With the best of intentions justice is not always as blind as it should be. But seldom is it as downright astigmatic as it was on July 30th, when the law lords ruled that the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) was entitled to submit to blackmail and drop its investigation, in December 2006, into alleged bribery in a Saudi Arabian arms deal.
The SFO called off its gumshoes soon after they started circling the Swiss bank accounts of senior Saudi figures, and said figures squealed. At issue was whether bribes had been paid in relation to Britain’s biggest-ever arms deal—a £43 billion contract between the governments of Britain and Saudi Arabia and BAE Systems, Britain’s largest defence firm, to provide the desert kingdom with fighter jets and training. The SFO said it halted the investigation after receiving warnings from several sources that it could prompt Saudi Arabia to stop sharing anti-terrorist intelligence with Britain.
This week’s ruling overturns an earlier one by the High Court in April, which found that the director of the SFO at the time, Robert Wardle, should not have dropped the case. Judges in the lower court had lambasted Mr Wardle for his “abject surrender” in the face of Saudi threats—arguing that had they been made by people subject to English criminal law they could have led to a charge of attempting to pervert the course of justice. Yet the lords decided that, confronted with dark mutterings by British spies and diplomats about threats to “British lives on British streets” should Saudi Arabia withhold intelligence, Mr Wardle was lawfully entitled to drop it.
Dismayed campaigners against corruption (and, not a few of them, the arms trade) have been quick to warn that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent. “It is a sad day for the rule of law when a senior prosecutor bows to threats from a foreign government and our most senior judges will do nothing to stop it,” says Eric Metcalfe of Justice, a human-rights group.
Just as worrying is the signal the ruling sends about a legal system that has long been criticised for its sloth in pursuing white-collar criminals in general. It was fortuitous for the government, then, that eight men were arrested on July 29th in connection with a probe of insider trading—a crime more notable in Britain for its prevalence than for the vigour with which it is prosecuted.