This book is part personal memoir; part history of the organisation that is now Fair Trials International; and part a retelling of a stream of major cases in which Stephen Jakobi and the organisation that he founded were involved.
His clients were people arrested, detained or imprisoned abroad, caught in the labyrinth into which those from one country can drop when prosecuted in another. Problems with translation, interpretation, representation, prejudice, xenophobia and corruption abound.
The stream of cases are remarkable and contain many of those which have received major publicity. As the subtitle indicates, the book begins with Karyn Smith and Patricia Cahill arrested in Bangkok for smuggling 33kg of heroin – a substantial volume. The author points out that this would have amounted to about 100kg with all the attendant packaging – somewhat heavier than the two girls could actually carry.
Author: Stephen Jakobi
Publisher: Book Guild (£17.99)
It goes by such inglorious events as the arrest of the Greek plane spotters and ends, as any contemporary book on trans-jurisdictional arrest should do, with the outrage that is Guantanamo. No wonder that Jakobi is forever reporting that he is getting ready for his next Newsnight interview. He acted in many of the major cases of this kind over two decades. You could read nothing better on the nuts and bolts of how foreigners can get a raw deal in jurisdictions which have an easy relationship with due process – a category in which you might, with domestic prejudice, be unsurprised to find Thailand but outraged to meet the United States.
If you know Stephen Jakobi or Fair Trails International, the book is interesting because it details the way in which the organisation was built up – on a shoestring and little more than a wing and a prayer. The author is very honest. He does not flinch from recounting the problems met by a fledgling organisation established by someone more interested in content than form. Jakobi gets some very good staff but he also makes mistakes. A bookkeeper nearly brings the house down and is prosecuted for fraud.
All this can be recounted the more easily because, as he acknowledges, his Fair Trials Abroad became the current Fair Trials International and, in the very sure hands of his ultimate successor, Jago Russell, has made the difficult transition from founder’s baby to major institutional player.
In all honesty, the biographical part of the book could have done with a good edit. However, it is interesting for those, like me, who have known and worked with its author. It fills in gaps. His particular mix of skills become easier to understand when you learn of his background, which included a political engagement with the Liberal Democrats, for whom he stood as a candidate in the 1980s. I hadn’t realised how tied in he was with the liberal establishment more generally – he once worked for Sir Geoffrey Bindman; he knew Lord Lester from university.
You can see how he could rise to the challenge presented by these cases - many initially conforming to public prejudice on drug mules and lorry drivers but where the facts, once explored, dissolved facile assumptions of guilt. He knew how to get an article in The Times or on a slot on the BBC News. He could get an interview with the foreign secretary: he knew how to deal with his officials.
But, above all, the value of this book is as the story of a solicitor, initially with a very conventional career, who gets obsessed with manifest injustice and throws himself into the business of doing something about it. Barristers tend, in the world of the law, to get all the credit for their brilliant argument and coruscating cross-examination. But behind everyone of them, there is usually a solicitor dedicated to the grinding of job of unravelling a stitch-up, charting a mistake or negotiating a fairer deal.
This book is honest enough to show Jakobi as organisationally somewhat shambolic, sometimes infuriating to his own friends and supporters. But, the driving passion for justice, fairness and due process is something to be celebrated by those among our number who demonstrate it as well as he does.
Roger Smith is visiting professor at London South Bank University and former director of human rights group Justice