Wealthy peo­ple such as Saudi diplo­mat Walid Juf­fali can­not be al­lowed to take ad­van­tage of this priv­i­lege to pro­tect them­selves from the law

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By

Mark Stephens, Howard Kennedy - The Tele­graph

The most bor­rowed new book at the United Na­tions’ head­quar­ters li­brary last year was a cu­ri­ous ti­tle: Im­mu­nity of Heads of State and State Of­fi­cials for In­ter­na­tional Crimes. Some won­dered why UN staff were sud­denly so in­ter­ested in a tome ex­am­in­ing how di­plo­mats can avoid crim­i­nal charges abroad. But I can’t say it came as much of a sur­prise to me.

I’ve noted with se­ri­ous con­cern over re­cent years the dis­turb­ing trend of di­plo­mats us­ing their priv­i­leges of im­mu­nity to avoid jus­tice. The world needs to wake up to the true ex­tent of this scan­dal, es­pe­cially when you con­sider there are around 20,000 di­plo­mats cur­rently en­ti­tled to im­mu­nity from the UK courts alone.

Cit­ing the Vi­enna Con­ven­tion on Diplo­matic Re­la­tions – orig­i­nally in­tro­duced in 1961 to pro­tect am­bas­sadors and heads of state from the per­ils of work­ing in hos­tile en­vi­ron­ments – di­plo­mats have been reg­u­larly evad­ing jus­tice in both civil mat­ters and crim­i­nal cases, rang­ing from park­ing fines to the pos­ses­sion of fire arms. It has be­come such a prob­lem in the UK that For­eign Sec­re­tary Philip Ham­mond was last year moved to re­veal how di­plo­mats serv­ing in Bri­tain had racked up more than £87 mil­lion in un­paid con­ges­tion charges since 2003.

If any fur­ther ev­i­dence were needed of the far­ci­cal use and abuse of im­mu­nity, it came last week at the High Court in Lon­don, where Saudi diplo­mat Walid Juf­fali was at­tempt­ing to halt a claim by his ex-wife for a legally bind­ing set­tle­ment and a share of his £4bn for­tune.

As St Lu­cia’s Per­ma­nent Rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the UN’s In­ter­na­tional Mar­itime Or­gan­i­sa­tion (IMO), Mr Juf­fali as­serts that he has full pro­tec­tion from the Bri­tish jus­tice sys­tem – a right he is ap­par­ently only too happy to ex­er­cise in a bid to pro­tect his wealth, fol­low­ing the break­down of his 13-year mar­riage to for­mer su­per­model Christina Estrada. Mr Juf­fali has not at­tended a sin­gle meet­ing of the Lon­don-based IMO since his ap­point­ment, holds no qual­i­fi­ca­tions in ship­ping or mar­itime law, and has no ob­vi­ous con­nec­tion to St Lu­cia.

The stun­ning for­tu­ity of the ap­point­ment’s tim­ing can­not be ig­nored ei­ther. Af­ter sep­a­rat­ing from Ms Estrada in Oc­to­ber 2013, Mr Juf­fali is al­leged to have vis­ited the Caribbean is­land for the first time less than two months later. Within 12 weeks the IMO was no­ti­fied of the St Lu­cian govern­ment’s re­quest to ap­point him to the role. On the Septem­ber 4 2014 he was fi­nally added to the Lon­don Diplo­matic List. Just 13 days later, once im­mu­nity was se­cured, he di­vorced Ms Estrada in Saudi Ara­bia with­out her knowl­edge.

As for­mer Pres­i­dent of the Com­mon­wealth Lawyers As­so­ci­a­tion, I’m strug­gling to think of any more cow­ardly abuse of the mighty in­sti­tu­tion that is diplo­matic im­mu­nity . But be­yond the specifics of the case, th­ese pro­ceed­ings should also be seen as a test for the Bri­tish le­gal sys­tem. If Mr Juf­fali is suc­cess­ful in hav­ing his wife’s claim for fi­nan­cial re­lief struck out by the courts, and Kenny An­thony’s govern­ment in St Lu­cia is al­lowed to main­tain its stance of sim­ply stick­ing two fin­gers up at the For­eign Of­fice, then I have no doubt it will set a prece­dent across the en­tire in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

Cor­rupt and morally­bankrupt regimes will be­come a mag­net for wealthy peo­ple sim­ply look­ing for pro­tec­tion from the law. In­deed elite law firms are al­ready ru­moured to have been ap­proached by su­per-rich in­di­vid­u­als want­ing to “do a Juf­fali” and ob­tain sim­i­lar diplo­matic priv­i­leges as a di­rect re­sult of this case. Is the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity re­ally pre­pared to ac­cept the prospect of wealthy fraud­sters and crooks – per­haps the next Bernie Mad­off, crim­i­nals like drug king­pin El Chapo or even spon­sors of ter­ror­ism – skirt­ing around le­git­i­mate jus­tice sys­tems sim­ply be­cause they hold a diplo­matic pass­port from an im­pov­er­ished na­tion?

It is scan­dalous that the St Lu­cia govern­ment is fa­cil­i­tat­ing Mr Juf­fali’s at­tempts to avoid jus­tice, and the very fact they have cho­sen not to waive his im­mu­nity makes a mock­ery of the Vi­enna Con­ven­tion. Waiv­ing his im­mu­nity would clearly not af­fect his abil­ity to carry out any diplo­matic du­ties. I re­call a case in 2003 where Jairo So­toMen­doza, then sec­re­tary to the Colom­bian Em­bassy’s mil­i­tary at­taché in Lon­don, cited im­mu­nity af­ter be­ing ac­cused of mur­der­ing a mug­ger who had robbed his son. His im­mu­nity was waived by Colom­bia to al­low him to face a trial – the proper thing to do. He was found not guilty.

Abuse of diplo­matic priv­i­leges can­not be tol­er­ated. St Lu­cia’s di­plo­mats at the UN should be en­ti­tled to im­mu­nity, but it is dif­fi­cult to see what Mr Juf­fali has done to garner his sta­tus, and what job he ac­tu­ally un­der­takes for them. Should the courts de­cide to up­hold his im­mu­nity, I gen­uinely be­lieve it may be time to re-ex­am­ine the Vi­enna Con­ven­tion to en­sure this can’t hap­pen again.

• Mark Stephens is an exPres­i­dent of the Com­mon­wealth Lawyers As­so­ci­a­tion and a hu­man rights lawyer at Lon­don-based

law firm Howard Kennedy.

Walid Juf­fali with his for­mer wife Christina Estrada at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val in 2001 Photo: Alan David­son

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