British national who was ill-treated in Panama has complaint against the FCO upheld by Ombudsman
The Parliamentary Ombudsman has upheld the complaint of a British national against the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for failing to offer him adequate consular assistance during his detention in Panama, where he was ill-treated, at one point being chained to metal bars in full view of the passing public.
Nicholas Tuffney spent 16 months in several Panamanian detention facilities, between 2013 and 2014, on charges which he always contested and which were eventually dropped. He was held in very poor conditions that did not meet international standards, including being forced to sleep in a room with 150 other prisoners with only one, non-flushing toilet.
He was also forced to strip naked in front of other prisoners, and not allowed to walk, go to the bathroom or wash his soiled clothes. After feeling ill, he was hospitalised where he was handcuffed to a hospital bed – this was witnessed by Embassy staff, but they failed to raise it with Panamanian authorities, despite it being possible ill-treatment.
On his return to the UK, Tuffney complained to the FCO, but was not satisfied by its response. REDRESS then helped him submit a complaint (through his MP, Helen Whately) to the Ombudsman, which investigates complaints of poor or unfair service from government departments and other public organisations.
After investigating the complaint, the Ombudsman’s findings, released on 28 October 2019, upheld Tuffney’s complaint and found multiple examples of maladministration by the FCO. They found that, contrary to their own internal guidance, Embassy staff failed to promptly and adequately respond to his allegations of ill-treatment; could and should have done more to remedy other welfare concerns and failed to give him accurate information about what detainees might expect in Panamanian prisons.
Tuffney claimed that as a result of the FCO’s failings, he has been caused “ongoing anxiety, frustration and increased feelings of isolation adding to an already very stressful and traumatic situation and has self-harm.” The Ombudsman agreed with him finding that the “FCO’s lack of support would have added to his frustration” and “likely contributed to his beginning to self-harm”.
The Ombudsman recommended that the FCO apologise to Tuffney, and provide him and his family with financial compensation, recognising “a significant and/or lasting impact, so much so that to some extent it has affected their ability to live a relatively normal life” (see the Ombudsman’s scale of financial remedies). The Ombudsman also suggested that the FCO explain what they intend to do to prevent a recurrence and update the information provided to British nationals detained in Panama.
Between 2011-2018 only five out of 244 complaints were upheld by the Ombudsman in relation to FCO’s actions.
Reacting to the Ombudsman’s findings, Tuffney said: “I am very pleased that the Ombudsman has stepped in on my case and made recommendations for change which will benefit the public long-term. It will hopefully improve the way the FCO responds to other UK citizens who are detained abroad.”
Earlier this month, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Deaths Abroad, Consular Services and Assistance (APPG) recommended in its Report 2019 that the FCO clarifies its guidance around consular assistance, and enshrines in UK law the right to consular assistance, echoing previous recommendations made by REDRESS.
REDRESS’s Legal Advisor, Chris Esdaile, said: “We are delighted that the Ombudsman has recognised the shortcomings in the assistance offered to Mr Tuffney. Whilst we understand the difficult job which the FCO undertakes in providing consular protection, we will continue to argue that the FCO should be under a legal obligation to assist UK nationals, such as Mr Tuffney, who face such traumatic experiences.”
REDRESS is currently representing several British nationals who are or have in the past been detained and tortured abroad.
For more information or to request and interview, please contact Eva Sanchis, REDRESS’ Head of Communications, on [email protected] , +44 (0) 20 7793 1777 or + 44 (0) 7857 110076 (out of hours).
- The UK government does not accept any legal obligation to assist UK nationals abroad, even in situations where they are being ill-treated or tortured. More information about this and REDRESS’s recommendations to the FCO can be found in our report Beyond Discretion (January 2018).
- Tuffney is pursuing a separate action against Panama in relation to the ill-treatment which he suffered through complaint before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. More information about his case is available here.
- The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman was set up by Parliament to help both individuals and the general public. The Ombudsman’s role is to investigate complaints that individuals have been treated unfairly or have received poor service from government departments and other public organisations.