Arms-to-Iraq lawyer alleges dirty tricks

Chris Blackhurst on the evidence that vanished
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The Independent Online
One of the leading defence lawyers in the arms-to-Iraq affair has made a formal complaint to the Government about alleged "dirty tricks" against him and his company.

Kevin Robinson, who represented Paul Henderson in the Matrix Churchill case, Paul Grecian in the Ordtech proceedings and Gerald James, former chairman of Astra, the arms company that made components for the Iraqi "supergun" project, has sent details of what he describes as "unacceptable behaviour" to the Treasury Solicitor.

The Scott inquiry is long gone and most of the legal actions arising from the arms-to-Iraq saga are over. But one issue, the disqualification of Mr James and three of his ex-colleagues from serving as directors, continues. Recently, after heavy pressure from his lawyers, Mr James was finally allowed access to papers seized by Ministry of Defence police and the receiver when Astra collapsed in 1992.

Mr Robinson and two of his assistants from the Sheffield firm of Irwin Mitchell were allowed to inspect the sensitive documents with Mr James at the offices of City accountants KPMG, who are custodians of the files for the DTI.

The papers are vital to Mr James's defence against the DTI move to ban him from sitting on company boards.

On 12 March, when Mr James and Madeline Abas, a solicitor from Irwin Mitchell, left the room at KPMG's offices near London's Fleet Street for lunch, they claim their personal belongings were tampered with and papers were rearranged. Files the pair had been working on had been taken out of boxes and opened. Mr Robinson's concern has been heightened by two recent break-ins at his firm's central London flat. On each occasion, nothing was taken but possessions were gone through.

In his letter to the Treasury Solicitor, Mr Robinson also highlights the gaping holes in the files handed over to him by the Government. In several cases, a public-interest immunity certificate, the usual official device to deny access to sensitive papers, has not been issued: the documents are merely missing.

The papers appear in the official indexes at the front of the files, but there is no sign of them inside. "There also continue to be numerous empty sections in files where, because of the existence of indexes at the beginning of a file, or a description being placed on a divider, it is clear that documents have been removed but without any note indicating a public-interest immunity claim," writes Mr Robinson. "Despite querying such matters with KPMG, no explanation has been given. Perhaps you could supply one."

Key files dealing with commission payments by Astra to middle-men in the arms industry appear to have been interfered with very recently. On 12 March, Mr Robinson's team noted that File 121, Astra Commissions, contained 11 public-interest immunity claims. In other words, in 11 instances in File 121, the Government thought the information too sensitive for release.

"A careful record was made of the number of claims," writes Mr Robinson in his letter.

The lawyers did not get around to studying File 121 that day. Like all the files, it was returned to the accountants at the end of the day.

The following day, 13 March, when File 121 was handed back to the lawyers, they noticed the number of public-interest immunity claims marked on the file had dropped from 11 to nine. But the two documents that were no longer the subject of such claims had not been returned to the file: they were missing.

"The file was returned to us with only nine public-interest immunity claims," writes Mr Robinson. "KPMG staff could give no explanation."

A spokeswoman for the DTI said the Government was "aware of these allegations. As far as we are concerned, nothing has been removed". She could not explain the missing papers, but maintained the DTI was "satisfied that no documents have been stolen".

KPMG, said the DTI spokeswoman, had agreed the need for tighter security to deal with the periods when the lawyers are out of the room.