The arms company BAE Systems will be charged with corruption after years of allegations and controversy.
The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) confirmed this morning (1 October) that they have asked the Attorney-General to initiate proceedings for prosecution. BAE will be charged with multi-milllion bribery in several countries, thought to include South Africa, Romania, the Czech Republic and Tanzania.
The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) said they were “very pleased” that “the message is going out that no-one is above the law”.
Nicholas Hildyard of The Corner House, a leading anti-corruption NGO, urged “prosecution without delay so that these serious allegations can be resolved in public by a jury and the truth can be known”.
BAE, one of the world's largest arms dealers, deny breaking the law.
The company have long been accused of corruption throughout the world. Despite being the subject of criminal investigations in almost every continent, this is expected to be the first time that they will face a courtroom.
BAE are reported to have rejected a “plea bargain”. However, it is still possible that such an agreement could be reached before the case comes to court.
In addition to allegations of corruption, BAE have long come under attack from NGOs, churches and faith groups due to their arms deals with oppressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.
“For many years we have been exposing the illegal and unethical activities of the arms trade, especially BAE” said CAAT's Kaye Stearman this morning, “We welcome the SFO decision to go ahead. It would be scandalous if the Attorney-General did not take this forward.”
BAE successfully avoided prosecution over their huge deals with the Saudi regime due to the company's lobbying of Tony Blair's government in 2006. Blair pressurised the SFO to drop the investigation on grounds of “national security”.
After a legal challenge by CAAT and The Corner House, the High Court declared the cancellation of the inquiry to be illegal, but their judgment was overturned by the Law Lords.
Today's news was welcomed by the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia.
“If the rich and powerful are to be subject to the same laws as the rest of us then this prosecution must be pursued thoroughly” said Ekklesia's associate director Symon Hill, who previously worked for CAAT and was involved in the legal challenge against the dropping of the BAE investigation in 2006.
He added that “It is vital that justice is not again derailed due to the undemocratic influence of arms dealers and their friends in government and the media”.
The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, declined to express a view on the case, telling the BBC that it was “a matter for the Attorney-General”, but adding that “the law of the land applies without fear or favour”.
However, supporters of the arms trade have been quick to jump to BAE's defence, claiming that arms exports bring many economic benefits to Britain. Their argument is made more difficult by the fact that arms account for less than 2 per cent of UK exports.
“BAE loves wrapping itself in the Union Jack” said Stearman, “When you look behind the Union Jack, you find a rather different story”. She pointed out that BAE has more employees in the USA than the UK.