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The Independent Online

Civil rights campaigners yesterday spoke of "echoes of Matrix Churchill" as an industrial tribunal ruled that evidence concerning a former vice- consul accused of accepting £5,000 from an alleged terrorist should be heard in private.

Victor Jordan, chairman of the tribunal, which will decide whether the Foreign and Commonwealth Office unfairly dismissed Andrew Balfour, said the cover of agents could be blown if evidence was heard in public.

While conceding that "much of the evidence has no national security implications", Mr Jordan said the tribunal had "reluctantly" reached a unanimous decision.

Mr Balfour, the former vice-consul in Dubai, was dismissed in 1990 for allegedly taking a £5,000 payment from an Iranian businessman, Mehrdad Ansari Shirazi, whom police suspected to be a terrorist.

Mr Balfour, who denies the charge, claims he was asked by an MI6 officer to befriend Ansari. He was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1989 but no charges were brought.

He has sought access to classified documents in an attempt to clear his name. However, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and Kenneth Baker, the then Home Secretary, issued public interest immunity (PII) certificates preventing disclosure.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said: "The echoes of the Matrix Churchill affair [when ministers signed PII certificates in an attempt to prevent evidence that would have helped the defendants in an exports-to-Iraq case from coming to court] are so strong here we have to treat it with great suspicion."

Michael Mansfield QC, who in January criticised the anonymity granted to MI5 witnesses in an IRA trial, said: "There is an increasing tendency to have secret hearings, particularly when MI5 or MI6 are involved . . . it is horrific."

Geoffrey Bindman, a leading civil rights lawyer, said secret hearings were generally seen to be against the individual and in favour of the State.