Leading article: MPs should pay more attention to the company they keep

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Will they never learn? MPs last night hosted a dinner in the Houses of Parliament paid for by an organisation called Iman Worldwide. It is run by Ribal al-Assad, who is the first cousin of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

Ribal al-Assad has lived most of his life outside Syria and is not personally implicated in the current atrocities being meted out upon the Syrian population by the Assad regime. But he is an active apologist for his father, Rifaat al-Assad, who was head of the special brigades which massacred hundreds of inmates in a Syrian prison in 1980 and put down a rebellion in Hama two years later. The Independent's Robert Fisk, who was in the city shortly afterwards, estimated the death toll at 20,000. The massacre has been described as the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East. Some have suggested that Rifaat al-Assad should be indicted as a war criminal rather than being allowed to enjoy a multimillionaire lifestyle in Mayfair.

There are also shadows cast across Iman Worldwide. Its mission statement claims that it challenges extremism and promotes dialogue. But questions have been raised about its funding and the millions which Rifaat al-Assad is widely perceived to have brought out of Syria when he went into exile after falling out with his brother, the then President, Hafez al-Assad, and whose son, Bashar al-Assad, now occupies the presidential palace in Damascus.

It is as ill-advised for British members of parliament to be mixing in such company as it was for the British secret services to be arranging behind-the-scenes deals with the secret police of Colonel Gaddafi. They were doing that, we now learn, right up until the start of the Libyan revolution in February.

Several MPs have been on expenses-paid trips to the Middle East as guests of Iman Worldwide in recent months. It has hosted a dinner for seven MPs, an MEP and three peers. It has even made a donation of £2,975 to Romford Conservative Support Club.

There is something unseemly and insalubrious about the way in which some of our members of parliament cosy up to organisations like this. The lessons of Libya – in which the calculations about British interests have been revealed as singularly ill-judged – are salutary. They should teach our politicians to ask deeper questions and take care of whose company they keep.

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