Saunders wins trial appeal in Europe


MR Ernest Saunders, the former Guinness chairman jailed for theft and false accounting after the company's 1986 takeover of Distillers, did not receive a fair trial, the European Court of Human Rights ruled yesterday.

The Strasbourg judges decided by a majority of 16 to four that aspects of his trial in 1989 were "a remarkable departure from one of the basic principles of fair procedure". They were referring to the use by the prosecution of incriminating answers given by him under compulsion from inspectors from the British government's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

But the judges rejected his claim for £4.6 million sterling compensation and refused to clear his name. The court refused to speculate whether he would have been acquitted if the incriminating transcripts had not been used. Its finding that his trial amounted to a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights was not to be taken to suggest that, it stressed.

Mr Saunders's application for £340,000 costs was reduced to £75,000, which the British government was ordered to pay.

Mr Saunders was convicted of fraud - along with Heron chairman Mr Gerald Ronson, stockbroker Mr Anthony Parnes and financier Mr Jack Lyons - over their roles in an illegal share support operation during the Distillers takeover. His five-year sentence was halved on appeal and he was later released prematurely on medical grounds.

At a press conference in London after the court decision, Mr Saunders said he would have been, acquitted if the DTI inspectors evidence had not been used.

Having read out a quick statement in which he alluded to his subjection to "an unfair and politically managed process", he handed proceedings over to Mr George Devlin, his "human rights consultant".

Questions were all fielded by Mr Devlin and the conference rapidly descended into farce. Mr Devlin said Mr Saunders had not expected to receive compensation and it was "not an issue"

The doctor who had diagnosed him as having Alzheimer's disease, leading to his early release from prison, had admitted publicly that he had got it wrong, he said.

Asked repeatedly whether he was "a crook" or whether he now regarded himself as innocent, Mr Saunders managed: "Well, I do..." before Mr Devlin again jumped in.

When the questioning turned to what Mr Saunders was now doing to earn a living, Mr Devlin brought the conference to an abrupt end amid chaotic scenes.

The DTI said it would study the Strasbourg decision. It joined the Serious Fraud Office in pointing out that Mr Saunders's conviction had already been reviewed and upheld twice by the Court of Appeal.