Howard admits Saudi pressure over arms deals

TIM McGIRK

New Delhi

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, indicated yesterday that the British Government is expelling the Saudi dissident, Mohammed al-Masari, because his presence in Britain is jeopardising lucrative arms deals with the Saudi royal family.

"I think it's quite well known that the Saudi government was unhappy over the activities of Mr Masari,'' Mr Howard told the Independent. He added: "If there are two ways in which we can comply with our international obligations [on human rights], one of which damages our national interest and the prospects of jobs in Britain, and one way which doesn't, we are perfectly entitled to choose the way which doesn't damage our interests.''

Mr Masari was expelled after the Saudis threatened to tear up arms contracts with British firms worth billions of pounds if the dissident stayed in Britain. A former physics professor, Mr Masari was waging a one-man battle by fax machine against the Saudi royal family, which he accused of corruption.

John Major had twice been asked by the Saudi government, in 1994 and in October 1995, to have Mr Masari removed from the country.

Asked if Dominica - a Caribbean island of 75,000 people whose main crop, bananas, was destroyed last year by a hurricane - had received any incentive to take the dissident, Mr Howard replied: "I can't say anything about that. We are very grateful to Dominica for agreeing to take Masari."

Although Britain has reduced its foreign development aid overall, Dominica's is due to rise 300 per cent this year to pounds 2m.

In Britain, the expulsion order was criticised by human rights groups who accuse the Tory government of jettisoning the rights of free speech and political asylum for weapons contracts. Replying to these protests, Mr Howard said: "We intend to maintain our reputation for tolerance and free speech, but we also intend to insure people don't exploit and abuse these traditional characteristics of British society.''

Mr Howard is pushing for the Government to adopt tighter laws on immigrants seeking political asylum. Many political exiles - among them Sikhs, Kashmiris, Tamils, Iranians and Nigerians - have sought sanctuary in Britain from hostile regimes back home. The decision to expel Mr Masari is seen by many political refugees as an alarming precedent.

The Home Secretary, on a South Asian tour to seek help from Indian and Pakistani officials in stemming the flow of illegal immigrants and heroin into Britain, said taxpayers were spending pounds 200m a year on social security for refugees seeking political asylum.

"Only 4 per cent of these asylum-seekers are found to be genuine refugees,'' Mr Howard said. "They can appeal, but those whose appeals succeed are tiny in number. There's no reason they should be collecting benefits during the very long time - months or even years - it takes for their application to be reviewed."

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