A British businessman embroiled in the Vietnamese legal system since 2004 suffered another setback last week after the latest of many hearings was cancelled – this time because of bad weather.
Peter Laking, 62, from Sussex, has been marooned in Vietnam, where he ran a quarry business, since his arrest for alleged fraud against two former Irish business associates. He spent 13 months in a notoriously tough prison, with limited access to a lawyer or interpreter, before being granted bail, which forbids him from leaving Ho Chi Min City or talking about his case. He is one of a growing number of Britons entangled in legal conflict abroad after a business venture turned sour.
As more and more Britons holiday, visit family, settle and do business in foreign countries, the uncertainties of a foreign trial are no longer limited to those unlucky, naive and sometimes stupid enough to be caught up as drug mules, according to Fair Trials International's chief executive, Jago Russell. FTI receives between 400 and 500 requests for assistance every year; around 10 per cent of their active cases involve business people.
"From murder to nightclub brawls, extramarital affairs to defamation, we see a huge variety of cases where there are serious concerns about the fairness of the trial," Mr Russell said. "There are enormous problems with the standards of justice in Europe from where half of our cases come, with many people pleading guilty in countries like Spain in order to avoid years awaiting trial in jail. The most tragic cases are when families come to us after they've remortgaged their house to pay a local lawyer who has done very little or run off with their money."
Doing business abroad without fully understanding local laws and tacit customs can lead to a legal nightmare. Mr Laking, who signed away all his assets in prison, has suffered several strokes while waiting for his case to be heard. Last year the Foreign Office took the unusual step of sending a diplomatic note to Vietnamese officials asking for a speedy resolution. Mr Laking was then indicted on a new set of charges. Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, who has campaigned on Mr Laking's behalf, last night called for more diplomatic pressure.