YOU might have thought that if you’re banged up abroad in some filthy prison and itching to get home, the last thing you would do is irritate the authorities. Disrespect doesn’t go down too well in some countries, especially those in the middle of a bloody civil war when tempers are short and tolerance levels zero.

However such thoughts don’t appear to have occupied the mind of Herefordshire businessman Peter Sainsbury, who, when it suited, claimed to be a member of the famous supermarket family, although he wasn’t. 

Sainsbury, who lived at Perton Court, Stoke Edith, near Ledbury, at the time was well known in the county’s farming circles in the 1960s through two agricultural finance companies he ran. But rather bizarrely by September, 1977 he found himself locked up in Lebanon accused of being part of a £3m fraud. 

He was incarcerated in Jounieh prison, the country’s largest and most notorious, 11 miles from Beirut. It was a low rise, claustrophobic and purely functional building of no architectural merit, where temperatures swung between baking hot and freezing cold.

Sainsbury shared a cell with up to 20 others: most were locals, some were killers and none spoke English. There was a single hole in the floor for a toilet and washing facilities were primeval, while rats and mosquitoes were  frequent visitors.

In fact for a while they were his only visitors after other contacts were blocked because Sainsbury was “cheeky” to the prison governor. 

The 39-years-old found himself there though one of his companies, which became involved in Lebanese banking at a time when the country was  embroiled in its 15 year civil war. He was back in leafy Herefordshire with its green fields and rolling hills, when he received a telex message from the Middle East asking him to pop out to Lebanon to help sort out some financial issues.

On arriving in Beirut he claimed he was kidnapped by a Shiite gang, although the official version was he was arrested by the police. Either way he was accused of fraudulent bankruptcy by bankrupting the Banque De L’Essor Economique Libanais, in which his company Farm Fund Securities had acquired a 23 per cent share. The total of the “banking  irregularities” was alleged to be around £3m.

Sainsbury immediately protested his innocence and claimed he had been stitched up by associates. A position he maintained throughout what proved to be long and tortuous ordeal.

While waiting for his day in the witness box Sainsbury’s friends in Herefordshire organised a fighting fund to support him and local MP Colin Shepherd took to parading outside the Lebanese Embassy in London carrying a huge placard urging the country to get on with the case.

From his prison cell the businessman even sent a letter to Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher and there were constant complaints the Foreign Office was not doing enough.

Sainsbury eventually threatened a hunger strike, but Colin Shepherd told him not to bother because it wouldn’t impress the Lebanese one iota.

It took two and a half years before Peter Sainsbury appeared in court and that was only after the intervention of Worcester solicitor David Hallmark, whom he contacted after hearing of Mr Hallmark’s work in the field of human rights.

The lawyer visited Sainsbury in his prison cell, speaking to him through a metal grill, and subsequently prepared a report for the International Commission of Jurists, an organisation with which he worked in pursuit of human rights.

This at least lubricated the wheels of justice and some months later Sainsbury at last appeared before a Beirut judge. It was a swings and roundabouts affair for him. Despite his protestation of innocence, he was found guilty as charged and sentenced to two years imprisonment, but was immediately released because he had already been in jail longer than that waiting for the trial.

However, that was not the last the world heard of Peter Sainsbury. Returned to the UK, he again found himself up before a judge accused of fraud. In 1990 and living in London, he was jailed for five years on seven charges of “procuring the execution of valuable securities by deception” through a company he set up to pretend to sell industrial generators. By coincidence the amount involved was also £3m.

But the criminal piece de resistance for Sainsbury, who was by now being described as a serial fraudster, came in 2010 when he was sent to prison for another five years after deceiving the likes of the Archbishop of Canterbury in a £2.5m scam. Following his release after the 1990 conviction, he set up a prisoners’ charity that attracted Dr Rowan Williams – who was then Archbishop of Wales – as a patron. But his work was found to be a cover after the 68-year-old, now living in Battersea, was found guilty of conspiracy to defraud at Southwark Crown Court.  

Sainsbury won backers such as Lord Jeffrey Archer when he set up The People’s Opportunity to Work Trust in 1993 and did genuinely help former convicts to find work for a time. But he later used the organisation to con victims, which included a telecommunications company and various pensioners, out of their hard-earned cash.

The Met Police said Sainsbury and his colleagues had opened 40 separate bank accounts in order to commit fraud, while a host of high-profile patrons, including MPs, MEPs and actors had since withdrawn their support.

Detective Sergeant Richard Ward said: “Sainsbury was without a doubt the mastermind of this scam and the harm he caused with his persistence in defrauding members of the public, public bodies and businesses was substantial. He has now been stopped.”

But for how long?