Andijan massacre raises questions over UK arms trade

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The British Government has failed to close a "massive loophole" in its arms trade laws which allowed the Uzbek authorities to use UK-designed vehicles in the Andijan massacre.

More than 500 people were killed in May last year when Uzbek troops opened fire on protesters from two columns of armoured cars. Pictures emerged after the massacre showing that Defender vehicles, designed by Land Rover, were used by troops to fire on the crowds. The Defenders used in Andijan were manufactured by Otokar, a Turkish company, and donated to the Uzbek authorities by the Turkish government, but the chassis design and technology is British.

A loophole in current legislation means the vehicles, some of which would be classified as military equipment and require a licence if sold directly from Britain, are not covered by arms export laws because they are not assembled in the UK.

A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry said that while the Government took allegations of flaws in the UK export control regime seriously, the onward sale of Defender kits was beyond its control because the chassis are civilian technology.

Land Rover has said the vehicles used in Andijan were "the same as that used by farmers and four-wheel drive enthusiasts" and that what happens to the vehicles after they have been sold is "clearly outside the control of Land Rover". But a former senior manager from Land Rover said many of the kits sold to Otokar incorporated a military chassis that would normally be licensable in the UK. But he did not know whether the Andijan vehicles had such chassis. "There is a military version," he said. "If we were actually to put the whole vehicle together on a military chassis in the UK and try and sell it to someone that would then be licensable."

Neither Land Rover nor the Government has broken the law by selling equipment to Turkey but campaigners want the chassis licensed to stop countries such as Uzbekistan, now under an EU arms embargo, from obtaining British technology through third parties. Anna Macdonald, director of the control arms campaigns at Oxfam, said: "These vehicles are made from 75 per cent British parts, but simply by assembling them overseas, a company can completely avoid British export controls. The Government must urgently close this loophole, and... kick-start negotiations on an arms trade treaty. Whether a weapon comes in pieces, or is ready-made, the suffering it causes... is exactly the same."

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, expressed the UK's strong support for an international treaty at a speech to the Lord Mayor's Easter Banquet last night.

Turkey has donated 50 Otokar Defenders, which can be fitted with an array of weaponry and armour, to President Islam Karimov's regime in Uzbekistan.

Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK's director, said: "For years we have called for these loopholes to be closed. We saw at Andijan what happens when these calls are ignored."