Whitehall interference in arms trial condemned: Arab embassies were persuaded to silence defence witnesses, Court of Appeal told

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The Independent Online
TWO GOVERNMENT departments came under unprecedented attack from the Lord Chief Justice yesterday for interfering with the course of justice by conspiring to prevent defence witnesses from giving evidence in an arms case.

Lord Taylor and two other judges, sitting at the Court of Appeal, condemned Customs and Excise and the Foreign Office for stopping potential defence witnesses appearing in the case of Atlantic Commercial, a defence consultancy, involving the export of sub-machine guns to Arab countries.

'The machinations in this case to prevent witnesses for the defence being available, coupled with the non-disclosure of what had been done, constituted such an interference with the justice process as to amount to an abuse of it,' Lord Taylor said.

The case at the Old Bailey in 1985 would probably have been halted by the trial judge if he had known that defence witnesses were dissuaded from giving evidence at the instigation of Customs and Excise, which was the prosecuting authority, he added.

It was revealed at the Scott inquiry into the arms for Iraq affair that Customs officers asked the Foreign Office to persuade the Iraqi and Jordanian embassies in London to refuse to allow officials to give evidence on behalf of Atlantic Commercial.

The company, based in Cuckney, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, was fined pounds 7,500 and Alexander Schlesinger, a director, and Reginald Dunk, a consultant, were fined pounds 3,000 and pounds 12,500. Their fines will now be refunded and Customs will pay their costs of pounds 80,000.

The firm had pleaded guilty to being concerned in exporting, and attempting to export, arms with intent to evade export prohibitions. The case involved consignments of Sterling Mark 5 sub-machine guns which were intercepted by Customs.

The defendants said that the guns, although paid for by Iraq, were bound for Jordan and Sudan as presents from the Baghdad government. They originally intended to plead not guilty and call witnesses from the Iraqi and Jordanian embassies to testify to the legality of the contracts. But they decided to plead guilty when the embassies refused to allow the officals to give evidence. Nine years later Sir Stephen Egerton, a former senior Foreign Office official, told the Scott inquiry the truth.

M F Knox, a Customs officer, had written to the Foreign Office saying that the two embassies had 'put their heads together' to produce a story which was not credible. He added that he was worried about the effect on the case if the diplomats were to give

evidence.

He continued: 'It may be prudent for us to confront the ambassadors with the contradictory evidence in our possession before such an eventuality becomes fact in the hope that this will deter them from taking a potentially embarrassing course of action.'

The Foreign Office's Middle East Department had 'an informal word' with the Iraqi ambassador, suggesting that it would be better if he did not agree to waive diplomatic immunity.

The Jordanian embassy was also approached by the Foreign Office at the suggestion of an official of the Near East and North Africa Department who wrote: 'I confess to innocent reluctance to connive at impeding the course of justice] But you might gently enquire . . .'

The judges, giving reasons for their decision earlier this month to clear Atlantic Commercial, said it was for the court and more particularly a jury, not a Customs official, to decide whether the defence case was credible.

Lord Taylor said: 'We have no doubt that, by seeking to put those witnesses in baulk and succeeding in doing so, those involved were improperly interfering with the course of justice.

'The failure to disclose what had taken place kept the defence in ignorance of the impropriety and thus prevented them from raising the matter with the trial judge.'

When Lord Justice Scott put it to Sir Stephen Egerton that it had been a 'disgraceful' affair he agreed that it had been 'a bad show'. Lord Taylor said: ' We prefer the plain adjective used by Lord Justice Scott.'

Both departments said yesterday that they are studying the judgment and refused to comment further.

Sir Basil Rhodes, solicitor for Atlantic Commercial, said that the company planned to sue Customs for damage to the company's business over the past nine years and the interest on the fines.

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