Hurd faces row over 'Matrix but worse'

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DOUGLAS HURD, the Foreign Secretary, faces a Commons row over the jailing of three businessmen for illegal trading in arms to Iran despite Whitehall knowledge of their missiles deal.

Two Labour MPs, Bob Cryer, Bradford South, and David Young, Bolton South-East, are to ask questions about the case, which was revealed in the Independent and has 'disturbing echoes of Matrix Churchill about it - only worse'.

The three men claimed at the Old Bailey in May 1988 that they were involved in the US operation mounted by Lt-Col Oliver North to supply arms to Iran in exchange for American hostages.

The court did not believe them but the Foreign Secretary now faces claims that it was true, and that evidence of government knowledge and even encouragement of the arms trading was suppressed during the trial.

Michael Aspin, 56, an arms dealer, of Swardeston, near Norwich, was jailed for six years; Eric Matson, 68, a lieutenant-colonel in the United Arab Emirates army for three years, and William Harper, a Lloyd's broker, of Dorking, Surrey, for two years.

They were found guilty of a 'persistent fraud' in trying to persuade Iranian intermediaries to part with large sums of money for 5,000 anti-tank missiles which they had no intention of supplying.

Government sources have so far refused to make any comment on the allegations or claims that MI6 was involved in the transactions and was aware of the men's 'innocence'.

But Mr Cryer insisted yesterday: 'This is a similar case which suggests a clear resemblance to the Matrix Churchill case. It means that government ministers or officials from MI6 have allowed innocent men to go to jail.'

A fluke saved the Matrix Churchill directors from prison, 'but others have become unfortunate victims thanks to the Government's indifference to observing justice'.

Mr Young will ask if the allegations can be substantiated. He said: 'In view of the fact that these people went to prison, there must now be a clear statement showing the Government's alleged involvement.'

Meanwhile, Michael Meacher, shadow public service minister, said: 'Sir Nicholas Lyell, mastermind, as he is now revealed, of the cover-up through PII (public interest immunity) gagging orders, cannot remain as Attorney-General.

'But he must not be made a scapegoat. At least seven other members of the present Cabinet plus the former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, were clearly complicit in the cover- up, and they must now all be held to account.'