Exiling an embarassment


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Category: International Date: 21 Jan 96

On behalf of small countries and small people, I am calling on Caricom countries to collectively close ranks, take a moral stand against the deportation of Mohammed Al Mas’ari, to speak out against it, because if we don’t do it we will jeopardise the integrity of all our small islands.


It would make a great thriller. Here are the personae: an angry king who rules over an oil rich country; an obsequious British diplomat who passes on intelligence on the king’s enemies to secure government contracts; the CIA; multinationals who deal in billion-dollar contracts for oil and arms; and a staunch hero who fights corruption, for which he is to be banished to a tiny Caribbean island. All that is left, once the messy business is over (and it almost is), are the handshakes all around, over champagne, a roasting lamb... dancing girls, maybe.


Saudi Arabian dissident Mohammed Al Mas’ari may soon be sitting on a beach in Dominica realising finally that he can’t win the war against his formidable opponents, British multinationals, the Saudi Arabian royal family, and the British and the United States Governments.


In 1994, Al Mas’ari sought asylum in Britain after being imprisoned and tortured in Saudi Arabia. He was tortured for speaking out against corruption, campaigning for an elected Saudi Arabian Government, defying the monarchy, wanting foreign troops out. You’d expect him to keep quiet after being tortured but he continued campaigning in London as leader of the influential Islamic opposition group, the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights. Last year he applied for political asylum in Britain. Earlier this month, he was given ten days to appeal his removal to Dominica or report to Gatwick airport on January 19.


His deportation order came after his presence in Britain began to jeopardise the US$30 billion arms for oil deal signed by Margaret Thatcher in 1985 which requires the supply of British Aerospace Tornado aircraft and other defence equipment over 20 years. Also at a time when Vickers, British Aerospace, and GKN and VSEL (industrial multinationals) are negotiating aeronautical or defence sales worth US$3 billion.


King Fahd was fed up with his countryman’s campaigns against the royal family. He had by then reportedly met the British Foreign Secretary and demanded Al Mas’ari’s expulsion from Britain. Naturally British-owned multinationals in Saudi Arabia such as Vickers got the jitters (so much at stake!) and warned their government that it must act or face “a devastating toll in lost contracts.”


Then there is the memo unearthed by the British press: an internal memo written by CEO of Vickers, Sir Colin Chandler (also oddly, former head of arms exports at the Ministry of Defence) reveals that Britain passed Saudi Arabia secret intelligence on Saddam Hussein to appease King Fahd’s anger over Al Mas’ari’s activities in London. It also talks about the need to “stifle him personally.” The memo quotes Dick Evans CEO of British Aerospace, as reporting that the CIA was anxious about the impact of Al Mas’ari’s campaign against the Saudi royal family and the presence of Western troops in the kingdom.


It was also no coincidence that Al Mas’ari’s deportation was ordered the day a Mr Andrew Green was appointed ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Green was a non executive director of Vickers since 1994. Ambassador Green reportedly called his former colleague, Sir Colin, CEO of Vickers, to say that the intelligence passed to King Fahd had “earned us many plaudits.” But it wasn’t enough. Al Mas’ari had to be silenced, in Britain anyway.


Although the Home Office Minister Anne Widdecombe denied “blackmailing pressure,” she admitted that “people in British business complained that al Mas’ari was ‘complicating our relations’ with the Saudis, a key export market and political ally in the region.” The offer from Edison James, Prime Minister of Dominica, to provide asylum to Al Mas’ari must have then been heaven sent for the British Government. Because by now his continued presence in Britain was a boiling embarrassment. But the Home Office could not deport Al Mas’ari on the grounds of “not conducive to the public good” as required by the Immigration Act. But it could get out of a sticky position by fixing him up with asylum in a “tiny Caribbean country.” With Dominica’s backing, the Home Minister could say with confidence “British interests do require his removal.” Curiously and coincidentally the Overseas Development Administration confirmed that British aid to Dominica would increase to two million pounds from 500,000 pounds “as a result of clearance of debt arrears.” The Home Minister denied that it was a “quid pro quo” arrangement. The deportation order came with a watery explanation from the Home Minister: “If people come here and use our hospitality in order to attack extremely friendly governments with whom we have good diplomatic and very good trade relations, we have a very difficult balance to strike.”


I called the British High Commission for a comment. I was told the ambassador was out of the country. But a spokesman called back saying: “I have had instructions that all comments have to be referred to our department in London.” He gave me the number. It turned out to be the foreign office news department where an official said of Al Mas’ari’s deportation, “It hasn’t happened yet.” He wouldn’t say more but gave me another London number for the Home Office. I got a press attache on the line who said: “We are not going to give Al Mas’ari substantive consideration because he has a third country to go to which is Dominica. He has lodged an appeal with the Independent appeal immigration authority and that is where the matter lies at the moment.”


So much hedging, naturally with so many arms and petrodollars at stake. But what an affront to “tiny” Caribbean islands. Although authorities deny it, Dominica appears to have been virtually bought off. What kind of precedent is this for Caricom? A Caricom specialist tells me that Dominica has little choice. Besides, he says Dominica’s decision to accept Al Mas’ari does not contravene any Caricom collective principle or treaty. And despite opposition from former Prime Minister Eugenia Charles and others in the Dominica Freedom Party, the arrangement holds.


The Caricom specialist says Dominica’s opposition has no moral authority to object to the decision to accept Al Mas’ari since when it was in power it sold citizenship to a number of people from Hong Kong. Does that mean that we are for sale, that we allow ourselves to be  willing pawns in this ruthless game of dollars, oil and arms?


And finally, I believe events like these are relevant to each one of us. If Al Mas’ari is deported, what example is that setting for people anywhere in power, be it business or political? That it is OK to silence a voice which is crying out against corruption and by extension injustices, just because big money is involved?


Human rights groups and Middle East campaigners have condemned the deportation order as a breach of Britain’s obligations under the UN Convention, and a Scottish Labour MP called it a “sordid act of obeisance to the arms deals in Britain and the dictators in Riyadh.”


A moral framework is not even acknowledged by the establishment. (And you can’t get more establishment than the British Home Office.) The move is brazen to say the least. The business element is seen to justify the deportation. If we sit by and let this happen so near our shores, then the next time we are victims of injustice we have less moral authority to cry out against it. On behalf of small countries and small people, I am calling on Caricom countries to close ranks, to take a moral stand against the deportation of Mohammed Al Mas’ari, to speak out against it, because if we don’t do it, we jeopardise the integrity of all our islands, not to mention our sovereignty.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur