Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Iran demands freedom of suspected arms dealer in return for lost British sailors

By Jason Lewis and William Lowther
Last updated at 2:06 AM on 13th December 2009


Storm: Diplomat Nosratollah Tajik

Accused: Diplomat Nosratollah Tajik

The Government is considering the release of a senior former Iranian diplomat held in the UK accused of supplying weapons for terrorists.

Tehran is demanding the tit-for-tat release in response to its decision to free a group of British yachtsmen who strayed into Iranian waters last month.

But the extraordinary move has been greeted with anger in America, where the diplomat, Nosratollah Tajik, Iran’s former ambassador to Jordan, stands accused of conspiring to sell military equipment to Islamic extremists.

Tajik, 55, was arrested in 2006 and is currently on bail pending an appeal against extradition to the US.

The final decision on the extradition rests with the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, and any move to block his transfer to the US would ignite a furious row with the Americans.

There is still anger in the US over the release to Libya three months ago of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Al Megrahi from a Scottish jail.

And special treatment for Tajik would cause a renewed outcry among human rights campaigners in the UK, who unsuccessfully lobbied Mr Johnson to veto British computer hacker Gary McKinnon’s proposed transfer to the US for trial.

Tajik - living in Britain after being appointed an honorary fellow of Durham University in 2004 - is accused of being the UK link in an international illegal arms network.

According to a witness at a US House of Representatives inquiry into state-sponsored terrorism in Iran, he has also been identified as one of several diplomats recruiting Palestinians to establish terrorist cells.

Political footballs: The five released sailors who Iran hopes use as a bargain chip

Political footballs: The five released sailors who Iran hopes use to bargain with

The Iranians raised Tajik’s case with British diplomats during emergency meetings to try to secure the release of the yachtsmen earlier this month.

They also discussed the issue directly with Foreign Secretary David Miliband earlier this year.

Last night, British diplomatic sources confirmed the Iranians ‘brought the subject up’ every time there are official talks between the two countries.

In 2006, an undercover operation by US agents led to Tajik being accused of trying to supply nightvision weapons sights to Iran - banned under an arms embargo.

An extradition hearing was told how two agents secretly filmed Tajik in a London office allegedly discussing a deal that would have sent the military hardware from the US to Iran via the UK and Turkey.

The court heard the deal was worth $3million (£1.8million).

David Perry QC, for the US government, told an earlier hearing that the Americans tipped off Scotland Yard, leading to Tajik’s arrest.

The Iranian’s lawyers claim the Americans acted illegally by entrapping a man on British soil.

His barrister, Alun Jones QC, said: ‘The sting is standard practice in the US. In English law, the US investigators are guilty of the criminal offence of incitement.

‘The American extradition statementdoes not disclose whether UK authorities knew about this (in which case they too would be guilty) or whether US agents are running amok in London on frolics of their own.’

Details of the case - first revealed by The Mail on Sunday - led to human rights campaigners demanding the Government reveal what it knew about US spies launching this kind of operation in Britain.

Last night the Home Office said: ‘The Home Secretary is currently considering representations from Nosratollah Tajik. The Iranians have consistently lobbied for his release.

‘We have made it clear to the Iranian authorities on several occasions that this was a legal, not a political, process, in which the UK Government has played no role.’

Last night, highly placed sources in Washington confirmed that they were taking a close interest in the developments and made clear they felt strongly that Tajik should not be freed.

The source said: ‘The US is fully aware of what is going on and has asked the British not to make any concessions on this issue.’

The moves come after Iran freed five British yachtsmen held by the country’s feared Revolutionary Guard for a week.

Luke Porter, 21, from Somerset, Oliver Smith, 31, from Southampton, Oliver Young, 21, from Cornwall, Sam Usher, 26, from North Yorkshire, and Bahrain-based David Bloomer, who is believed to be in his 60s, were held on November 25.

Iran’s official news agency said they had been released after authorities established their yacht had entered Iranian waters accidentally while sailing from Bahrain to Dubai for a race.