Former MP accused over arms to Iran trial: Appeal hearing could implicate Britain in Contra weapons affair

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A FORMER Tory ministerial aide has been accused of a possible conflict of interest over his role in an arms trial with close parallels to the Matrix Churchill case which will come under scrutiny in the Court of Appeal this month.

Humfrey Malins was MP for Croydon North West and permanent private secretary to a Home Office minister at a time when the Home Secretary was informed that the security services were aware of the illegal arms deal with Iran.

Mr Malins was also the defence solicitor for one of those on trial: a former Lloyd's broker, William Harper, who was convicted along with two others and jailed for 18 months. The defendants maintained throughout their trial that both the US and British governments knew of the deal to sell missiles to Tehran.

The Independent has already reported that one of the defendants was reporting to the security services throughout the deal and that this was not disclosed to jurors during the trial in 1988. At the time, however, the then Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, was made aware that John Taylor, a Surrey businessman, had been reporting to MI6. The Home Office privately confirmed this to Mr Taylor's solicitor. Mr Taylor was eventually acquitted but has decided to speak out because he believes the Government should admit it knew about the arms deal and encouraged it to go ahead.

Mr Harper is now seeking leave to appeal against his conviction partly because he is arguing that Mr Malins became ensnared in a possible conflict of interest that could have affected his defence. Mr Harper was convicted of trying to defraud Iran by offering the missiles for sale when he could not supply them. In particular he was said to have falsified insurance documents. He claims, as do the other defendants, including Mr Taylor, that they were involved in a real deal with Iran which had the backing of the US and UK authorities and was one of the first examples of Colonel Oliver North's Iran-Contra transactions. If this claim is substantiated it will implicate Britain in Iran-Contra for the first time. The Court of Appeal will hear the application on 12 April.

It is understood that at the end of November 1987 - two months before Mr Harper's trial began - Mr Malins was asked by other defence lawyers in the case to consider withdrawing because of his position in the Government and the fact that the trial was likely to be highly political.

Mr Malins declined - replying, 'I am a solicitor first and an MP second,' according to several of those present. 'The raison d'etre of the meeting was to ask Mr Malins to consider his position,' Mr Harper said.

It has also been disclosed that Mr Malins was alerted in September 1987 to claims that US and UK authorities knew of the project and told his client, Mr Harper, who sent him documents, that he would 'check the veracity of these out with friends in America'.

Mr Malins, lost his Croydon North West seat in 1992 and is now an assistant recorder. He said last week, when asked if he had discussed Mr Harper's case with the Government and if he knew that one of Mr Harper's co-defendants was reporting to MI6: 'I think a solicitor has a duty to act in his client's best interest, and I took no steps at all to do other than that'.

(Photograph omitted)