Saturday, June 9, 2012

Kafka in the Gulf 7

This is the final article in Bernard Levin's St. Helena prisoners saga, happily titled The Ex-Prisoners of St. Helena (The Spectator, 16/6/61):

"'Your call from St. Helena on the line,' said the operator. But my call from St. Helena was not on the line, the connection having been lost just as I had picked up the telephone. 'Are you there, Accra?' repeated the operator patiently, trying to re-establish it. But Accra was not there, either. So the long wait went on for another hour, and a very long hour it was, too. But not as long, after all, as the four years of wrongful imprisonment on St. Helena which three innocent men have undergone, and which has now come formally and officially to an end. For the first words that came, clear as a voice in the same room, down the line from St. Helena were, 'We've won.' What we had won was an application for a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that the prisoners had been illegally taken to St. Helena from Bahrain. The decision was given by Mr Justice Abbott, formerly of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, who has now become forever confused in my mind with Anatole France's M. Justice Chaussepied. It was Chauseppied who finally righted the scandalous wrong done to the inoffensive Pyrot in France's immortal satire on the Dreyfus case ('He cracked their indictments like nuts'), and although this case is not on the level of enormity reached by that monstrous piece of wickedness, there are places in the long story at which it seems at any rate more squalid.

"The story is not only long, but complex. And Heaven knows - or my readers do, even if Heaven does not - that I have told it often and at length. Still, in case there is any citizen newly arrived among us this morning, I hope I may be forgiven if I go over the outline of it once more. It will, after all, be the last time."

[To spare the faithful reader, I will omit at this point Levin's "outline."]

"A case brought earlier by the prisoners failed, having gone all the way to the judicial committee of the Privy Council, after a singularly disgraceful intervention by the then Foreign Secretary (Mr Selwyn Lloyd); this case hinged largely on the question of jurisdiction, and of the quality of the original 'trial'. But then a new wonder came to light: somebody on the Government side slipped, and let out of the bag two vital pieces of information. These were the time at which the warrant for the men's removal was handed to the captain of HMS Loch Insh, and the time at which the Order in Council sanctioning the removal was promulgated in Bahrain. And lo! the warrant, it appeared, was executed before promulgation, and was therefore invalid.

"And thus, on a second application for a writ of habeas corpus, has the good M. Justice Chaussepied now ruled. He declared on Tuesday of this week, in a judgment reserved from the end of the previous week, when the pleadings had been secured, that a valid warrant was necessary for the removal of the prisoners under the Colonial Prisoners Removal Act. Further, he found that such a warrant had been drawn up by the Ruler and handed over with the prisoners at 6 am on December 26, 1956, although - one of the more charming refinements of this case - the actual document had since been lost. (Or possibly 'lost.') But at that time the Order in Council sanctioning the warrant was not in force, and was only put into force by promulgation on the notice-board of the British Agency in Bahrain, which took place at 8 am, the same day - two hours late. The warrant was therefore a nullity.

"The judge made one other major point in his judgment - a point, as it turned out, of crucial importance. It was that the Ruler, by his invocation of the Colonial Prisoners Removal Act, had waived his own jurisdiction over the prisoners who, from the moment they went on board HMS Loch Insh (despite the fact that she was still then in Bahraini territorial waters), thus fell under British jurisdiction. And so the invalidity of of the warrant made the removal illegal, for if they had still been technically under the jurisdiction of the Ruler the embarkation would not have been illegal, and before the ship sailed out of Bahraini waters the Order had been promulgated.

"It was, in fact, a damned near-run thing. And now that it has been run to a successful conclusion, I think it is time to draw up a rough balance-sheet of credit."

[What follows is quite remarkable. Try imagining today's Australian ms press (or part thereof) not only taking up the case of a group of unjustly treated Arabs, but also advertising an appeal for funds on their behalf to its readers. And further, imagine the readers taking up the challenge.]

"We might begin, I think, with the readers of the Spectator, whose generous response to the appeal fund launched by a small committee of interested parties made it initially possible to start the legal ball rolling for the second time. Sums ranging from 2s. 6d. to 50 pounds came in, very many with apologetic notes saying that the sender wished it could be more. A striking feature of the stream of money was the number of contributions that came from clergymen - surely one of the worst-paid body of men in the land. Several readers gave twice, some thrice, and one four times. (Costs were awarded by the judge, in freeing the men, against the Government; but it is not yet clear how complete their footing of the bill will be, and in any case the considerable debts incurred over the first case - costs of which are not included - are still to some extent outstanding: the Appeal Committee is therefore holding the money collected, but will do nothing with it before putting its proposals to the contributors.)"

"Secondly, the Members of Parliament who have moved mountains: chief among them are Mr John Stonehouse and Mr Woodrow Wyatt, and valuable help has come from others, particularly Mr Jeremy Thorpe. For a moment, the eccentric Tory MP Mr William Yates looked as though he was on the side of justice in this matter, but soon declined into giving personal assurances of his admiration for the Ruler of Bahrain. (The Tory Party has behaved throughout disgracefully: one of the most unlovely sights I have seen in the House of Commons was the scene when - just as the prisoners were about to be sent back to Bahrain, beyond all hopes of legal rescue - the adjournment of the House was moved to discuss the transfer immediately. When the Speaker called on those Members supporting the adjournment to signify, the whole of the Labour and Liberal parties stood as one man: with the single exception of Mr Yates, who was to renege later, not one Tory rump left a bench.)

"The lawyers, of course, are bedevilled by their professional rules when it comes to the limelight. But one who is now beyond such questions, and whose tireless and devoted action in the case from the beginning has been exemplary, is Mr Roland Brown, recently appointed Attorney-General of Tanganyika. Mr Brown was thus prevented, by his official appointment, from seeing the second case through to the end; but his work certainly played a major part in turning the scale.

"The various newspapers which helped to keep the case alive include the Guardian (which was the first paper in point of time to uncover the matter), the Observer, Reynolds News, and even the Times, which has had two notable leaders on the case, both sharply critical of the Government.

"But above all, thanks must go to one man who has neither sought nor received attention, but of whom it can be said, as it cannot of any other single figure in this case, that without him it could never have been done. He is Mr Donald Chesworth, a Labour London County Councillor. It was he who first began to burrow into the case, about which he had heard by accident; it was he who got lawyers looking into it; it was he who brought it to the attention of the Spectator. To him goes the credit for starting the snowball on its path.

"The path has been a long one, and at times disheartening. According to my account, there were moving scenes in St. Helena when the decision was announced. The court was full on the last day, mainly of Europeans, most of whom seemed pleased at the result. The Crown counsel did not object to the release of the three prisoners, but reserved the right (subject to instructions) to appeal to the Privy Council: fortunately no such right exists, and even if it did I can hardly envisage its being exercised.

"When the proceedings were over, an air of gentlemanliness set in all round. The men, through their counsel, made a statement in which they formally declared that they had no complaint to make about their treatment on St. Helena, either by the Governor or the prison authorities: difficulties in communications had led to misunderstanding on this point. 'Sir Robert Alford,' said Counsel, 'is not Sir Hudson Lowe' (and three innocent Bahrainis, I might add, are not Napoleon). Toasts to freedom were drunk in champagne. 'We have always believed in British justice,' said the three, 'and our belief is vindicated.' Then they gave a luncheon, to which counsel and solicitors on both sides were invited, as was the Superintendant of Prisons, the men's gaoler. The lunch consisted of chicken followed by Bahraini melons grown by the prisoners in their scrap of prison garden. And they ended by declaring that their wish was now to come to the United Kingdom.

"So all ended happily for these three unfortunate men - though, as a leading article points out on another page, there are still two more on the prison island in Bahrain, out of reach of British justice. It is, for all its shaming quality, a heartening story. It is heartening not only because justice was vindicated and the Executive brought to heel, but because it demonstrates once again that the 'infamous thing' can be crushed. Force is not all, wrongdoing is not efficient, at the end of the longest tunnel shines the light. Once again, I am reminded that the most comforting thing about Mussolini is that he did not make the trains run on time."

[The following telegram from St. Helena appeared at the head of the letters page for the above issue of the Spectator:



I'll conclude this series with a post containing the letters which appeared in the next (23/6/61) issue of the Spectator.

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