Riad El-Taher: His formal response to Sam Matthews, head of disputes in the Labour Party’s governance and legal unit
The response below was summarily rejected, within days, by Mr Matthews — who said Mr El-Taher could apply to rejoin the Labour Party on March 9 2022. When he will be 82.
Media coverage — triggered by Ivor Caplin’s unlawful breaching of Mr El-Taher’s privacy— can be found on BBC South East, The Argus, and Brighton and Hove News website.
Dear Mr Matthews,
Thank you for your letter of 9th March informing me that I have been expelled from the Labour Party.
I note that sub-section iii of Chapter 2.1.4.D in the Labour Party rules, which you quote, is the third and most severe of three options under that Clause 1.4.D. which reads: ‘where a member has been convicted of a serious criminal offence the NEC shall have the right to impose the appropriate disciplinary action from the following options.’ The other options are suspension and referral of a disciplinary case to the NCC.
The phrase ‘serious criminal offence’ might suggest murder, war crimes or bank robbery, not paying an Iraqi surcharge on oil-for-food transactions that were designed to relieve the desperate plight of the Iraqi people. Madeline Albright may have considered the death of half a million Iraqi children a price worth paying in order to achieve regime change but I took a different view and acted accordingly. Is that a serious criminal offence?
There is now widespread agreement, both within and beyond the Labour Party, that the policies pursued by the Blair and Bush administrations were profoundly mistaken and that they caused incalculable suffering to the Iraqi people and resulted in the subsequent disastrous destabilisation of the country. In view of this, would it not have been more appropriate to refer my case to the NEC to consider the whole matter in more depth? Were those who made the decision to expel me fully conversant with the political situation seventeen years ago and are they now, in retrospect, untroubled by the actions of the British and American governments of that time?
The fact that you chose the most severe option in disciplining me and decided against investigating the matter further, suggests that pressure was brought to bear from some undisclosed quarter and that there is no likelihood the NEC would consider there were ‘exceptional circumstances’ justifying the relaxation of the ‘five year’ exclusion.
I left the Labour Party as a result of the war in Iraq, my country of birth, and re-joined following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader believing it to be a compassionate organisation, concerned with the welfare not only of the British people but of others across the globe. My membership of the Labour Party is, compared with these greater realities; of minor consequence but it is a cause for concern that you, as a representative of a party with equality and justice at its heart should act in this way. If the purpose of removing me from the Labour Party is to purge its membership of disreputable members I could suggest rather more suitable candidates for removal.
I am attaching to this letter a brief account of the events surrounding my payment of the surcharge. The recently deceased Tam Dalyell, Labour MP and Father of the House of Commons, was fully aware of the situation in which I found myself at that time and commented on my subsequent conviction and imprisonment as follows: ‘That Riad El Taher should land up in Wandsworth gaol was, in my opinion, a process of nasty, political vengeance.’
The circumstances surrounding Riad El-Taher’s payment of the surcharge
Following a visit to Iraq in 1993, Tam Dalyell, whom I had invited to accompany me, suggested I set up an organisation, Friendship Across Frontiers (FAF), to campaign against the sanctions regime. FAF had Tam Dalyell as Patron and following his retirement, Harry Cohen and was supported by many Members of Parliament.
In 1996, following widespread concern at the level of human suffering caused by the sanctions the UN introduced the oil-for-food programme that had been agreed in principle in 1991. The programme required oil to be sold within a six month period and to ensure that this was achieved I was approached by the Iraqi government, due to my experience and expertise in the oil industry, to ensure the oil was sold in a timely manner; every oil allocation in my name was approved by the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI), Foreign Office (FO) and the UK Mission at the UN.
The fund was paid into a UN escrow account and its use depended on the agreement of the 661 Committee that oversaw the oil-for-food programme. This system failed to deliver the benefits intended due to an extremely restricted interpretation of what Iraq could use the funds for and even for goods that were agreed, there was a time-lapse from order to delivery of around six months. The fact that the Iraqi government was unable to directly purchase locally produced food and medicines or use any of the money it had earned from the sale of oil meant it was unable to satisfy the urgent needs of its people in the easiest, speediest and cheapest way possible.
The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, interviewed about the effect of sanctions indicated that the death of half million children was a price worth paying. Worldwide public opinion was outraged and it became clear that action should be taken immediately to avert the disaster that was unfolding. A recommendation was eventually made to the 661 Committee that a cash component of $600 million per six-month phase should be paid directly to the Iraqi government. However, in 1999 this proposal, which was supported by the thirteen other members of the 661 Committee, was vetoed by the US and UK representatives.
At this stage the Iraqi government decided to compensate for the lack of money it was expecting the 661 Committee to approve by introducing a surcharge on all oil-for-food transactions. The US and UK governments were fully aware that all approved oil lifters had to pay the surcharge and yet they took no action against them and issued no warnings. I concluded that these governments were deliberately turning a blind eye to these payments. Moreover, I was in sympathy with the position of the Iraqi government on this issue even though I did not approve of its policies in many other respects.
My purpose was to relieve the suffering of the Iraqi people and not, as alleged, for personal gain. I was an engineer, not an oil trader. Circumstances simply put me in a position to assist. Any profits made were used to campaign on behalf of the Iraqi people. The irony is that Saddam eventually decided to end the surcharge because he realised he was making far more money through the illegal trafficking of oil through Turkey and the Gulf under the watch of the US and UK authorities; a trade which the West clearly had no desire to impede.
To my knowledge no one has ever been prosecuted for payment of the surcharge and yet I, who was conducting transactions approved by HMG, was prosecuted a decade later because I paid the surcharge. The Serious Fraud Office, which brought the case against me, indicated that after me there would be countless further prosecutions worldwide, eighty of them in the UK alone. In fact, not a single further case was brought. The US authorities had ensured that of all the Iraqi institutions only the Ministry of Oil documentation was protected from looting and yet even the new regime in Iraq decided not to proceed with the prosecutions these documents would have facilitated.
In 2004 the UN Secretary General set up the Volker Committee to investigate alleged corruption and fraud in the oil-for-food programme and the following year I was interviewed as part of that investigation. I was the only one who admitted to the payment of the surcharge and yet when the report was published shortly after I was only mentioned briefly in a footnote. Clearly, I was regarded as inconsequential.