Judge tells Howard to reconsider Masari case

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

A judge yesterday disrupted the Government's "arms for bananas" deals, which would have seen an outspoken Saudi dissident and asylum seeker deported to Dominica.

In a damning criticism of ministers' handling of the case of Muhammad al-Masari, the Home Secretary Michael Howard was ordered to reconsider the Islamic fundamentalist's claim for asylum. It was the latest in a series of embarrassing court rebukes for the Home Secretary.

Judge David Pearl, the chief immigration adjudicator sitting at the Immigration Appellate Authority in north London, accused ministers of an unprecedented attempt to "circumvent for diplomatic and trade reasons" its obligations under the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees. And he questioned whether its actions were "within the humanitarian spirit with which the convention and asylum legislation should be interpreted".

He ruled that the only way to ensure the "highest standards of fairness" to Dr Masari and in the public interest was for Mr Howard to consider his asylum claim in full - within a month.

The Government had been hoping to send Dr Masari to the Caribbean, thus protecting at least pounds 20bn of arms deals - apparently under threat because the Saudi government does not believe the United Kingdom should give refuge to one of its most vociferous opponents.

Dominica, an independent territory, had agreed to take the 49 year-old as a refugee - the country's first - after they were told by government officials "one good deal deserves another". According to Eddison James, the Prime Minister of Dominica, an increase in aid from the UK to the Island and a guaranteed trade in its cash crop, bananas, were at issue.

But yesterday Judge Pearl thwarted the arrangement by upholding Dr Masari's claim that Dominica could not be regarded as a safe haven. He said the history of Dominica illustrated "political vulnerability, such that pressure placed on it to expel him to Saudi Arabia may not be capable of being resisted".

During the three-day hearing Dr Masari described being beaten and tortured after being thrown into prison for helping to found an Islamic fundamentalist political party in Saudi, fiercely critical of the ruling Royal Family. He said he remained at risk of reprisals.

Last night the Home Office said Mr Howard was considering an appeal. But this is the second time that the Home Secretary has been requested by an adjudicator to properly consider Dr Masari claim - indicating that an appeal may fail. His apparent decision to ignore that first ruling last year is already the subject of a judicial review.

A jubilant Dr Masari said the ruling gave him a better chance of staying in Britain while George Galloway, the Labour MP and organiser of the Masari Must Stay campaign, said the judgement was "a grave condemnation of the Major government".