British Prime Minister Urges U.S. To Waive Immunity For Woman After Deadly Car Crash

Oct 7, 2019
Originally published on October 7, 2019 5:59 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A deadly car crash in England has the British prime minister urging the United States to waive immunity for a U.S. diplomat's wife. Here's what happened. The woman, the diplomat's wife, allegedly struck and killed a British man in a road accident. Then she flew back to the United States under diplomatic immunity. As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London, the incident has sparked fury in Britain.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The American woman, Anne Sacoolas, pulled out of a U.S. Air Force communications base northwest of London in August and began driving on the wrong side of the road, according to police. They say she then slammed head-on into Harry Dunn, 19, who was riding a motorcycle. Harry's father, Tim Dunn, said police thought Sacoolas would stay in the U.K. Dunn's mother, Charlotte Charles, spoke to Britain's Sky TV.

CHARLOTTE CHARLES: We're just utterly shocked and appalled that somebody is allowed to get on a plane and go home and avoid our justice system. All we need to do is ask her to come back. It's not much to ask. She's left a family in complete ruin. We're broken.

LANGFITT: Under the 1961 Vienna Convention, most diplomats and their family members are immune from prosecution in host countries. But U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the rules shouldn't apply in this case.

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BORIS JOHNSON: I do not think that it can be right to use the process of diplomatic immunity for this type of purpose. And I hope that Anne Sacoolas will come back and will engage properly with the processes of laws that are carried out in this country. If we can't resolve it, then, of course, I will be raising it myself personally with the White House.

LANGFITT: The U.S. State Department expressed its condolences to Dunn's family. In a statement, it said senior officials give waiver requests in cases like this, quote, "intense attention, given the global impact of such decisions" but added, quote, "immunity is rarely waived." On Twitter, Britons called the U.S. position appalling and said Sacoolas had been cowardly.

CRAIG BARKER: It's a horrible situation and made all the worse by the fact that it involves a family that's completely bereft.

LANGFITT: Craig Barker is dean of the School of Law at London's South Bank University. He started studying diplomatic immunity in the 1980s after a London police officer was killed by a bullet fired from the Libyan Embassy, and the U.K. government let the Libyans go. Barker's goal - abolish diplomatic immunity.

BARKER: And at that time, I was outraged. I was appalled and thought, well, I'm going to be the one that sorts this out. And four years after, as I finished my Ph.D., I'm afraid to say that I sort of flipped because I saw the benefits.

LANGFITT: Barker says immunity exists to protect diplomats and their family members from harassment or false charges by hostile host countries.

BARKER: You can imagine how easy it might be for a foreign government with all the facilities they have to create a situation where a foreign diplomat looks very guilty.

LANGFITT: Barker says the Vienna Convention has been very effective at curbing such abuses. The law professor doesn't expect the U.S. to waive immunity for fear of creating a precedent. In that case, he says Dunn's family could try to seek redress in an American civil court.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

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