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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
MP's plea for jailed Briton
Helene Atkinson with her daughters Nina (left) and Alice, outside Number 10
The family say George Atkinson should be released immediately
Claims that the government has "abandoned" a British businessmen to languish in a Dubai jail have been dismissed as "nonsense" by Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien.

He said it was wrong to suggest a "political wand" could be waved by Whitehall officials to secure George Atkinson's release.

Mr O'Brien was rebutting allegations from Tory MP Desmond Swayne that Mr Atkinson - "Britain's longest serving prisoner in the Middle East" - had been treated in a "monstrous" fashion by the government.

Mr Atkinson, who was 52 on Friday, has spent more than six years in a Dubai jail for fraud - charges he has always denied.

A British subject cannot simply be abandoned in this way. It is absolutely monstrous - it is an outrage
Desmond Swayne
The businessman was arrested after helping build two internationally renowned golf courses and founding the Desert Classic tournament.

He was detained in March 1997 and charged 13 months later for alleged bribery and overcharging to build golf courses.

Despite his protestations of innocence, he was jailed for six years, fined 1.5m and ordered to pay 19,964 compensation.


A United Nations working group has twice declared that Mr Atkinson is being held in arbitrary detention in breach of international rules and should be set free.

During his third House of Commons debate on the issue, Mr Swayne, MP for New Forest West, claimed he had not raised the matter in recent times because he had been "silenced" by ministers.

Helene and George Atkinson
The Atkinsons have not seen each other for six years
Mr Atkinson's wife Helene and daughter Alice, 24, looked on from the public gallery as Mr Swayne insisted: "I have been silent because ministers told me to shut up.

"I remember distinctly being given that message clearly by ministers at meetings."

Mr Atkinson was convicted largely on the evidence of Steven Trutch, who has since been jailed in the UK for swearing false affidavits, said Mr Swayne.


"I think that thoroughly undermines the conviction against Mr Atkinson," he said.

The MP argued that in the legal opinion of Professor W M Ballantyne QC, an authority on Arab law, Mr Atkinson had completed his sentence on 31 August 2001 and should have been released then.

"This cannot be allowed to go on," said Mr Swayne. "A British subject cannot simply be abandoned in this way. It is absolutely monstrous - it is an outrage."

Every day is a painful day for me - every day that passes my heart bleeds
Helene Atkinson
The minister pledged to look into Mr Swayne's allegations that he was silenced, but insisted that the Foreign Office was committed to providing all appropriate consular assistance to Mr Atkinson.

Mr O'Brien said the businessman's sentence ended in February 2003, but an additional six months was also being served for non-payment of fines.

While his family believes he should have been released after paying the compensation and serving three-quarters of his sentence, early release was not automatic in Dubai, the minister said.

Legal procedures

"Our opinion is very clear - that this matter must be taken up within the United Arab Emirates legal system and we are prepared to provide a list of lawyers who are prepared to do that.

Desmond Swayne MP
Swayne: Believes Mr Atkinson is innocent
"The idea that we can somehow wave a political wand is pure nonsense and to hold out that view to the family is a very unfortunate thing to do."

Mr O'Brien added: "I very much hope the family will be able to seek Mr Atkinson's release through the proper legal procedures within Dubai."

Outside the chamber, Mrs Atkinson said she was desperate to be reunited with her husband, who she has not seen for more than six years.

Gary O'Nions

"The government has always said it cannot interfere in the judicial system of another country but that is not good enough," she told BBC News Online.

"Every day is a painful day for me - every day that passes my heart bleeds.

"I must carry on doing everything I possibly can so that this government reacts and helps one of its citizens be reunited with his family."

Mrs Atkinson questioned why her husband's release was not being secured by the British government when London businessman Gary O'Nions was recently let out early from a Saudi jail after being sentenced for running an illegal drinking den.

"They can do it when they want to," she said.

Mrs Atkinson, of Rockbourne, near Fordingbridge, Hants, said her husband was bearing up and "very aware that that we are trying to do everything we can".

Tearfully, she said: "He desperately wants to come home. Put it in perspective - six years - it's a hell of a time, particularly when you shouldn't be there in the first place."

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