Is an address in Highgate north London at the heart of Syria’s chemical-weapons trade?
Briton faces extradition to the US over export of banned technology to President Assad
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Sunday 04 May 2014
With its Georgian shops, parks and population of well-heeled urbanites, the London “village” of Highgate is an unlikely location for a clandestine trade designed to subvert efforts to choke off Syria’s access to chemical weaponry.
But, according to American investigators, a British businessman did precisely that by using his £1m Highgate home as one of several forwarding addresses for laboratory equipment which US prosecutors claim was bound for Syria – in contravention of Washington’s sanctions designed to restrict the access of Bashar al-Assad’s regime to outlawed chemical weapons.
Ahmad Feras Diri, 41, is facing extradition to the US – and a potentially lengthy jail term – after he became the target of an investigation into the export of banned technology including chemical-weapon detectors to the country prior to the outbreak in 2011 of the civil war that has claimed 150,000 lives.
The Anglo-Syrian trader, who allegedly specialised in purchasing goods from the US and transferring them to Syrian customers via third countries including Britain, is accused with two others of creating false invoices, undervaluing items and listing fictitious purchasers over a nine-year period to smuggle hi-tech laboratory equipment worth $45,000 (£26,700).
In an indictment released last week, investigators said they had uncovered an international conspiracy stretching from an export company in rural Pennsylvania to Damascus, via Mr Diri’s north London home. His brother, Moawea Deri, who is now believed to be in Syria, is also said to have been involved.
The precise use of the equipment, which also included “magnetic stirrers” commonly used in laboratories, remains unclear. But prosecutors said that all three men were accused of a conspiracy to circumvent US export controls designed to “shut down the supply chain used by the Syrian state to support terrorism and develop and proliferate weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons”.
Mr Diri was arrested by Scotland Yard officers in March last year after allegedly procuring nine restricted items, including three detectors said to be capable of alerting a user to the presence of “nerve-, blood- and lung-warfare agents”.
He is also accused of using his London address for a consignment of gas masks which the indictment states would be capable of protecting users from nerve gas and poisons including hydrogen cyanide. His lawyers told The Independent that he denies the charges.
The Syrian government first acquired chemical weapons in the 1970s. By the time the regime was forced to disclose their existence last year following a nerve-gas attack in Damascus which killed up to 1,500 people, it had 1,000 tons of agents, including the VX nerve gas.
American investigators said that while they were sure the items ordered by Mr Diri and his alleged co-conspirators did reach Syria, they do not know who in Syria, such as the military or police, the ultimate recipients were.
It is also possible opponents of President Assad’s regime may have been seeking detection devices. But the US authorities state that most of the shipping dates precede the start of the civil war, prior to which the country’s authorities maintained rigid control of material entering Syria.
Todd Hinkley, the Pennsylvania assistant US attorney prosecuting the case, said: “We know [the items] were exported to Syria.”
Mr Diri, who is married, is the latest in a long line of Britons who have faced being sent to America to face trial under the terms of the much-criticised UK-US extradition treaty signed in 2003.
Among those sent to a US prison were Kent businessman Christopher Tappin, who admitted a charge relating to aiding and abetting the attempted export to Iran of batteries for anti-aircraft missiles. He recently returned to Britain to serve the remainder of his 33-month sentence.
While the case of Tappin involved the use of a front company in a “sting” by US investigators, the authorities have declined to say how they discovered the alleged scheme involving Mr Diri.
They claim that from 2003 the Briton and his brother, who is a Syrian citizen, used a 73-year-old American businessman, Harold Rinko, as a “front” for the operation in order to circumvent US sanctions against the Middle Eastern country.
The investigators said Mr Diri and his brother regularly asked Mr Rinko, who has struck a plea bargain with prosecutors, to under-state the cost of the items ordered.
In correspondence about one item, the ChemPro 100 handheld detector for “nerve, blister, blood, choking agents and precursors”, it is claimed that Mr Diri wrote: “Please put 50-60 per cent less than the original price on the invoice, just for customs, so we pay less tax.”
Other restricted items allegedly ordered by the brothers included “high-volume magnetic stirrers” potentially capable of combining up to 25 litres of chemicals at a time, parts claimed to be for use in gas exploration, and a detector which could locate buried pipelines, according to the lawsuit.
It is claimed that the materials were paid for by bank transfers from Lebanon and Jordan before being dispatched to addresses including Mr Diri’s Highgate home as well as the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.
Wanted by the US: Extradition cases
Kent grandfather Christopher Tappin
Mr Tappin, in his 60s, was facing 35 years in prison after US officials accused him of helping export specialist batteries to Iran for anti-aircraft missiles. A plea deal saw him jailed for two years and nine months.
Asperger’s Syndrome sufferer Gary McKinnon
The Londoner faced a 60-year sentence for what US officials said was “the biggest military hack of all time” in his search for evidence of UFOs. The UK decided he was not well enough to stand trial overseas.
Paul and Sandra Dunham
The Northampton couple are due to be extradited to the US over allegations that Mr Dunham, 58, over-claimed expenses from a US firm by $1m and that his wife helped him.
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