Last week’s bribing of Libyan officials by the British government reminded us that it’s a familiar tale.
Vehicles belonging to a company doing business in a corrupt Third World state are “impounded” by people claiming to be officials. They demand a “fine” in exchange for returning the vehicles.
It is unclear whether they have any legal right to demand such a fine. Legality in such a place is an elastic concept, and its enforcement erratic. All that matters is that the company needs the vehicles and no legitimate authority is going to lift a finger to get them back.
The sensible thing for the company to do is to shallow its corporate pride, hold its corporate nose, and buy back its own property at a discount.
In that situation, the company has no way of knowing whether it is paying protection money or a legitimate fine, or whether the cash will end up in an official treasury or the pockets of the alleged officials. It has no control over what happens before, during, or after payment.
It may still end up being charged with bribery by other officials – possibly seeking a bribe of their own. Either way, they do not care that the situation was not initiated by the company and is obviously to the company’s disadvantage – unlike a genuine case of bribery, where the company initiates the situation and seeks an advantage. Nor do they care if the officials and their fine were of – to put it politely – dubious legitimacy.
They simply put the victim of extortion on trial for being a victim.
This is what happened to Major William Shaw, who we mentioned last week, in Afghanistan. One might imagine that, since Major Shaw had served 28 years in the British Army and been honoured for his service, since that same British Army is one of those keeping the current Afghan regime in power, and since he was working for a security firm supposedly helping to rebuild the country, a telephone call from the British Embassy would have secured his release and a full apology that same afternoon.
Not a bit of it. The British Government left Major Shaw to rot in a filthy prison for months.
He has now been released, but the injustice remains. It is over a hundred years since Lord Palmerston declared that the words “I am a British citizen” should be an absolute protection to UK businessmen abroad. Now the message from the Foreign Office is “You’re on your own, mate.”