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Aitken Sentenced: The liar impaled on his own sword of justice

AS JONATHAN Aitken was taken down to the cells yesterday he blew a kiss to his family. It was the first and only sign of emotion from a man once tipped to be Prime Minister. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

The 56-year-old former cabinet minister, so often characterised by his arrogance, was not going to show the world any fear. As he stood in the dock at the Old Bailey his eyes remained dipped in concentration, never subservience - bent, but not bowed.

His final day in court was as exotic and spectacular as his fall from grace. The mother of his illegitimate daughter, Soraya Khashoggi, reported for a national newspaper from the jostling press gallery, his key character witness was a former defence secretary, and the court heard tales of Middle Eastern royals, billion-dollar arms contracts and the workings within the corridors of power.

The court was packed to the rafters of the public gallery, where the legal campaigner Lord Longford sat like an ageing sage. The defendant's family, meanwhile, entered in regal procession: three exquisite daughters, a titled mother, a handsome young son and a famous actress sister.

Far from the usual rabble-rousing crowds of a criminal court, his supporters were grey-haired men sporting expensive suits and an air of authority.

The scene at court one must have been reminiscent of the day Oscar Wilde - a man with whom Aitken's own barrister drew comparisons - was taken away to Reading jail.

But yesterday it was Jonathan Aitken's turn to face sentence, having admitted to perjury and perverting the course of justice. To a hushed court, counsel for the prosecution, David Waters, spelt out the web of intrigue that had led to his downfall.

On that fateful weekend in September 1993, Aitken - then defence procurement minister - had flown to Paris and stayed at the Ritz with his wife, while meeting members of the Saudi royal family. The bill was paid on behalf of Said Ayas, an old business friend, godfather to his daughters and close friend of Prince Mohammed, son of the Saudi king. It was to be that hotel bill which led to his downfall. When approached by The Guardian newspaper, Aitken flatly denied a business meeting or that his bill had been picked up by a potential arms customer.

Then the lies really began; that his wife had paid the bill; that the trip had been to take his daughter to school in Switzerland ... and as each untruth became flawed, the former cabinet minister compounded it with further deceit. The court heard that when "cornered" by newspapers and Granada TV's World in Action, Mr Aitken had made his most brazen move of all, issuing libel writs with the declaration: "If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it."

The court listened intently as Mr Waters described how as his case began to collapse Aitken made his lowest move: persuading his 16-year-old daughter to sign a false statement.

The judge, Mr Justice Scott Baker, interjected sternly: "It is a very grave feature of this case that he got his daughter involved in this."

Aitken gave no response.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former defence secretary, was one of the few former ministers who publicly testified to Aitken's good character, lauding the man who had so successfully acted as his junior minister for procurement. Aitken, he said, had secured billions of dollars of sales for Britain and safeguarded thousands of jobs.

His voice booming out over the court, Sir Malcolm spoke of a "polite and courteous" minister who had deftly dealt with chiefs of staff as well as parliamentary colleagues. When asked whether he believed Aitken had any ulterior motive for his actions, he said: "I have absolutely no reason to believe that. He was a very hardworking minister. He was carrying out this responsibility in a hugely competent way."

Sir John Nutting QC, for the defence, said Aitken's close friendship with Prince Mohammed had provided a "valuable link" between the governments of Britain and Saudi Arabia, and it was against this background that he wanted the judge to view the events at the Ritz hotel.

Aitken's bill at the Ritz was paid because of the "hospitality not untypical of Arabs", Sir John said. The bill was only a small sum to the Arabs and to Aitken at that time.

He added: "When later he realised the trap in which he had caused himself to fall, he began to tell a series of lies and half-truths which nearly six years later have brought him before your Lordship and into the dock of the Old Bailey."

He was in a dilemma when later more allegations were made against him - he felt he had to clear his name with the libel action. Sir John said Aitken lied about the stay at the Ritz to put journalists off the "false scent" of other serious allegations that had been made against him.

But once he had started lying, he was forced to continue his deceit, culminating in lies to the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister at the time.

Sir John said: "In a real and fundamental sense, this defendant had brought about his real destruction.

"Not since the days of Oscar Wilde has a public figure who told lies in a libel case suffered such humiliation and public vilification and personal vindictiveness at the hands of some member of the press.

"The fall from grace has been complete, his marriage has broken down, he has lost his home, he is one of only three people this century forced to resign from the Privy Council, he is bankrupt and his health has suffered.

"His public humiliation has been absolute. These are real and considerable punishments."

The public gallery for number one court had been full an hour before the case was due to start. Among the first to arrive was Lord Longford, who has known Aitken for 40 years. Lord Longford said he had come because he had also known Aitken's grandfather. He said: "He would be the first minister to go to prison, but he is one of the finest men of his generation. If people say that he has made a mistake I say what Christ said to the Pharisees who tried to stone an adulteress. `Let he who had not sinned cast the first stone.' "

He added: "If he asks me to visit him in prison, then of course I will visit him, but I do not want to impose myself."

Outside, Aitken still had some support from former Thanet constituents. Roz Parker, 57, a therapist, said Aitken had been very kind to her and her son when he was suffering from schizophrenia. Mrs Parker said: "He wrote lots of kind letters to my son and helped to save Thanet Hospital."