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Zimbabwean arms dealer sues Foreign Office for freezing assets

Mogul accused of selling weapons to Iran and Iraq was blacklisted over support for Mugabe

The Government is at the centre of an extraordinary legal battle with a Zimbabwean arms dealer who claims the Foreign Office unlawfully caused his assets to be frozen based on “unsubstantiated” comments made to an ambassador.

John Bredenkamp, a controversial businessman accused of breaking sanctions in Rhodesia in the 1970s and supplying arms to both sides during the Iran-Iraq war, is suing the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, after he discovered the British Government was behind a decision to blacklist him for supporting Robert Mugabe.

The 72-year-old tycoon claims the European Union measure in 2009 was “devastating for his personal and professional reputation” and was based on “exceptionally generalised” evidence.

In documents filed at the High Court, Mr Bredenkamp’s lawyers said the Foreign Office’s evidence was “based on entirely unsubstantiated, undocumented and unparticularised comments made orally to the former ambassador of the United Kingdom to Zimbabwe, Dr Andrew Pocock”.

“Remarkably, and despite the entirely predictable and disastrous consequences which would flow from listing the claimant, it appears the ambassador failed to seek, let alone obtain, any detail at all as to the comments made to him, and that he did not even make contemporaneous records of those comments he particularly relied upon.”

Mr Bredenkamp’s lawyers are challenging the lawfulness of the Government’s decision to freeze his assets and impose a travel ban to Europe between 2009 and 2012.

According to High Court documents, the Foreign Office privately informed the European Union that the businessman had “strong ties” to the Mugabe government and “provided, through his companies, financial and other support to the regime”.

His lawyers argue the Government produced no evidence to substantiate the allegations and say Mr Bredenkamp has always “vigorously rejected” claims that he supported Mr Mugabe. Timothy Otty QC told the court the tycoon had only met the dictator once in 1982, was imprisoned on false charges and stripped of his citizenship in 2006.

At the High Court today, it emerged that Mr Bredenkamp sought disclosure of nine emails from Foreign Office officials that outlined why ministers decided he should be blacklisted. However, lawyers acting for the Government claimed they were too sensitive to release during the proceedings and tried to withhold them on “public-interest immunity” grounds as it could affect the UK’s “international relations” with other countries.

The Independent and Mr Bredenkamp’s lawyers were then forced to leave the court while the Foreign Office and Mr Justice Collins decided whether they could be released to the businessman’s legal team. In the claim against Mr Hague, Mr Bredenkamp’s lawyers said: “The effect of [Mr Bredenkamp’s] listing was, quite predictably devastating for his personal and professional reputation, for his business interests, and for the many hundreds of individuals dependent upon him, as well as for their families. It has also seriously impacted upon his physical health.

“He wishes to obtain a declaration as to the unlawfulness of the United Kingdom’s conduct at the outset, both by way of vindicatory relief, and in order to clear the path for a claim for damages in respect of the very substantial losses he has suffered. As a result of the sanctions he has faced he has gone from a position of very substantial wealth to one involving very substantial losses.”

Mr Otty, a leading human rights barrister, told the court that the action by the UK Government means his client is unable to bank anywhere in the world “save for a single, personal account in Zimbabwe which is of very limited use because of exchange controls”.

Mr Bredenkamp, who made his money in tobacco farming, was named in a 2002 UN report as a key arms trader who made millions of pounds from illegally exploiting natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A representative of Mr Bredenkamp’s who attended court but refused to give his name told The Independent that “everything that has ever been written about him is fictitious and based on no evidence”. He added: “If you Google Mr Bredenkamp he is supposed to have stolen nuclear bombs. It is ridiculous.”