Shayler: My return is first step to law change

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Indy Politics

At 10.43 yesterday morning, David Shayler, the former MI5 officer and current cause célÿbre, stepped off the ferry at Dover to be arrested and begin the process which he and his supporters declared would lead to fundamental changes in Britain's secrecy laws. Five-and-a-half hours later Mr Shayler was free again and already claiming that he had won a major victory against the Government.

At 10.43 yesterday morning, David Shayler, the former MI5 officer and current cause célÿbre, stepped off the ferry at Dover to be arrested and begin the process which he and his supporters declared would lead to fundamental changes in Britain's secrecy laws. Five-and-a-half hours later Mr Shayler was free again and already claiming that he had won a major victory against the Government.

Mr Shayler had been released on police bail after being charged, on two counts, under the Official Secrets Act. The charges relate to a newspaper article he wrote saying MI5 kept files on Labour politicians and also suffered from a culture of incompetence. He was not, however, charged over his numerous other allegations of government dirty tricks and cover-ups, including claims MI6 conspired to murder the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, and that the IRA's Bishopsgate bombing could have been prevented but for MI5 negligence.

Mr Shayler's solicitor, John Wadham of the human rights group Liberty, said any attempts to introduce further charges against his client would lead to an action for abuse of process. Mr Shayler and his supporters also believe that any court case brought against him will prove the Official Secrets Act is incompatible with European human rights legislation.

Mr Shayler's homecoming from his three-year exile in France had been elaborately scripted in a deal between his lawyers and the Crown Prosecutions Service. It ensured that he would come in from the cold in the hot glare of publicity of the kind no spy has had before. The media circus which had followed him from France was in force outside Charing Cross police station in central London to hear him talk about "the Government's retreat".

He said: "It is only because this government system is so myopic. Today does represent a climbdown and quite clearly a backdown from what was a very draconian and repressive position.

"I am happy if the authorities want to restrict the charges to what was revealed way back in August 1997 but I wonder whether this is an attempt to prevent the jury from hearing the whole story. I was not questioned at all, which I find very interesting."

During yesterday morning's 75-minute journey home from Calais on a P&O ferry, Mr Shayler gave endless interviews to the media. As a woman handling public relations ticked off a list of organisations requesting interviews, the former agent, rotund and smiling in a cream suit and black T-shirt, with his girlfriend, Annie Machon, constantly at his side, was always willing to be filmed and photographed. He talked about his struggle against the state and his ambitions for the future - to become a media personality, a civil liberties champion, a parliamentary candidate taking on Tony Blair.

As the boat headed intoDover, there was another round of photo calls, and Mr Shayler talked about his patriotism. "It's good to be back and see the white cliffs," he said. "I have had a good life in France but now I want to return to my own country, have things like egg and bacon."

After the ferry docked, Mr Shayler dutifully waited for the cameras to get into position and a young woman from Sky TV to count him down. As he stepped off, a police officer said affably: "Welcome. Would you please get on this bus." Sitting inside with his family, friends and a huge media entourage, Mr Shayler said, "maybe I am not going to be charged, after all", with what appeared to be a twinge of regret.

But, four minutes later, as he walked past immigration control waving his passport, two men from Scotland Yard's Special Branch stepped out of the shadows. One of them, balding and dressed in a navy suit, pink shirt and blue tie, said: "Mr Shayler, I am a police officer; will you come this way." In the mêlée of photographers and cameramen the detective protested: "Can we do this with a bit of dignity, please?" With that Mr Shayler was whisked away through a side door, waving a temporary goodbye to Ms Machon, his parents Ron and Anne, brothers Jeremy and Philip, and then another one to his entourage of journalists.

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