Diplomat in bribe dismissal alleges cover-up by MI6

Vice-consul sacked for accepting `terrorist' cash claims he was victim of plot by security services `Mr Balfour was a small cog in a large machine and got crunched up'

BY GLENDA COOPER and TIM KELSEY

A former diplomat, sacked for allegedly taking bribes from a "terrorist", will take on the Foreign Office at an industrial tribunal tomorrow in his five-year fight to prove he was the victim of a cover-up.

Andrew Balfour, former vice-consul in Dubai, was dismissed for accepting a £5,000 payment for issuing a visa to an Iranian businessman, Mehrdad Ansari Shirazi (real name: Homayoun). He robustly denies the charge and claims he was asked by his MI6 station officer to befriend Ansari. The Foreign Office is defending the claim.

Mr Balfour claims that he was the victim of a cover-up by the Foreign Office and the intelligence community. He thinks that he had become too close to one of their important Iranian contacts and that this had, for some reason, upset them.

His ordeal began late on 27 May 1989 when he was called to the consul- general's residence. He was put aboard a plane for Gatwick where was met by officers of Special Branch and a representative of the Foreign Office security section and interviewed. He still had no idea what he was supposed to have done.

No charges were brought but four months later he was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

It was alleged that he had been taking bribes from a "known terrorist" in exchange for issuing visas. Officers told him that Ansari was a "suspected gun-runner".

"Our contention is, is that you did something for money which may have assisted a terrorist," an officer told him. Again no charges were brought.

After Mr Balfour's arrest, Ansari was granted another visa to come to Britain and was himself arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, but not charged.

Mr Balfour was finally dismissed in 1990 after an internal disciplinary board hearing. Since then he has waged a persistent, exhausting campaign to clear his name. He has suffered two strokes and a brain haemorrhage and no longer works but stays at home.

In preparing for tomorrow's industrial tribunal in Croydon, Mr Balfour has sought access to classified documents which he believed would prove that he was telling the truth.

But Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and the then Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker, signed Public Interest Immunity certificates which prohibited disclosure of the documents on the grounds they could jeopardise national security. The Law Lords last year rejected his final effort to see them.

A senior Iranian source has told the Independent that Ansari was an intermediary between the British and Iranian governments during the 1980s - both before and after the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. At the same time it appears that the British police suspected he was a "terrorist".

Ansari was also arrested last year in Iran and spent several months in prison. He has since been released, but his current whereabouts are unknown.

This "terrorist" found a home in Britain during much of the last decade. He based his businesses here - he was an important conduit for British business to Iran - and his family was given permanent leave to remain in England. His exact immigration status is unclear, but he lived in the country for several years, and was most recently here four months ago.

Mr Balfour feels conned. He acted in good faith with Ansari, he says, and now his career is in ruins. He has tried to contact the one man who he says might be able to tell him what really happened: his former MI6 station chief. But this individual is now posted in Kuwait and Mr Balfour has not been able to get through to him. The Independent was unable to raise him.

John Wadham, legal director at Liberty, which is backing Mr Balfour's case, said: "Mr Balfour was a small cog in a large machine that got crunched up. He was a small part of a great mystery. The full picture will not emerge - or will be extremely unlikely to at the tribunal."

On top of everything else, it now seems that the Foreign Office may be asked to explain some of its dealings with the diplomat. It has recently emerged that Andrew Bache (now Ambassador to Romania), chair of the internal disciplinary board which sacked Mr Balfour, said at the disciplinary hearing that he had not been privy to the case except in so far as it had been described in the papers before them. In fact, as a member of the personal services department, he had been asked to advise on Mr Balfour's allowances a year beforehand. A spokesman from the Foreign Office refused to make any comment.

Mr Balfour looks back wistfully at his career: "On 27 May 1989 - my last effective day at work - I was content with life ... it couldn't have been better." Almost six years later, he dearly wishes that he could regain that contentment.

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