The U.K. Guardian reports today (here) that the British High Court has ruled in scathing language that the decision by the Serious Fraud Office to drop an investigation into bribery allegations involving BAE Systems and Saudi Prince Bandar was improper. The court said it will issue orders for further action later.
For anyone new to this story, British defense contractor BAE Systems is accused of paying £1 billion to the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar (who allegedly passed money to other officials), in return for help selling Typhoon jet fighters to the Saudi government. The Serious Fraud Office started an investigation but Prime Minister Tony Blair shut it down last year, citing national security. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice picked up the investigation and started gathering evidence about possible Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations directly from British witnesses. Both BAE and Prince Bandar have denied violating any laws.
The SFO’s decision to drop its investigation was challenged earlier this year in court by public interest groups. The High Court in London heard in mid February “unchallenged allegations that it was Prince Bandar, the alleged beneficiary of £1bn in secret payments from the arms giant BAE, who threatened to cut off intelligence on terrorists if the investigation into him and his family was not stopped. Investigators said they were given to understand there would be ‘another 7/7’ and the loss of ‘British lives on British streets’ if they carried on delving into the payments. The government argued . . . that these threats were so ‘grave’ and put Britain’s security in such ‘imminent’ threat that the head of the Serious Fraud Office had no option but to shut down his investigation immediately.”
In the lead up to February’s High Court hearings, the Guardian almost single-handedly kept the story alive. Here are excerpts from today’s report:
In a stunning victory for the activist groups that launched the legal challenge, the two judges said Tony Blair’s government and the SFO caved in too readily to threats by Saudi Arabia over intelligence sharing and trade.
In an often scathing judgement, Lord Justice Moses and Justice Sullivan rejected the SFO’s argument that it was powerless to resist the Saudi threats.
“So bleak a picture of the impotence of the law invites at least dismay, if not outrage,” they said.
“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, the judges said, “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”.
Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and Corner House Research had sought a review of the decision by the SFO director, Robert Wardle, in December 2006 to drop the investigation into allegations of bribery and corruption over the £43bn Al-Yamamah arms deal, signed in 1985.
“No one, whether in this country or outside, is entitled to interfere with the course of our justice,” Moses and Sullivan ruled. . . .
The judges ruled that the SFO decision was unlawful but made no formal orders for further action – something they will consider at a further hearing. It is believed the most likely course will be that the SFO will have to reconsider its decision.
They had harsh words for the attitude of the SFO and the Blair government in never even considering the option of telling the Saudis their threats would be ignored.
“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; no-one 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.”
At a two-day hearing in February, lawyers for CAAT and Corner House argued that the SFO dropped its investigation due to Saudi Arabian pressure that amounted to diplomatic blackmail.
Blair, the then prime minister, said the Saudis had privately threatened to cut intelligence cooperation over terrorism unless the inquiry was stopped.
The government did not dispute this version of events, the judges noted in their ruling.
They decided that Wardle “was required to satisfy the court that all that could reasonably be done had been done to resist the threat”, and said: “He has failed to do so.” . . .
David Leigh, the Guardian’s investigations editor, said: “The Guardian unearthed and published the facts about BAE’s dealings with Saudi Arabia as long ago as 2004. We passed our evidence to the SFO, who embarked on a long inquiry.
“Recently we also decided to name Prince Bandar as the recipient of £1bn from BAE. We are very pleased that today’s high court judgment vindicates all the work the Guardian has done in the public interest to expose this scandal.”
The judges were told Prince Bandar, a Saudi national security adviser allegedly involved in the bribery, was behind threats to hold back information about potential suicide bombers and terrorists. . . .
View prior posts about BAE and Prince Bandar here.