Ministers blocked vital trial evidence

New arms-to-Iraq row as Appeal Court quashes convictions of four businessmen
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The Court of Appeal yesterday overturned the convictions of four men involved in supplying arms to Iraq, on the grounds that they had been denied a fair trial because vital documents were withheld by the Government.

Labour immediately called for the resignations of the ministers whose actions prevented the men, who ran Ordtech, an arms technology company, from gaining access to secret Whitehall papers. The decision recorded by Lord Justice Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, removed the last legal obstacle to publication of the Scott report into British arms sales to Iraq, which already threatened to bring about the downfall of several Cabinet ministers.

In its judgment, the Court of Appeal said the four were not given a fair trial in the absence of vital documents denied to them by the prosecution. "We are satisfied that the documents which are now before the Court ought to have been made available for the trial."

The ruling raised further questions over the conduct of ministers in signing Public Interest Immunity certificates to prevent disclosure of evidence in court cases. In the Ordtech trial three years ago, Kenneth Baker, the then Home Secretary, and Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, issued such certificates. They were joined at the appeal stage by Michael Howard, the present Home Secretary, and Douglas Hurd, Foreign Secretary until this summer.

As with the collapse of the Matrix Churchill case, which led to the establishment of Sir Richard Scott's inquiry, the Ordtech case centred on the involvement of one of the appellants with the security services.

Paul Grecian, head of Ordtech, had been working as a Special Branch informer and was the first person to inform Whitehall that President Saddam Hussein of Iraq was building a "supergun" with the help of British companies. Despite that, he was investigated and prosecuted by HM Customs and Excise.

Evidence withheld by ministers from the trial, but finally disclosed on appeal, revealed the full extent of his assistance to Scotland Yard's Special Branch and MI5 and MI6.

However, officials were prepared to disavow his help. In August 1990 a Foreign Office official reportedly compiled a briefing note for the security services, which said: "If Ordtech ends up in court [Mr Grecian] may be persuaded to keep quiet about his connections with [Special Branch] and yourselves but there is an obvious risk he will try the 'working for British intelligence' ploy."

The official added: "his personal future might be in some doubt if he was ever publicly identified as the man who blew the [whistle] on the Iraqi Babylon project. If we were not too squeamish, we might use this point to ensure silence." During the appeal, it emerged that in the original trial, the prosecution had told Mr Grecian they could not protect him from possible recriminations from the IRA, on whom he had also informed, or from the Iraqis, if he refused to plead guilty.

Another plank of the appellants' case, that the Government had turned "a blind eye" towards the export of arms to Iraq via Jordan, was upheld by the Court of Appeal. Among the documents cited by the defence was a telegram from the British Embassy in Amman to the Foreign Office on 28 May 1990, which said: "Are we trying to ensure that the problem does not arise again by putting a stop to further Jordanian involvement in Iraqi procurement? Have we not turned a blind eye to Jordanian involvement in the past? (The Ambassador thinks that this has been the case.)"

Lord Taylor said in his judgment that it was not appropriate for him to comment on why the documents were not disclosed, adding that it was a matter for Sir Richard Scott's inquiry. Mr Grecian and the other appellants, Bryan Mason, Colin Phillips and Stuart Blackledge, said they were considering a claim for compensation. "The whole thing has been a sorry mess," Mr Grecian said.

The Court of Appeal highlighted concerns about Mr Grecian's behaviour. Not everything in the withheld documents had been helpful to his case. Some of them said that he was warned not to act illegally and in August 1990 he was dropped as a security source.

The Government used the Scott inquiry to fend off demands for ministers, including Mr Howard, to be sacked over their role in signing the public interest immunity certificates.

Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, said the Ordtech case would form part of the Scott report, and he warned Labour against pre-judging his report, which is due early in the new year.

Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, said the release of the evidence had not compromised security: "What is compromised is the integrity of this government that is shown to have known the arms were going to Iraq and has been shown to pretend it didn't [know] when these businessmen were put on trial ... The person whose safety was on the line was one of the defendants".

Last night, Mr Baker said: "The certificate I signed did not seek to withold any documents, as it related only to the verbal evidence of a witness."

News Analysis, page 15