Technicalities do not make the Guinness Three innocent

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The Independent Online

The judgment by the human-rights court in Strasbourg that the conviction of three businessmen in the infamous Guinness case a decade ago breached their rights is certainly a victory for justice - although hardly a vindication of their actions. The Guinness Three - Gerald Ronson, Jack Lyons and Anthony Parnes, who were convicted alongside the former Guinness chairman Ernest Saunders - are no Guildford Four. All the evidence gathered by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and published in its report on the affair showed beyond doubt that they, and others never brought to trial, were implicated in a share-manipulation scandal that became a byword for City misbehaviour in the mid-Eighties. It remains most unlikely, even after the judgment, that their convictions will be quashed. Nor should they.

The judgment by the human-rights court in Strasbourg that the conviction of three businessmen in the infamous Guinness case a decade ago breached their rights is certainly a victory for justice - although hardly a vindication of their actions. The Guinness Three - Gerald Ronson, Jack Lyons and Anthony Parnes, who were convicted alongside the former Guinness chairman Ernest Saunders - are no Guildford Four. All the evidence gathered by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and published in its report on the affair showed beyond doubt that they, and others never brought to trial, were implicated in a share-manipulation scandal that became a byword for City misbehaviour in the mid-Eighties. It remains most unlikely, even after the judgment, that their convictions will be quashed. Nor should they.

Precisely because it was such a high-profile case, however, the government set out to secure early convictions in much the same way as the police did in the IRA bombing incidents. The four defendants were compelled to make statements incriminating themselves, and each other, that would never have been allowed in an ordinary criminal case, where the accused can maintain the right of silence. It is that principle that the Strasbourg court upheld on an appeal from Ernest Saunders four years ago and has now confirmed in the case of the three defendants yesterday.

The sight of well-heeled businessmen pursuing appeals though every court - on every ground from health to judicial principle - against convictions for actions for which they should be hiding their faces in shame is not a pretty one. But the point remains that the three were convicted on DTI evidence that breached the European Convention on Human Rights.

To that extent, the judgment could already be said to be past history. Bowing to the European court's judgment on Ernest Saunders, the prosecution service has already accepted the right of silence for the accused in fraud cases. It could also be argued that the original cause of the whole scandal - the collusion of series of market players to ensure an artificial hike in share prices to further a bid - is much less likely to be repeated today, thanks to the progressive tightening of controls, culminating in the regulatory Act of this year.

Yet, in complex fraud cases, the record of successful prosecution remains poor. The Guinness case remains the one major conviction in a string of failures. The Serious Fraud Office needs some high-profile successes if it is to continue to deter. But it will have to secure its convictions by fair means rather than foul.

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