Ministers attack reports of 'gagging' order ruling

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The Independent Online
TIM KELSEY

Government concerns over a sensitive arms-to-Iraq court case surfaced yesterday when Cabinet ministers mounted a co- ordinated defence of the use of "gagging" orders.

Their attack on newspaper reports of a case which goes before the Court of Appeal on Monday came as the Lord Chief Justice also denied that he had "quashed" the Public Interest Immunity Certificates. But Lord Taylor conceded he had ordered that some secret information be released to lawyers defending four men convicted of evading arms exports controls.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said in a letter to the Independent, that he feared no embarrassment as a result of signing a "gagging" order.

The certificate was designed to prevent information regarded as too sensitive from being used by four businessmen associated with a Reading- based defence firm, Ordtec, as part of their appeal against 1992 convictions for trading in military equipment with Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Three were given suspended jail sentences and one a fine. They pleaded guilty after being told that documents, which they maintain will show the Government knew of the trade and connived in it, were suppressed during the original trial.

On Monday the Court of Appeal considered whether or not the ministerial directives to withhold the information in the appeal was appropriate.

Mr Howard said in his letter that both he and the other signatory of the certificates, Douglas Hurd, then foreign secretary, had been vindicated by the court. He said: "The certificates made a claim that certain limited information in the documents should be protected from disclosure in the public interest. Those claims were upheld in full."

But Mr Howard's comment, echoed in a joint statement later released with Mr Hurd, seems to contradict the Lord Chief Justice's interpretation of his own ruling. While the two ministers issued statements, Lord Taylor took the unprecedented step of inviting newspaper journalists to court for clarification on his decision. He conceded that he had ordered some disclosure of material specifically against the terms of the certificates.

Newspapers, including the Independent, reported yesterday that he had "overruled" the certificates and ordered substantial disclosure.

Lord Taylor said that this was inaccurate. The certificates signed by the ministers allowed for considerable disclosure and he had approved this. He added: "Only a very small proportion of the disclosure we ordered consisted of additional material we considered ought to have been provided for the appellants."

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