Boris Johnson orders inquiry into rugby spy arrest and detention

Foreign secretary rules out using diplomatic immunity, calls in police to clarify case and says police will review current prosecution process

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson has ordered an inquiry into an incident involving a South African who was arrested by police in London and later detained under immigration rules after two of the best-known faces of South African rugby said they believed he had been a spy.

Johnson insisted that the allegations made by Johnson’s friend Gareth Williams and other former South African rugby players against Arthur Labinjo-Hughes were “baseless”.

Whitehall sources have told the Guardian that it is likely Johnson has spoken to David Cameron and the former chancellor George Osborne, who is a close friend of the former Labour government, about the matter.

Johnson, who refused to comment directly on the case, has been criticised for his “extraordinary” attitude to the situation, which has prompted calls for a review of the executive privileges of public officials.

In a statement to the media, Johnson said: “It is an extraordinary thing to put a football pitch full of police in the middle of a parliamentary constituency, putting a number of people at serious risk of serious harm. In very, very close light of that, we must consider how to make sure that has not happened and has not happened again, and review the current prosecution process.”

Johnson said that he had ordered a review into the case, but stopped short of saying that Hughes’s arrest and detention by the Metropolitan police had been justified and in the public interest.

His stance is remarkable given that he has been accused of racism in the past, such as calling Obama “part-Kenyan” during a speech during the Conservative party conference in 2005. He gave the same speech in 2008 in which he said on the need for a minimum age of 15 for legal drinking.

Labinjo-Hughes, a Londoner who is now in a top position at a South African bank, was questioned under his Parliamentary immunity, which means that he cannot be charged and potentially deported.

Last week the Daily Mail reported that according to police and rugby people, who included the former captain Francois Pienaar, North London police arrested Labinjo-Hughes under a warrant obtained by the South African consulate.

The Mail’s anonymous source told the paper that Pienaar and the former rugby star Francois Pienaar, who was Hughes’s teammate at North London Irish, had knowledge that a detective’s report on the incident was wrong.

The Mail quoted police and cricket people as saying: “The victim is a well-known business person who had no suspicion whatsoever that any member of the public was in danger.”

Johnson said police will now review their process. “Clearly there are a number of questions that the police need to answer, and if there is any criminality, then clearly the inquiry by the police would have to look at that,” he said.

“The police have now said that the process they followed was absolutely correct and at the moment they are looking at that, at what their processes were. Of course, that can always be looked at. That must be seen to be done.”

Asked if Hughes had indeed been a spy for South Africa, Johnson said: “We will be going through very carefully the circumstances of this incident and of all these things to make sure that it has not been repeated.”

Hughes was arrested by North London police on 30 June 2015, after he went to their headquarters, Paddington Green police station.

He has been refused bail two times, most recently in May when a judge extended his detention on the grounds that he was a flight risk. It was at that time that police also held off making any public statement on whether he was a security risk.

They have faced criticism over their decision not to investigate Hughes before the Daily Mail report. Pienaar said he did not see why he should be arrested, while North London police have said they cannot comment because of the ongoing investigation.

South Africa Rugby said it was “extremely distressed by the claim made against Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, which has sparked a severe backlash against him both locally and internationally”.

In a statement on Monday, the World Rugby president, Bill Beaumont, said the allegations were “extremely serious”.

“It’s vital to remember that this matter rests with the Metropolitan police investigation.”

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