Torture ruling to be challenged

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The Independent Online
Human rights groups are taking the Director of Public Prosecutions to court over the decision not to prosecute two businessmen supposedly implicated in the torture trade. The case could have wider implications for organisations bringing similar public interest cases, reports Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent.

Amnesty International and Redress, a body which works for torture victims, have been given leave to seek judicial review of the DPP's decision not to take criminal proceedings against two salesmen working for the British defence industry. The pair were allegedly shown in a Channel 4 documentary The British Torture Trade demonstrating how to sell electro-shock batons abroad against government policy.

The organisations are questioning how the decision not to prosecute the two men - when another person featured in the programme was fined pounds 5,000 in a Scottish court - could be in the "public interest" as the DPP claims.

The award-winning documentary, made by Martyn Gregory, exposed the continuing trade in potential torture weapons involving British firms. Earlier this year Amnesty International claimed that batons and other, similar, devices have been used for torture in up to 50 countries since 1990.

It is the first time that organisations representing the interests of torture victims abroad have been given the right to take legal action on their behalf in a British court. The case is seen as important at a time when the Government has show its commitment to an "ethical" foreign policy.

Another key element of the case is that both organisations are seeking what is called protective costs. This means an order from the judge that whoever wins the trial, each side will pay only their own expenses.

If successful, this could have enormous implications for similar actions by concerned bodies - who have no selfish interest in the outcome - to bring cases against authorities in the future.

At present, some organisations are deterred from bringing public interest cases, even if they feel they are likely to succeed, because of the risk of having to pay a massive bill if they lose against a public body.

At the judicial review hearing, expected early next year, Amnesty and Redress will also seek to establish for the first time that such disinterested groups can win a limit on the costs they have to bear.

Karen Ashton, of the Public Law Project, which is helping to bring the cases, said they saw it as an important test case on both the issue of public interest and the issue of costs.

"The questions are whether the judges have the power to make an order on protective costs, and whether they will in this case," she said. "It has implications on whether people can bring this kind of case in the future.

"Sometimes people can be deterred even if they feel they have a good case, because of the costs."

A spokeswoman for the DPP said very careful consideration had been given to the facts of the case before the decision not to prosecute.