Secret deals in arms and bananas that condemned a man to exile

Downing Street meeting sealed dissident's fate
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The Independent Online
COLIN BROWN, PATRICK COCKBURN, STEVE CRAWSHAW, and PHIL DAVISON

Two secret deals that secured arms deals worth billions of pounds and provided foreign aid to the Caribbean island of Dominica lay behind Britain's decision to expel the dissident Saudi Mohammed al-Masari.

A meeting in Whitehall on 18 December between the Prime Minister of Dominica, Edson James, and Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, led to Dominica's offering political asylum to Mr Masari.

The island has been assured that its bilateral aid from Britain will be restored from around pounds 500,000 in 1994/95 to about pounds 2m this year and next year, which will assist the ailing banana industry on which the island's economy largely rests.

While the Overseas Development Administration insisted there was no link between the extra aid and Mr Masari's expulsion, the rest of the ODA budget suffered a 5.4 per cent cut in November's Budget.

Mr James last night told the Independent that his meeting with Mr Rifkind, during a planned visit to London in connection with the problems of the banana industry, was unexpected. The subject of foreign aid for Dominica did not come up, he said.

The decision to expel Mr Masari was taken after the Saudis threatened British firms with the loss of billions of pounds of business in arms contracts in the pounds 20bn al-Yamamah deal signed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Shares in companies involved in Saudi arms deals, including British Aerospace, Vickers and GEC, all rose on on the back of City speculation that the Saudis would now lift the block on the contracts. The decision was taken at an informal meeting in Downing Street shortly before Christmas involving the Prime Minister, Mr Rifkind, Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, and Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade.

John Major acted after being personally asked to expel Mr Masari by King Fahd, head of the Saudi royal family, in Jeddah on 18 September 1994, and again by Prince Sultan, the Saudi defence minister, in October last year at the 50th anniversary of the UN in New York. Other Cabinet ministers were also pressed to expel Mr Masari.

"He hasn't done anything illegal but he was the cause of acute embarrassment," said one Whitehall source. "We were getting a lot of alarmist messages from British companies about the Saudi contracts."

The Saudi royal family was targeted by Mr Masari, head of a London-based group known as the Committee for Defence of Legitimate Rights (CDLR), in a campaign alleging corruption in the Saudi government.

He had been imprisoned and allegedly tortured before fleeing via Yemen to Britain where he claimed asylum in 1994. Last year, Britain tried to expel him to Yemen, but it was blocked by an independent adjudicator. Sources said Britain had since been looking for a country to take him, where his safety would be guaranteed.

"Dominica has had a lot of aid and they offered to help,"said the source. "They do not have the problem of trade links with Saudi." Ministers believe a fundamentalist Islamic nation will admit Mr Masari, who is fighting expulsion.

Dr Saad Faqih, a Saudi dissident closely associated with Mr Masari, said that he understood Dominica was willing to receive him because of British support for its banana exports to the European Union, on which it is largely dependent.

The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, signed his expulsion papers before he left for India. Ann Widdecombe, Home Office minister, made no attempt to conceal the importance of the Saudi export orders."We have an extremely difficult balancing act. We have close trade relations with a friendly state who have been the subject of very consistent criticism from Mr Masari and we have got enormous export considerations, British job considerations and we have therefore tried to find a solution which satisfied both sides," she said.

A ministerial source said: "It was made clear to him that if he would keep a bit quieter, there was every chance that nothing would happen. But this guy went over the top."

Mr Masari was measured in his criticism of the Government yesterday. "It's very disappointing. The Government has become very sensitive to commercial pressures. We felt an old-established government would have sufficient identity to forgo one or two deals for the sake of its own dignity."

The Home Office yesterday quoted a paragraph that has never been used before, but which provides for the fact that "if the Secretary of State is satisfied that there is a safe country to which an asylum applicant can be sent, his application will normally be refused without substantive consideration of his claim to refugee status".

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