`Safe' countries reject appeals to take Masari

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

Appeals by the Government to find a third "safe" country to which it can send the Saudi dissident Mohamed al-Masari - thereby protecting lucrative arms deals - have fallen on deaf ears.

Attempts to persuade other European Union countries and neutral Commonwealth nations to take the outspoken opponent of the Saudi royal family have so far failed, leaving the Government with a sticky problem.

Only last week, the Saudi Ambassador repeated warnings that the continued presence of Mr Masari could lead to the cancellation of the huge arms contracts and harm relations between the two countries.

In the meantime the deadline set by the immigration appeal court for the Government to consider properly Mr Masari's asylum application - something it has so far failed to do for fear of upsetting bilateral relations - passed last Friday. But yesterday a spokeswoman for the Home Office denied the Government was going to ignore the ruling. "The ruling is not binding and we are still considering it," she said.

Home Office ministers have made no secret of the fact that plans to deport Mr Masari are influenced by the need to maintain Britain's cordial ties with Saudi. Since arriving in the UK in 1994, his persistent allegation of corruption and demands for a transition to Islamic rule in Saudi Arabia have infuriated the Saudi royals, who have threatened to withhold trade - therefore jeopardising many British jobs. Britain stands to benefit by up to pounds 20bn alone from the massive Al-Yamamah arms deal and British companies are leading investors in the desert kingdom.

However its two attempts so far have been thwarted by the immigration courts. Its attempts to send Mr Masari first to the Yemen were blocked in March last year. And last month, its attempts to deport him to Dominica - a Caribbean country which had agreed to take him, after the promise of increased aid and a guaranteed banana trade with the UK - were similarly prevented by Judge David Pearl, the chief immigration adjudicator.

He ruled that Mr Masari may not be safe in Dominica and accused ministers of an unprecedented attempt to "circumvent" its obligations under the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees "for diplomatic and trade reasons". And he gave the Government a month to consider his asylum claim -a deadline that expired last week.

Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, has since let it be known that the Government is still searching for yet another country.

But time is running out for the Government. The decision by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, not to consider Mr Masari's claim for asylum is to be the subject of a judicial review later this year - and any adverse High Court ruling will be binding on the Government.