'Arms for Iran' fraud case challenge fails: Judge finds no grounds to allow appeal over pounds 20m swindle

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The Independent Online
A FORMER Lloyd's insurance broker was yesterday refused permission to challenge his conviction six years ago over a conspiracy to defraud the Iranian government of pounds 20m in an arms swindle.

Lord Justice Brown, the Lord Justice of Appeal, sitting with Mr Justice Turner and Mr Justice Bell in the Court of Appeal Criminal Division, declined to grant William Harper, 45, leave to appeal to a full hearing of the Court of Appeal.

In May 1988, Harper and two other men were found guilty at the Old Bailey of taking part in a plot which involved defrauding a Swiss firm of dollars 675,000 in the form of an advance premium payment for 5,000 non-existent anti-tank weapons to Iran.

At the time Iran was struggling to get arms in the wake of US, UK and Nato arms embargoes following the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution. The three men claimed to be involved in the covert Iran-Contra plot run by Lt-Col Oliver North to supply arms to Iran in exchange for that country helping to free American hostages in the Lebanon. The proceeds for the sales of TOW anti-tank missiles it was alleged would be used to finance the right-wing Contras in their fight with the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

The defendants, who all pleaded not guilty, argued that the US and British governments knew of the deal to sell missiles to Tehran. After the trial it emerged that one of the defendants, John Taylor, a Surrey businessman, had been reporting to MI6 thoughout the attempted arms sale. He was eventually acquitted.

In the wake of this case's parallels with the Matrix Churchill scandal, Mr Taylor has recently said that the Government always knew about the arms deal.

Mr Justice Alliott sentenced Harper to two years jail for his part in issuing certificates of insurance verifying the existence of the bogus missiles. He spent 18 months in prison. The jury acquitted Mr Taylor and a fifth man was acquitted on the judge's direction.

Yesterday James Turner, for Harper, said there were arguable grounds for his conviction to be challenged in the Court of Appeal.

Mr Turner said that when the original trial took place his client was prevented from giving evidence in person because he was suffering from a depressive illness.

Mr Turner also argued that his client would not have been at his best in instructing his counsel, Stephen Mitchell QC, now a High Court judge. The prosecution moreover had withheld vital information. Mr Turner concluded that one was left 'with a sense of unease' over the verdict.

Mr Justice Brown said there was no coherent basis whatsoever for supposing that material withheld by the prosecution could have advantaged Harper's case. He described Mr Turner's argument that Harper may not have been given a fair trial because he was unable to give evidence as 'dazzling ingenuity and breathtaking effrontery'.

He said Harper had been represented by a very experienced QC and there was nothing to suggest that he failed to take proper instructions. Nor was there anything to suggest that Mr Mitchell regarded himself as having been participating in a miscarriage of justice.

Mr Justce Brown described some of the 'speculative hares' in Mr Turner's written evidence - which was not read out in court - as 'far-fetched' to the highest degree.

The court, he said, had not been persuaded that there was any likely merit in any of the prospective grounds of appeal. Nor was it left with a sense of unease about the way the guilty verdict had been reached.

The application for leave to appeal beyond the normal time limits was refused.