Clive Stafford Smith

Six lives saved in 2011, thanks to the British Foreign Office

on 11 April 2012

Too much bad news swirls around us; sometimes we should celebrate the positive. Yesterday the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office published William Hague's speech on consular services, committing 'to increase our focus on vulnerable people.'

This is welcome news for Reprieve and the British nationals we assist: there can hardly be someone more vulnerable than a penniless person who some foreign government wants to put to death.

Reprieve now has over 25 staff and we fight on the behalf of dozens of people - from those kidnapped and delivered to torture to those facing execution round the world. We began our work focusing on British nationals facing execution. As part of our commitment to assisting British nationals, we communicate and work closely with the Foreign Office (sometimes late on a Friday afternoon they may feel it is a little too close - we call them quite a lot).

It was not always so positive. When I began this work in 1984, Britain did very little for those facing the death penalty. However, the FCO has taken an increasingly admirable stance and Mr Hague's speech mentions the 6 British nationals who the government successfully helped to protected from execution last year. We and the families of these prisoners know more than most how vital effective consular assistance is to people facing capital charges in a country which is not their own.

It's difficult to imagine how terrifying it must be to be arrested, interrogated by the police and often tortured, far from home, in a foreign language, with no one to turn to, no idea of what will happen to you and facing the full force of a State which wants to kill you. In Indonesia, police torture is routine and often a consular visit may be the only path to safety. In Paistan, British national Shabbir Zaib was tortured and forced to sign a blank piece of paper which later became a false confession used against him in a murder trial.

It is a basic principle of law that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. A fair trial means a lot of things, including having a competent lawyer, and having an interpreter during the police investigation. The criticisms cannot stop with countries in the developing world: Linda Carty was sentenced to die in Texas, and the UK Government filed a friend of the court brief explaining how consular involvement would have helped her secure a different lawyer - rather than the court appointed Jerry Guerinot, who expedited her journey to death row.

The battle is far from done. No doubt the FCO will occasionally rue the times when we cajole them to do more. Sometimes consular services are not everything we all wish they could be.

But it is very heartening to see a Minister make a public commitment to increasing focus on the most vulnerable Britons abroad, lending weight to the words inside the passport cover: "Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State requests and requires ... all those whom it may concern to ... afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary."

When your life is at stake, you'll want those words to mean what they say.


This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

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