The Crown Prosecution Service and police should not be deterred from bringing torture cases to the UK under the rarely used legal principle of universal jurisdiction, solicitors have said, following the acquittal of a Nepalese military officer at the Old Bailey this week.
The case involving Colonel Kumar Lama, a Nepalese national and officer of the Nepal army, was brought to the UK under the legal principle of ‘universal jurisdiction’.
The UK has universal jurisdiction over a small number of serious offences, which means a person accused of these crimes in another country can be prosecuted in a UK court. Such offences include certain war crimes, torture and hostage taking.
Lama was arrested in January 2013 while on leave in the UK from his post as a UN peacekeeper.
Lama denied that, while commanding officer of an infantry battalion in Nepal in 2005, he ordered the torture of two detainees.
Last month an Old Bailey (pictured) jury acquitted him of one of the charges but was unable to reach a verdict on the second charge. This week the CPS announced that it would not be seeking a retrial on the second charge. As a result, the court acquitted Lama of the second charge.
Jonathan Grimes, partner at London firm Kingsley Napley, which represented Lama, said the universal jurisdiction principle is important. However, Lama’s case could cause police to carefully consider whether to take on similar cases in future, he warned.
‘They will want to consider the practical implications such as the resourcing requirements and whether they can effectively investigate – especially if the evidence is all located overseas,’ Grimes said.
However, Daniel Machover, partner at London firm Hickman & Rose, which specialises in international criminal jurisdiction, said there was no reason for this week’s outcome to be seen as a sign that universal jurisdiction cases cannot or should not be prosecuted in the UK.
‘The police and CPS must not be deterred by the decision not to re-prosecute Mr Lama,’ Machover added. ‘It remains as important as ever to bring these important cases to trial where the evidence supports charges of war crimes or torture.’
Hickman & Rose’s client Janak Raut was the alleged victim in relation to the charge the Old Bailey jury was unable to reach a verdict on.
Machover said victims face an uphill struggle to secure criminal investigations abroad. ‘On a practical level there are real difficulties in collecting high-quality evidence abroad for prosecution in countries like the UK,’ he noted.
‘It usually falls on NGOs and lawyers to collect the evidence locally. There are also huge political hurdles preventing foreign investigators from collecting evidence in conflict zones, and it is notable that the attorney general must give his or her consent to a prosecution.’
Despite the difficulties, Machover said it is clear the British legal system is capable of dealing with such cases.
Meanwhile Grimes said universal jurisdiction cases will continue to offer an attractive option for human rights campaigners.
He added: ‘If institutions such as the International Criminal Court lose traction - for example if certain African countries make good their threat to withdraw (effectively preventing the court from bringing cases against nationals from such countries) - then the use of national courts to bring universal jurisdiction cases will become the only means to bring those accused of torture and war crimes to justice.’