event in isolation, as the assize court had done, the supreme court drew its conclusions from the entire sequence of events that transpired that night, and it inferred that there had been a common purpose. However, if the supreme court believed that the assize court had misdirected itself on a point of law, it should have ordered a retrial so that a new court could be properly directed as to the law and hear the facts.

It is crucial to establish both the facts and the sequence of events, and there are manifest difficulties in doing so. Whether we consider the abundance of unsworn statements; the repeatedly changed testimony from witnesses who saw the events unfold at some distance and, I hasten to add, in the dark; the inaccuracies and additions to testimony; or the plain confusion about the sequence of events, the facts are about as clear as mud.

Luke and Michael were arguably too drunk to have formed any common purpose, malicious or otherwise, and in any event were unable to get out of a moving vehicle. There does not appear to be any clear justification for the expedient of throwing out an acquittal and substituting a guilty verdict. The fact remains that the supreme court overruled the assize court and inferred the existence of a common purpose without itself having heard a shred of evidence. That is deeply worrying.

I shall draw my remarks to a close by thanking the acting high commissioner of Cyprus to the UK, Mr. Dimitris Hatziargyrou, for agreeing to meet me to discuss the case. As a diplomat responsible to the Executive of a state that believes in the full separation of powers, he was in a difficult situation, but he acquitted himself with both great courtesy and professionalism. I should also like to thank Saima Hirji from Fair Trials International and Karen Todner, Luke and Michael’s English solicitor, for their invaluable assistance. Finally, I ask the Minister to do all that she can to secure a just outcome for Michael and Luke.

2.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): I congratulate the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) on securing the debate and on representing his constituents with such rigour. I have had some contact with Richard Howitt MEP, who has been representing the interests of Julian Harrington, including by raising the matter with the Attorney-General of Cyprus and by meeting the acting Cypriot high commissioner and a delegation of the families. It would be fair to say that at all levels of democratic representation, the individuals involved have had good support from their elected representatives.

I welcome the opportunity briefly to emphasise the role that our consular staff in Cyprus and London have played in following the cases of Mr. Binnington and Mr. Atkinson and in providing them and their families
with consular assistance. I know that the hon. Gentleman would agree that, as one would expect, there has been support from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Given the limited amount of time available, I shall move on quickly to the hon. Gentleman’s particular points. The British high commission in Nicosia was officially informed by the Cypriot authorities on 21 August 2006 that Mr. Binnington and Mr. Atkinson had appeared in Larnaca district court on 19 August, when an eight-day remand order was issued. Both men were being investigated for, but not yet charged with, conspiracy to kill, premeditated murder and attempt to kill.

The hon. Gentleman has gone into some detail about the events of that night in Cyprus, so I will not go over them again. The duty officer at the British high commission visited both men on 19 August, following notification of their court appearance, and they both had proper legal representation. They did not need anyone in the UK to be contacted.

Let me move on to deal with extradition. I am liaising closely with my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, as this matter falls between our responsibilities—he representing the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and me the Home Office. The fact is that if the supreme court has decided as it has on a prison sentence, a warrant will be issued for the extradition of the two men back to Cyprus if they do not return willingly. That is a matter for the courts in both the UK and Cyprus; it is not something that Ministers can get directly involved in.

Consular staff from the British high commission in Nicosia attended the hearing yesterday at the supreme court, where the three presiding judges agreed on an adjournment, as the hon. Gentleman said, because certain documents were unavailable. Consular staff in Cyprus also spoke to the defendants’ lawyer, who confirmed that because of the behaviour of the victim’s family at previous court hearings, he did not intend to address the next court hearing orally, but to provide the judges with written statements and evidence. I trust that the hon. Gentleman is content with the legal representation and consular support that these men are receiving.

Let me respond to some of the hon. Gentleman’s further specific points. He asked whether the Government could intervene on the Cypriot Government to fend off a possible extradition request. As I have already said, however, that is a matter for the courts. It is not the role of Her Majesty’s Government to interfere in the internal affairs of another state, including in their judicial proceedings. Our own proceedings are, quite rightly, protected in a similar way. The hon. Gentleman, in challenging the issues of legality within Cyprus is taking the right route, as Her Majesty’s Government cannot be expected, and are unable, to intervene.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about precedents for a supreme court intervention of this nature. I am afraid it is impossible to give a categoric answer on that, which would require a worldwide trawl of information. No precedent springs easily to my mind, so he may need to carry out further work himself on the issue.

Encouraging the Cypriot Government to institute a full review of the case is another one of the hon. Gentleman’s requests. He wants a review of how the
case has been handled. The defence lawyer for both Mr. Atkinson and Mr. Binnington has not raised with the Government any questions about the conduct or fairness of the supreme court hearings. Where appropriate, however, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will consider approaching the local authorities if a British national is not treated in line with internationally accepted standards. The FCO will also consider approaching the local authorities where a trial does not follow internationally recognised standards for a fair trial or where it is unreasonably delayed. I hope that that explains the Government’s remit in this area.

The hon. Gentleman asked the Home Secretary whether she would resist the application for extradition, if and when it is forthcoming. As I have already explained a couple of times, Ministers have no role in the extradition process. Whether or not to order extradition is a matter for the courts, and the courts must decide whether extradition would be compatible with the convention rights within the meaning of the Human Rights Act 1998.

Mr. Newmark: Time is short. I understand that the President of Cyprus is visiting the Foreign Secretary in two or three weeks’ time, so will the Minister at least approach the latter to get this case put on the agenda when he meets the new President of Cyprus?

Meg Hillier: I would be happy to raise the matter with the Minister for Europe, as it would be better for him to raise the matter with his colleague directly. The hon. Gentleman has put that on the record and I will ensure that I mention the issue personally to my ministerial colleague.

The men’s lawyers will be able to put all their arguments to the court, should an extradition request be made and referred to it. In extradition requests, the
legal niceties are all dealt with properly and formally. Extradition warrants have been well conducted and well rehearsed for some time now—we have good conventions within the EU on the matter.

The hon. Gentleman also raised article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which protects the right to a fair hearing but does not require that an accused be tried by jury. Mr. Harrington’s sentence being disproportionate to the offence is a difficult matter for us to comment on. It is difficult for the Government to know the full facts of the case and all the factors that the judge took into account in sentencing. That is a matter for the judicial authorities in Cyprus.

The honorary legal adviser in Nicosia advised that the ruling of the supreme court is not contrary to Cypriot law, but noted the possibility of an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some comfort.

The primary role of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in assisting British nationals arrested or detained overseas is to support them and take an interest in their welfare. The Home Office has a responsibility to ensure that the European arrest warrant is conducted in a proper manner, but without interference from Ministers. We ensure that the process happens as it should, and in my experience as a Minister looking at other European arrest warrants, it works well and fairly. We have respect for each other’s legal systems, which is the bedrock of the process.

We can take up any justified complaint about ill treatment, personal safety or discrimination, with a British national’s permission, but consular staff in Cyprus and London will, of course, continue to support Mr. Binnington and Mr. Atkinson and their families, within those limitations.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Three o’clock.

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