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British men cannot sue Saudi Arabia over torture claims

Four men claimed they had been tortured by Saudi Arabian officials, and said their right of access to court had been violated.

Image: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

Updated 8.40am

FOUR BRITISH NATIONALS who alleged they had been tortured in Saudi Arabia have been told that the country has State immunity and so cannot be sued for compensation.

The decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was that there was no violation of the right of access to court in the European Convention on Human Rights when it came to a man named Ronald Grant Jones’ claim against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or four applicants’ claims against certain Saudi Arabian officials.


The case concerned four British men who alleged that they had been tortured in Saudi Arabia by Saudi State officials.

They complained about the UK courts’ dismissal of their claims for compensation against Saudi Arabia and its officials, due to reasons of State immunity.

The Court found that the granting of immunity to Saudi Arabia and its State officials in the men’s civil cases “had reflected generally recognised current rules of public international law and had not therefore amounted to an unjustified restriction on the applicants’ access to court”.

It found that while there was some emerging support at an international level in favour of a special rule or exception in public international law in cases concerning civil claims for torture lodged against foreign State officials, “the weight of authority suggested that the State’s right to immunity could not be circumvented by suing named officials instead”.

The case involved Ronald Grant Jones, Alexander Hutton Johnston Mitchell, William James Sampson (now deceased), and Leslie Walker.

They all claim that they were arrested in Riyadh in 2000 or 2001, and subjected to torture while in custody. Medical examinations in the UK concluded that their injuries were consistent with their allegations.

In 2002, Jones brought proceedings against Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior and the official who had allegedly tortured him, claiming damages.

His application was struck out in February 2003 on the grounds that Saudi Arabia and its officials were entitled to State immunity under the State Immunity Act 1978.

Access to court

Relying on Article 6. 1 in the European Convention of Human Rights (access to court), the four men complained that the UK courts’ granting of immunity in their cases meant that they had been unable to pursue claims for torture either against Saudia Arabia or against the State officials.

The men alleged that this had amounted to a disproportionate violation of their right of access to court.

After a claim by Mitchell, Sampson and Walker against the four State officials that they considered to be responsible for their torture was struck out for the same reason as Jones’ in February 2004, the four cases were joined upon appeal.

In October 2004 the UK Court of Appeal unanimously found that, though Jones could not sue Saudi Arabia itself, the applicants could pursue their cases against the individually named defendants.

However, this decision was overturned by the House of Lords in June 2006, on the ground that all of the defendants were entitled to State immunity under international law.


After reviewing the evidence, and looking at previous similar cases, the ECHR said yesterday it was “satisfied that the granting of immunity to State Officials in the applicants’ civil cases had reflected generally recognised current rules of public international law and had not therefore amounted to an unjustified restriction on their access to court.”

This mean therefore that there had been no violation of Article 6. 1 as regards the applicants’ claims against named State officials.

But the court said that this was a matter that needed to be kept under review by contracting States.

First published 6.30m

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