Campaigners up in arms as London weapons fair opens

 

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The Independent Online

A host of authoritarian regimes will be entertained in London today at one of the world's largest arms fairs, despite concerns over how readily dictatorships turned to live ammunition to suppress popular revolutions during this year's Arab Spring.

Invitations to the Defence and Security Equipment Internationalexhibition, which opens today at London's Excel Centre, were sent to 65 countries. At least 14 delegations hail from countries defined as "authoritarian regimes" by human rights groups.

Arms campaigners have expressed dismay that Bahrain, which has killed scores of mainly Shia citizens since protests broke out in February, has been invited. Other countries invited include Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kazakhstan.

Campaigners had tried for months through freedom of information requests to discover which delegations were being invited, but had been rebuffed. The Government finally published the list yesterday once national newspapers, including i, began to make enquiries last week.

The exhibition features more than 1,300 companies, around half of which are British. ADS, the trade group which represents arms manufacturers, estimates that the defence sector employs 110,000 people creating more than £22bn in annual sales, including £9bn in exports.

But rights groups have condemned the arms exports as unethical. Kaye Stearman, of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, said: "The government appears so embarrassed by the countries it has invited that it has only issued a complete list the day before the exhibition opens. Does the UK public really feel happy about selling arms to undemocratic countries like these?"

The Foreign Office defended its list, adding that export licences are under review in light of the Arab Spring.

Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International's arms programme director, said: "The invitation makes a mockery of any claim that Bahrain's access to arms is being moderated."

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