Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Protecting the guilty

There's an intriguing new decision on the Information Tribunal website. The Foreign Office has been ordered to release documents dating back to the 1960s showing the involvement of British diplomats in bribing Saudi officials and ministers to secure arms deals. But the tribunal has allowed the FCO to conceal the names of the Saudis involved, some of whom remain in goverment today.

The tribunal found that publication of files requested by Campaign Against Arms Trade campaigner Nicholas Gilby would be highly likely to cause "real and substantial prejudice" to Britain's relations - and arms dealing - with the Saudi regime But it ruled that the public interest nevertheless requires disclosure of evidence that UK officials facilitated illegal payments to secure contracts relating to tank exports and aircraft maintenance.

Significantly, the tribunal ruled that there was a "greater sensitivity" around information relating "directly to those involved in the [Saudi Arabian Government]". For this reason, it found that the public interest in concealing the information outweighs reasons for disclosure.

During the hearings in March, the UK's ambassador to Saudia Arabia, William Patey, had pointed out that the country's defence minister, Prince Sultan, had been in place since 1962. "Thus the documents... may notwithstanding the passage of time continue to be directly relevant to those currently in power."

Gilby, who has carried out extensive research into Britain's ongoing arms trading relationship with Saudi Arabia, won praise from the tribunal for the way he represented himself during the public parts of the hearing. The tribunal had taken the unprecendented step of appointing a special advocate (Khawar Qureshi QC) to represent his interests in its closed sessions.

Gilby told me: "I am delighted the tribunal has accepted the strength of the public interest arguments in exposing British Government complicity in highly dubious business practices relating to arms deals with Saudi Arabia."

The tribunal also hinted that it had heard evidence suggesting that the public interest in continuing arms exports to Saudi Arabia was greater than could be stated publicly. It stated that, although the value of sales in global economic terms was very small, it was "in no doubt as to their importance in the public interest having regard to both the open evidence which we have heard but also that in closed session."

What could this mean? There have been suggestions that BAE might not survive without Saudi contracts, although this seems unlikely. It was also said during the recent case over the Tony Blair's decision to drop the Serious Fraud Office inquiry that intelligence co-operation was at stake.

One thing is for sure: everything about the arms trade with Saudi Arabia is very murky.

For what it's worth, an FCO spokesman gave me the usual line in such cases: "we have seen the judgement and are considering it carefully." The FCO has 28 days (from 22 October) to release the information or appeal to the High Court.

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