The British Government is preparing to launch a legal challenge against America over its use of the death penalty.
In an unprecedented move the Foreign Office will instruct lawyers to intervene in an attempt to halt the executions of two men with dual British and US nationality currently on Death Row. One is scheduled to die in the electric chair before the end of the year. Britain is also considering taking a case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to challenge America over its death penalty policy.
Ministers are known to have serious concerns about the trials of both men and the quality of the evidence used to convict them.
Tracy Housel, 42, who was born a British subject in Bermuda, was convicted of beating and strangling to death a woman in Georgia. He was sentenced to die in 1985.
Last week his lawyers applied to the US Supreme Court in an 11th-hour effort to save his life. They argued that he was suffering from a mental illness at the time of the crime and may have been badly advised by his lawyers about his guilty plea.
The second man, Jackie Elliott, 41, was born at the former Bentwaters air force base in Suffolk to American parents. He denied but was convicted of the rape and murder of an 18-year-old woman 15 years ago. His American lawyers believe another man, who gave evidence against him at the trial, was responsible for the murder.
The Washington government is understood to be angry that the Foreign Office should choose to act on two Death Row cases involving American citizens who acquired British nationality only by an accident of birth.
But a spokeswoman for the Foreign Office said yesterday that the former foreign secretary Robin Cook had made clear earlier this year that government policy was to express Britain's "strong opposition to the death penalty and its imposition on British nationals". She said people either had the right to British nationality or they did not there was no halfway position.
While the Housel case will be the first to test the Government's new policy, more embarrassment will be caused by the case of Elliott, who is on Death Row in Texas, where George Bush was governor before he became President.
Although Mr Bush was not Texas governor at the time Elliott's death sentence was imposed, he was responsible for rubber-stamping 139 executions, more than any other American governor, during his six-year tenure.
Lawyers acting for Housel say the tougher stance adopted by the British Government represents an important step forward. Until now the Foreign Office has refused to intervene in American death penalty cases until all judicial avenues have been exhausted.
Housel's lawyers, Hugh Southey, a barrister at Michael Mansfield's chambers in London, and Yasmine Waldje, a solicitor at the City law firm Lovells, have had urgent meetings with Foreign Office officials to try to get the Government to take unprecedented steps to save their client's life.
The lawyers and the Foreign Office have been working closely with the US-based British barrister Clive Stafford-Smith a renowned champion of human rights, particularly in death penalty cases and Reprieve, a Death Row prisoner support group. They intend to offer British legal representation to Elliott, who until now has not been officially recognized as a British subject.
Yesterday, the Foreign Office said that before its lawyers formally intervened in the cases it would continue to use diplomatic channels to help to secure a reprieve for both men. "We are to make diplomatic representations on behalf of Housel and are considering the best way forward in the case of Elliott," the spokeswoman said.
Andie Lambe, UK director of Reprieve, described the Government's involvement as "an historic step forward" that not only granted UK recognition to British-American Death Row inmates but also gave diplomatic force to the campaign to keep the men alive.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd