Guilty as charged

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Campaigners have won a landmark legal case against the government over the halting of an investigation into allegedly corrupt arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

Lord Justice Moses and Mr Justice Sullivan ruled in the High Court on 10 April that Tony Blair's government had acted unlawfully when they pressurised the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to abandon the inquiry. The judges described the situation as a "successful attempt by a foreign government to pervert the course of justice in the United Kingdom".

The case, brought by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and anti-corruption group The Corner House, came about after the SFO ended an investigation into allegations of fraud involving Britain's biggest arms manufacturer, BAE Systems, and the British and Saudi governments.

The close relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia allowed Margaret Thatcher and Blair to overlook the Saudi regime's appalling human rights record and negotiate the multi-billion pound deals that have ensured a continuing flow of weapons to Riyadh since the 1980s. Rather than demonstrating a triumph for British manufacturing, evidence came to light implying that BAE had provided "sweeteners" to Saudi princes costing millions of pounds.

After two years of investigating, the SFO announced that the case would be terminated. Blair cited national security and the importance of British-Saudi diplomatic relations as reasons, claiming that British lives would be under "imminent threat" if the Saudis stopped sharing intelligence on terrorism. His supporters argued that weapons sales maintain British jobs, although once the inquiry was dropped BAE admitted that most of the production for their latest Saudi deal would take place outside Britain.

CAAT and The Corner House sought a judicial review, mounting a case that has taken 16 months. The court found that the SFO was investigating Swiss bank accounts that may have been used to hold bribe money, when a threat from Saudi prince Bandar triggered the government's decision to end the proceedings.

The only imminent threat that the court could find was not to British lives but to the rule of law. The judges stated that "no-one, whether within this country or outside, is entitled to interfere with the course of our justice". They were damning of the government's "buckling" at the knees to a foreign power, and terminating a legitimate inquiry to "avoid uncomfortable consequences".

The ruling came as Gordon Brown pushed for legislation to allow the government to terminate any criminal investigation by citing "national security", with no meaningful scrutiny by parliament or the courts. The case against the government was made possible only by donations from thousands of supporters and members of the public who believe that arms companies should not be above the law.


For more information go to www.caat.org.uk