Four men who claim that they were tortured in Saudi Arabian prisons lost the right to sue their alleged torturers in Britain yesterday.
The law lords allowed an appeal by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against a decision by the Court of Appeal in 2004 giving the men permission to sue. They ruled that the authorities were protected by the State Immunity Act 1978 from proceedings brought in the English courts.
The case, in which the Lord Chancellor intervened to support the State Immunity Act, may now go to the European Court of Human Rights.
Sandy Mitchell, Les Walker and Bill Sampson were arrested after terrorist bombings in the Saudi capital Riyadh and in Khobar, eastern Saudi Arabia, six years ago, and claimed that they were tortured into admitting responsibility.
The fourth man, Ron Jones, was seized after being injured in a blast outside a bookshop.
Lord Bingham said that at the heart of the case was the relationship between two principles of international law. One was that a sovereign state would not assert its judicial authority over another.
The second, and more recent, condemned and criminalised the official practice of torture, required states to suppress it and provided for the trial and punishment of officials found guilty of it.
To establish their right to sue for damages, the claimants had to show that the grant of immunity to the Saudi defendants under the State Immunity Act would be disproportionate, as inconsistent with a binding principle of international law. They had failed to do so.
Lord Hoffmann said international law was based on the common consent of nations.
“It is not for a national court to develop international law by unilaterally adopting a version of that law which, however desirable, forward-looking and reflective of values it may be, is simply not accepted by other states.”
I am not an international lawyer. But I think a more robust and self-confident Britain would have protected its citizens.