Arms-to-Iraq case Briton is freed by South Africa

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Paul Grecian, the British businessman who had his conviction for supplying arms to Iraq overturned on appeal in this country, only to be rearrested in South Africa on similar charges, was yesterday freed by a Johannesburg court.

Mr Grecian had been in prison in South Africa since last December, when he flew to the country for a holiday following his victory at the Court of Appeal. On landing at Johannesburg airport he was arrested by the South African authorities, pending a move by US prosecutors to have him extradited to face charges there.

In rejecting the extradition application, Danie Oberholzer, the magistrate in Kempton Park, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, said the offences Mr Grecian had been charged with in the US would not have amounted to crimes if they had been committed in South Africa.

"I really did not expect to get a result today - it comes as a total surprise," said Mr Grecian.

He faced four charges in the US: sending weapons to Iraq; conspiracy; bank fraud and making a false statement. "The magistrate found they were not extraditable offences," said his South African lawyer, Peter Reynolds.

It was unlikely, said Mr Reynolds, that his client would return to Britain or leave South Africa immediately for fear of still being pursued by the US authorities. "He will stay here until the situation becomes clear - he needs an assurance of safe passage," said Mr Reynolds.

Until the US lifts the indictment and he is removed from the Interpol "red notice" list he could be arrested again. "It is going to mean that I am not going to do much travelling beyond the shores of the UK and South Africa," said Mr Grecian.

In 1992, Mr Grecian and two former colleagues, Bryan Mason and Stuart Blackledge, pleaded guilty at Reading Crown Court to trying to smuggle equipment to build an artillery fuse assembly line to Iraq via Jordan. They only pleaded guilty after the Government used Public Interest Immunity Certificates preventing Whitehall officials from giving evidence the exports had previously been cleared by the Department of Trade and Industry and Ministry of Defence.

Last December, the three had their convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal. Mr Grecian said yesterday he believed his detention in South Africa and the US's refusal, following his successful appeal, to drop the charges, was political.

"Undoubtedly there were political elements to it," he said. "When a third country becomes embroiled in a situation like this, which at the end of the day is none of their business, one has to take into account what political pressures the likes of the United States would try to bring to bear to ensure my extradition."