Legal challenge over UK government 'subservience' to Saudi regime

By agency reporter
February 29, 2008

The British government is to face the Information Tribunal next week concerning its refusal to disclose documents relating to arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The first case is being brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

This case came about after the government refused requests under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act to hand over two Memoranda of Understanding on which the multibillion pound Al-Yamamah deal in the 1980's was founded.

In a second case which follows immediately, Nicholas Gilby, a CAAT researcher, is appealing against the government's decision to withhold Foreign Office documents from the late 1960's and early 1970's. The documents concern negotiations around UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia which, Mr Gilby believes, contain evidence of corrupt practices.

The government is seeking to justify its position on the basis that it would offend Saudi sensibilities. The Tribunal will begin at 10.00am on Monday, 3rd March at Audit House, 58 Victoria Embankment, London EC4Y 0DS. Proceedings are expected to be completed by Friday 7 March.

CAAT's witnesses will include the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vincent Cable MP, who will give evidence on Monday morning, and the former diplomat, Carne Ross. Mr Cable will say that the documents have been denied to Parliament for the past 20 years and that they are central to Parliament’s ability to hold the Government to account over its dealings with Saudi Arabia.

The Government is relying on the evidence of a well-known high level diplomat, who will be questioned by CAAT’s barrister on Monday. The hearing dates have been arranged specially to accommodate this witness.

His evidence is that the documents' release would offend the Saudi regime. CAAT believes that the public has a right to know the details of the Al-Yamamah deal, which made billions of pounds for BAE Systems and has been dogged by accusations of corruption ever since it was signed. The Government appears to be hoping that secret evidence will win the case for them, as later in the week the Tribunal will meet in closed session.

The case has already broken new legal ground with the Tribunal agreeing with an application made by CAAT and Mr Gilby for the appointment of a “Special Advocate” to represent them in the secret hearings. This is the first occasion that the Information Tribunal, which is gaining a reputation for standing up to government claims for secrecy, has appointed a Special Advocate.

Symon Hill of Campaign Against Arms Trade commented: "Once again the government is seeking to frustrate the rule of law and the citizen's fundamental constitutional rights in the UK on the basis that Saudi royals will be offended. When are the government and the Saudis going to realise that they cannot continue to evade public accountability in the UK."

The Information Tribunal hearing comes less than three weeks after an appeal Court judge criticised the government for giving in to Saudi pressure to cut short a Serious Fraud Office investigation into BAE's Saudi arms deals. A judgement is awaited in that case, which brought fresh accusations of the UK government's subservience to the Saudi regime.

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