`Guardian' backs down over Aitken allegations

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The Independent Online
In a dramatic move at the Jonathan Aitken libel trial yesterday, The Guardian and Granada Television abandoned their allegations that the former defence minister was involved in illegal arms trading.

Mr Charles Gray, QC, counsel for Mr Aitken, told the High Court that the defendants had withdrawn their pleas of justification in relations to the allegations. The newspaper and the television company had alleged that Mr Aitken, while on the board of two companies, BMARC and Astra, had offered at the height of the Iran/Iraq war to supply arms to both sides knowing this was in breach of a government embargo.

The defendants had alleged that while a director of Astra, he had offered to sell arms to Iraq. They had further alleged, that in his capacity as a non executive director of BMARC, he had failed to keep himself informed that naval cannon exported to Singapore had ended up in Iran.

Earlier in the proceedings Mr Justice Popplewell, hearing the libel action without a jury, had ruled that the inference of the coverage in The Guardian and the Granada documentary World in Action, was that Mr Aitken must have known that arms were being illegally sold.The defendants had maintained that the inference should have been that he had been grossly negligent in not finding out their eventual destinations.

In relation to the defendants claims of Mr Aitken being involved in arms trading, Mr Gray said: "We wholly reject this allegation."

The action continues with Mr Aitken, the former defence procurement minister and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, suing over claims that he was financially dependent upon wealthy Saudis and pimped for them. The Guardian and Granada deny libel, pleading justification.

Mr Aitken told the court that to suggest he had "pimped prostitutes for bored Arabs" was "an incredible allegation, and completely untrue".

George Carman,QC, cross examining Mr Aitken, asked whether it was true that he had asked two employees of health a hydro called Inglewood, in Berkshire, where Mr Aitken was chairman, to obtain girls for visiting Arabs. Mr Aitken replied: "It's untrue."

Mr Carman asked: "Have you found over the years with your long and detailed knowledge of the Arab community that it contains among its members those who might seek the pleasure of escort girls while they are in London?"

Mr Aitken replied: "Well if they did, they didn't bother me with this aspect of their lives."

Asked whether there was a subservient relationship between Mr Aitken and his arab business partners, in particular Prince Mohammed, the son of the Saudi King, and he had to do them favours, Mr Aitken replied: "I had a good relationship with, I hope, all my Arab colleagues, they included being respectful to the son of the Saudi King, but the notion that somehow this tumbled over into being a subservient pimp is preposterous and totally untrue."

The case continues.