Mistake after mistake — by our Foreign Office chappies.

20 March 2023 By Paul Martin

British documentary film-maker and journalist Paul Martin, detained in Gaza in 2010, says the Foreign Office keeps making the same mistakes when dealing with academics or reporters locked up by tinpot dictatorships. He says the FCO’s incompetence or lack of care puts prisoners in danger.

The wife of Matthew Hedges says the Foreign Office endangered the academic. I agree.  And unless the FO’s failures are exposed, the mandarins will continue doing so.

When filming a report in Gaza in 2010 I was locked up and also accused of being a spy. The interrogators threw up some bizarre accusations against me, seemingly about as laughable as the ones against Matthew Hedges.  But in my case they were threatening more than life imprisonment.  They said there was only one possible sentence: execution.

The Foreign Office sent a consular official to the prison where I was being held  – on the day after I was locked up – but did not come again for the rest of my detention, except to drive me out after I was released.    

My wife, backed by a team including a QC, had tried to persuade the FCO to be much more proactive – and journalist friends were urging an immediate publicity campaign to demand my release. International journalists’ associations had issued statements demanding I should be freed immediately.   

But the FCO had just kept saying to my wife and her team that publicity, or any FCO public demands, could provoke Hamas into doing something nasty.   

Meanwhile the FO knew, via my lawyer, that things were already nasty. Having already subjected me to a mock execution, the internal security department, a hardline segment of the internally rivalrous Hamas machine, was threatening to execute me by firing squad for espionage.  (They were happily pointing out this was to be done in terms of emergency laws originally formulated by Britain in pre-Israel Palestine.)

On the day after my ‘arrest’, the British vice-consul came to my jail and told me (in the presence of the prison chief) that he could do nothing for me in political terms, though he could make my life easier. At my wife’s request he had bought a tracksuit, two books, a chess set, a comb, a toothbrush and some toothpaste. He told the prison chief I now needed to pay him £163 – could he have my wallet?  

The astonished prison chief fetched it from the prison’s safe, but £100 was all the cash in it. The vice-consul pocketed the money – and said I could pay the remaining £63 if I were to eventually get out of prison.  

I’m sure those detaining me and those making decisions about my future (if any) must have taken this British consul’s supine performance as a sign that keeping me as long as they wished, torturing me, or even having me executed, would not evoke much of reaction from the British or the EU.

I did benefit from British government largesse, I suppose, in that the vice- consul donated me a copy of the British newspaper he’d been reading (The Times, 14 March 2010). 

( By the way the two books I had in effect bought (‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Remains of the Day’) were extracted from the ruins of the British cultural centre in Gaza, which, after the Prophet Mohammed cartoons appeared in a small Danish magazine, had been burned down by local militiamen.)

 Having survived 26 days in solitary confinement and that mock-execution, I was set free by Hamas’s internal security unit  – but not because of Foreign Office pressure. 

What may have helped me was a fact-finding visit by British MPs, who were disobeying official Foreign Office ofm advice, plus the intervention of Nobel Peace-prize winner Desmond Tutu, the South African foreign ministry, and an international lawyer of great repute John Dugard.

A key factor, I believe, was my wife (mis)informing Hamas by phone that world icon Nelson Mandela was about to step in. 

The British consul did come to Gaza to collect me, and sat in on a bizarre press conference by the Gaza ‘foreign minister’ Mahmoud Zahar, who said I was being released, even though I had filmed in smuggling tunnels used by Hamas and had engaged in “good activities” with a former rocket-firer turned peace activist – the young man I was filming. Hamas, he said, still considered me a spy, and he would send the paperwork to the British and South African authorities.  (Of course this paperwork has never arrived.). Zahar said “Yes” to a question by Sky News as to whether Hamas still considered me a spy, yet the British vice-consul said nothing at all on my, or his government’s defence.

I was released a couple of hours later, and on my next trip to the region (not to Gaza!) I went to the British consulate in East Jerusalem and paid the remaining money for their “expenses”. I got a receipt for the original £100 and the remaining £63.

On my return to Britain the Foreign Office asked me to brief them. I did. Of course they never apologised, let alone return my money!  The only apology I ever got came a couple of years later – from Hamas.  But that’s another story

In 2012  I got locked up again – this time in Iraq.  I had followed the advice of one of the British consulate’s staff.  He had suggested I to go through a particular checkpoint into the heavily fortified  Green Zone of Baghdad using my British passport, but when walking the nearly-empty streets inside the zone I was rounded up by gun-toting uniformed security men. I had been misled by an FO mandarin, again. 

The British embassy did absolutely nothing for me during four days in a sweltering cell – an experience made worse by not eating from dawn till dusk, as it was Ramadan. A local leading politician, previously based in Britain, eventually got me released. The Foreign Office and its staff were again, it seems, too busy to intervene.

They’re mainly useless, or worse … but at least they’re consistent.