How To Get Away With Crime: Diplomatic Immunity

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Ever wondered what it would be like to be immune from the reach of the criminal law in just about every country?

If so, a diplomat may be the right career for you!

While of course we would never encourage anyone to take up a life of crime, it is true that diplomats do enjoy immunity from most criminal charges when living overseas.

According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, diplomatic agents are immune from criminal prosecution in the foreign state.

This also applies to family members who form part of the household.

Servants, administrative and technical staff, together with their families also enjoy the protection.

Due to section 7 of the Diplomatic Privileges and Immunities Act, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Immunities is part of Australian law.

While this privilege was intended to foster good relations between countries, and has long since been a part of customary law, some diplomats have found ways to use it for ulterior motives.

One of these motives is more convenient parking.

In New York, for example, diplomats have racked up millions in parking fines, just because they can.

Since they are not liable for any kind of criminal penalty, and finding a park in New York can be tough, some diplomats simply double park wherever suits them.

But on a larger scale, diplomatic immunity has been used for masterminding far more serious offences.

The Vienna Convention states that “the diplomatic bag shall not be opened or detained”, and to a Nigerian-Israeli collaborative kidnapping team, this seemed like a perfect loophole to exploit.

Back in 1983, a former Nigerian Minister, Mr Dikko, was living in London.

He had fled Nigeria after being accused of embezzlement, but the government wanted to make him pay for his crimes.

The plan was to drug him and take him back to Nigeria in a crate, and it very nearly succeeded.

The secretary of Mr Dikko witnessed the abduction and alerted police.

Customs officials also noted that a Nigerian plane was in the airport, an uncommon occurrence, and that the diplomatic entourage coincidentally did not want their crates to be checked.

All that was necessary to invoke diplomatic immunity was to write ‘diplomatic bag’ on the crates and have them accompanied by an accredited courier with appropriate documentation.

And this is where things went wrong for the kidnappers.

While parts of the scheme were well-planned –  such as the procurement of an anaesthetist to keep Dikki alive in transit – other parts were surprisingly neglected.

Most significantly, they somehow forgot to mark the bags with the word ‘diplomatic bag’ and the accompanying official wasn’t carrying the right paperwork.

This technicality allowed the British customs officer to open the crates – just in the nick of time!

By the time Mr Dikko was found, the crates were already on special trolleys ready to be loaded onto the plane.

While Nigerian and Israeli governments denied any involvement, the Dikko affair caused the worst ever diplomatic crisis between Britain and Nigeria.

Back in Australia, a visiting Archbishop from the UK , Paul Gallagher, successfully claimed the privilege last year in order to avoid handing over documents during an investigation into paedophilia within the Catholic Church.

He was asked to provide evidence about a priest, Father Dennis McAlinden, who moved from parish to parish in the 1970s around Australia and other countries.

The United Nations Committee Against Torture condemned Archbishop Gallagher’s use of immunity.

In these cases, foreign diplomats appear to have abused their immunity the criminal jurisdiction, either on the small scale and the large scale.

However, there is a catch: – criminal immunity can be waived by the sending country.

And misbehaving diplomats can always be transferred home by their government to face criminal sanctions.

One Indian diplomat, Anil Verma, tried to use his immunity when confronted by British police for beating his wife, boasting to her that the UK police couldn’t touch him.

Much to his dismay, the Indian government transported him home quick-smart to face the courts.

For any Australian diplomats hoping to mastermind shonky criminal activities overseas, it would probably result in some very awkward conversations from the Australian government upon returning home, not to mention the possibility of the immunity being waived.

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About Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Specialist Criminal Lawyer and Principal at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Sydney’s Leading Firm of Criminal & Traffic Defence Lawyers.

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