Saturday, 3 July 2010

Without let or hindrance

Those lovely old blue British passports used to have a warning that the holder was British and was not to be messed about. The current EU identity document has something similar but, coming from a mongrel organisation and looking like a Flemish dog license, carries little weight.

Way back at the beginning of May this year I wrote of the predicament of an Englishman held in an Afghan jail on corruption charges. He is still there despite valiant attempts by his loved ones to orchestrate his release. How can it be that this man has not been returned to the bosom of his family? Are our Government representatives in Kabul really doing all they can to overturn what seems to be an injustice? I doubt it.

My direct personal experience is that consular etc offices do not exert any Herculean efforts to assist our Nationals when they are in trouble with local authority. They have to maintain a working relationship with foreign governments and it can be a delicate matter to tell one's opposite number that his jurisdiction is crap. This is especially so where the individual is a man proud of his country's status and his independence. Afghanistan is such a place. It could be difficult to raise the case of one single Englishman's incarceration where the subject country is complaining of a rain of death indiscriminately taking the lives of their women and children.

Our people would prefer to leave any lobbying to the individual's employer and shelter behind "best efforts" and "every endeavour". At the time when I was occasionally involved all that this required was a visit every six weeks and I doubt that hallowed procedure has changed. Approaches to the FCO in London would be met with the same "best efforts" response and any attempt to obtain details would be met with "it is all very delicate" rebuff.

The man was employed by a security contractor that is deemed as amongst the leaders in Afghanistan of that industry. They have contracts with the Afghan government. This should give them access to that Old Boy Network that is so essential to getting things done in foreign countries. What is being done by them seems somehow restricted in the accounts of the case for the man's release. Their competence could be subject to some questions.

The case started after a Government agency seized two of the firm's vehicles. The reason given was that they were not correctly registered but they seem to have been told that a cash payment to the agency would effect their release. The sum demanded was not a small one. The seizure and demand for cash payment should have arisen the suspicions of any white-kneed English virgin who had never been further East than Port Said. Were the two vehicles so important to the operations of the large security company that prompt action was essential? What would be the cost - financial and organisation-wise - of leaving the vehicles where they were and settling the matter as one would by a fine levied by a proper authority. Could the employer not have enlisted the services of a go between if they had any doubt as to the legality of the demand? Maybe cost a bit more to pay such individual but he could negotiate a discount on the levy and it would be an Afghan skin at risk. Some may say I am being wise after the event but I would require a security company doing business in Afghanistan to be very wise as to the risks and the way things were handled in a country well known for corruption. I am not so naïve as to overlook the possibility that their contracts would not have been so seemingly successful and wide spread without sponsorship of a Minister at least. They doubtless assumed that it was a very minor matter.

Certainly, the choice of defence counsel seemed strange. The employment of a female must surely be unorthodox in a country where a woman is deemed as less value than a good hunting dog. Those hearing the case were most likely embarrassed to have her address them. No interpreters were provided and the accused spoke no local language - there surely was an opportunity for her to get on her hind legs and object in a forceful manner. My information is that there is to be an appeal today and our Man in Kabul is 'observing'. I would feel more comfortable if he were in there fighting and not just looking on. Kabul must have a local equivalent of Mike Mansfield and he is the man we need. Able to rant and smooch the bench in a language they understand.

It will be noted that I have not given much detail of the man in jail. Every article or mention makes play that he was a major in the Military Police, served 28 years as such and is the holder of the MBE. None of these are irrefutable rebuttal of how he acted when he passed over the money demanded. I have dealt with corrupt officers including a number from the Military Police. The 28 years of service must hurt given that he was so easily conned into a course of action later determined to be illegal; just what had those years taught him? His campaigners have attracted considerable numbers all claiming that he is an honourable man. This may well be true but they cannot really know what happened in this case regarding his actions on a particular date and time in a defined place.

Some may say that I have no idea of what he is suffering. Well, I have visited numbers of British personnel in Middle Eastern prisons and they are not nice places. The absolute power of a foreign country was demonstrated to me in Libya in 1961. I was working with the local police where a British soldier was accused of the murder of a local national. Whilst the inquiry was in progress, his son died in UK and there was a need for him to go home. He was in a local prison and the efforts of the Consular office for his repatriation were scorned. The police Commander made the point that they would never see him again once he was outside their jurisdiction. I met with him and he agreed to let the man go in the understanding that if he did not return when due, I would take his place in prison and be held until he did appear back in Benghazi. I felt confident enough to agree. The Welshman returned to the Valleys but came back so all was well.

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