LEADING ARTICLE: A stinking, rotten deal

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Britain's international reputation as a bastion for civilised values has suffered a damaging blow. In a country that led the campaign to abolish slavery, human rights are now up for sale. The price? A lucrative arms deal, oil and political friendship with a regime that still beheads and chops off the hands of its citizens.

This is the package the Saudi Arabian authorities offer Britain in exchange for sending Mohammed al-Masari into exile. A vociferous critic of the government in Riyadh, Mr Masari would certainly be locked up if he landed on Saudi soil, where he was imprisoned and tortured before he came here in 1994.

Yet the Home Office has decided that he is not entitled to refugee status. So, if the Government has its way, he will be sent to the tiny former British colony of Dominica in the Caribbean, which has promised him sanctuary. This is the other aspect of a putrid deal. As we reveal today, Dominica is providing a haven in exchange for British aid to support its banana industry which has been devastated by two hurricanes. In short, we have in 1995 a modern version of the "triangular trade". Where once slaves, tobacco and manufactured goods were the wares involved, today it is arms, aid and Mr Masari.

The intention is clear: to dispatch Mr Masari to a far-away island exile, where his political campaign against the rulers of Saudi Arabia will effectively be silenced. For this sort of treatment by Britain (and others), Napoleon had to prosecute a European war for 12 years. All Mr Masari has done is engage in a peaceful campaign against a medieval, absolutist monarchy.

It is not difficult to see why the British authorities are anxious to be rid of this particular dissident. The Gulf kingdom is a lucrative market for British exports which are threatened by his presence here. John Major would not want the al-Yamamah arms deal, negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1985 and worth $20bn, to be endangered. The Prime Minister is, no doubt, keen to send a friendly signal to Crown Prince Abdullah, who took over power on Monday from his ailing brother, King Fahd.

There was a time when Britain could be relied on to defend human rights, at least on our own soil, no matter what the price or the pressure from abroad. Fortunately, we still have a judiciary whose principles are not in hock to foreign regimes. Its task now must be, when Mr Masari appeals, to apply the law to overturn this rotten Home Office decision.

But the travesty of justice perpetrated against Mr Masari raises a wider issue. This case has demonstrated the urgent need to take the adjudication of asylum cases away from government officials, who cannot be relied upon to withstand political pressure. In Canada, for example, such cases have, since 1988, been decided by a quasi-judicial body, independent of the government and therefore free from interference.

If we had the same system here, the Saudis could protest as much as they liked, but the Government would be unable to engineer Mr Masari's eviction. And Britain's reputation as a liberal country would not now be in tatters because politicians bowed to the demands of arms dealers and one of the world's most autocratic regimes.

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