Pressure was mounting last night on the government to allow the reopening of the criminal investigation into secret payments by arms company BAE to Saudi Arabia following a high court judgment that made clear the inquiry should never have been dropped.
Ministers have to decide in the next two weeks over what to do about the ruling from Lord Justice Moses, who with Lord Justice Sullivan, delivered a damning verdict on the behaviour of the former prime minister, Tony Blair, and his government in forcing a halt to the long-running investigation.
The judges rejected claims that the inquiry had to be closed down for security reasons because “lives were at risk”, and said the success of Saudi blackmail attempts had been unlawful. The judgment named Saudi Prince Bandar as the man behind what they characterised as an attempt to pervert the course of justice.
The judges said: “We fear for the reputation of the administration of justice if it can be perverted by a threat … No one, whether within this country or outside, is entitled to interfere with the course of our justice. The rule of law is nothing if it fails to constrain overweening power.”
The court said that the Saudis should have been made to understand “the enormity of the interference with the UK’s sovereignty, when a foreign power seeks to interfere with the internal administration of the criminal law. It is not difficult to imagine what they would think if we attempted to interfere with their criminal justice system”.
The high court will reconvene in a fortnight to decide what remedy to award the two groups of anti-corruption campaigners who brought the judicial review of the Serious Fraud Office decision to end the inquiry.
Among those waiting to see what Gordon Brown will do is the anti-bribery committee of the OECD, who spent last week in London grilling British officials about the apparent flouting of an international treaty. Investigators in Switzerland and the US Department of Justice, who took up the Saudi case when Britain abandoned it, will also be awaiting the government’s next move. Ministers have so far refused to assist the US which has made requests for documents under a mutual legal assistance treaty.
Campaigners and MPs yesterday called for Brown to distance himself from his predecessor and allow the BAE inquiry to restart. Susan Hawley, of Corner House, one of the two groups of campaigners who brought yesterday’s case, said: “The judges have stood up for the right of independent prosecutors not to be subjected to political pressure and they have made sure that the government cannot use national security arrangements just because a prosecution is not in their interests.”
Symon Hill, of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, added: “This judgment brings Britain a step closer to the day when BAE is no longer calling the shots. It has been clear from the start that the dropping of the investigation was about neither national security nor jobs. It was due to the influence of BAE and Saudi princes over the UK government.”
The embarrassment caused by the high court’s uncompromising judgment was reflected yesterday in the official silence from Westminster, Whitehall, and BAE itself. Although advance copies of the judgment were supplied in confidence to all parties, neither Downing Street nor the attorney general had anything to say.
The SFO’s director, Robert Wardle, whose decision to bow to pressure was at the heart of the case, also remained silent.But a source close to the police and SFO investigating team said: “This is a beautifully written landmark judgment, which in its re-statement of principle reads as though it came from the US supreme court.”
Labour backbencher Bob Marshall-Andrews said the judgment meant “a new inquiry is inevitable”, a view backed by Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader. “These rulings will be a test for Baroness Scotland in her new role [as attorney general] on whether the government will take the case forward,” he said. “It is also a test for the PM on whether he will take a different line from his predecessor, who intervened to halt the investigation in the first place.”