Witnesses slowing up arms-to-Iran inquiry

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The Independent Online
The House of Commons select committee inquiry into the supply of arms to Iran by BMARC is in danger of running into the sand because key witnesses, including Jonathan Aitken, once one of the company's directors, have been slow to respond to requests for evidence.

A senior Trade and Industry committee source said yesterday that Mr Aitken and other directors had so far not supplied detailed information about BMARC's order to supply naval guns to Iran via Singapore in defiance of a United Nations arms embargo. In Mr Aitken's case, the committee had asked for his evidence about what he knew and he had sought more time and clarification of what was expected from him.

Until Mr Aitken and other vital witnesses, includingBMARC directors, make written submissions, the committee will not begin taking oral evidence.

With an inquiry into the Government's plans for the nuclear industry due to start as soon as MPs return to Westminster next month, the BMARC inquiry seems certain to be delayed.

While the MPs' scrutiny is falling behind, the parallel, and potentially more serious, investigation by Customs and Excise into BMARC is well under way.

Mr Aitken, who resigned from the Cabinet ahead of last July's reshuffle, was interviewed by Customs officers earlier this week.

So far, they have questioned Gerald James, BMARC's former chairman, who alleged his colleagues knew the guns were bound for Iran, and two directors, John Anderson and Christopher Gumbley. Lieutenant Colonel Graham Avery, who worked on the guns project for BMARC, is also thought to have been interviewed. Lt Col Avery's boss and BMARC director Major General Donald Isles, refused to comment yesterday when asked if he, too, had been questioned.

The Customs inquiry, which may lead to prosecutions, is being handled by Derek Duberry, who is also the case officer on another arms inquiry - the sale of artillery fuses to Iraq via Jordan by Ordtec, a Berkshire- based company.

However, as with the Commons investigation, fears are growing that Customs is also taking its time. Despite the high-profile - and leaked - interrogation of Mr Aitken, a lawyer for one of the other witnesses said he was sure that "Customs are not looking very hard". Instead of facing detailed questioning, his client was merely asked for his side of the story. According to the lawyer, the Customs questions were not especially searching or detailed.