Customs chief defends Iraq export prosecutions

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THE CUSTOMS' chief investigator defended the prosecution of three Matrix Churchill businessmen but admitted to the Scott Inquiry yesterday that mistakes had been made.

Douglas Tweddle acknowledged more should have been done to investigate the extent of the Government's knowledge about the Coventry-based machine tool firm's links with Baghdad. Three Matrix Churchill executives were acquitted at the Old Bailey in November 1992 after the case against them collapsed.

Documents released during the trial revealed the Government suspected the company's machine tool exports were going to equip Iraqi weapons factories in breach of the its own guidelines.

The inquiry, public hearings of which started a year ago today, heard how Customs investigators relied too heavily on evidence from Department of Trade and Industry officials about export licensing. Statements were not sought from important witnesses in the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office, who were also involved in key committees which vetted exports to Iraq.

'I think today, if we could turn the clock back, we would certainly be going beyond the DTI if we were mounting a similar investigation,' Mr Tweddle said. His investigators were experienced and professional doing their best in difficult circumstances. 'It would be difficult to trawl through every bit of material in government. We were dependent on departments bringing to our attention relevant documents.'

Mr Tweddle also admitted the system Customs used to handle sensitive information from the intelligence services worked against investigators, who could not access reports or act upon the information.

Copies of minutes from a vital Whitehall committee which discussed Iraqi exports were only kept for six months so they could not refer back to the information in them. Intelligence material was now accessible by computer, he said.

Investigators should have done more to follow up a GCHQ intelligence report linking Matrix Churchill contracts with an Iraqi artillery fuse factory, he added. Mr Tweddle said that, following the 1990 Supergun affair, he had been particularly concerned that the Matrix Churchill prosecution should not encounter any similar difficulties. 'After the experience of Supergun I said I wanted this case to be particularly carefully conducted with every 'i' dotted and no chance of anything going wrong.'

Rebutting suggestions that Customs had failed to sufficiently investigate the Matrix Churchill defence that the Government knew and colluded with the exports, Mr Tweddle said he found 'inconceivable' the suggestion that a minister, Alan Clark, had given manufacturers a 'nod and a wink' to proceed.

The inquiry was also told by Presiley Blaxendale QC, counsel to the hearing, that a warrant obtained by Customs to search the house of Peter Mitchel, the managing director of Walter Somers in 1990, had failed to comply with a legal requirement to spell out in detail the need for the search and the nature of the material being sought.

The hearing will continue tomorrow.