The High Court ruled last week that the decision to cut short an inquiry into claims of bribery in an arms deal between BAE and Saudi Arabia was illegal.
The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) was investigating claims that money was paid to Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia in connection with the biggest ever British arms deal in history. Alongside the contract, worth £43billion, it is alleged that the Prince received over £1bn of payments that were fed through a US bank. It is claimed that The Ministry of Defence, under the leadership of the Blair government, sanctioned the £30m-a-quarter payments. The money paid to Prince Bandar is alleged to have bribed the Saudi government into taking the BAE contract. Payments such as these were made illegal under UK law in 2002.
The initial investigation by the SFO discovered the payments to the Prince within the transactions of the Saudi weapons contract. Under pressure from Tony Blair and Lord Goldsmith, SFO director Robert Wardle decided to put an end to the investigation. Lord Goldmith, the Attorney General, stated that the continuation of the inquiry would cause ‘serious damage’ to UK-Saudi relations.
Saudi Arabia is believed to have made ‘blatant threats’ to discontinue its cooperation in the war on terror unless the inquiry was terminated. The government claim that it was this threat against national security that made them decide to halt the investigation. Tony Blair said that he would take ‘full responsibility’ for the decision.
The British ambassador to Saudi Arabia warned in an SFO document that ‘British lives on British streets’ would be at risk if any investigation persisted. ‘If this caused another 7/7, how could we say our investigation is more important?’
The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), along with the anti-corruption organisation Corner House, fought for an assessment of the decision to cut short the inquiry. In an astonishing triumph for the campaigners, Lord Justice Moses and Justice Sullivan said in their ruling that:
‘No one, whether within this country or outside, is entitled to interfere with the course of our justice. It is the failure of government and the defendant to bear that essential principle in mind that justifies the intervention of this court.’
‘Had such a threat been made by one who was subject to the criminal law of this country, he would risk being charged with an attempt to pervert the course of justice.’
‘To give in so easily merely encourages those with power, in a position of strategic and political importance, to repeat such threats, in the knowledge that the courts will not interfere with the decision of a prosecutor to surrender.’
‘No one suggested to those uttering the threat that it was futile, that the United Kingdom’s system of democracy forbad pressure being exerted on an independent prosecutor whether by the domestic executive or by anyone else; noone even hinted that the courts would strive to protect the rule of law and protect the independence of the prosecutor by striking down any decision he might be tempted to make in submission to the threat.’
The SFO now need to put forward a new case to stop the investigation from proceeding. However, this needs to be solely on legal grounds – and diplomatic pressure from one of the subjects of the investigation will not be a satisfactory basis for halting the investigation.
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This post was written by Chris Bath