Coventry Four

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Group.png Coventry Four  Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
TypeArms smuggling
Membership• Hendrik Jacobus Botha
• Stephanus Johannes de Jager
• William Randolph Metelerkamp
• Jacobus Le Grange

The Coventry Four were four South African arms smugglers who were arrested by HM Customs & Excise officers in Coventry in March 1984 and charged with conspiring to export arms from Britain to apartheid South Africa in contravention of the mandatory UN arms embargo.[1]

In South Africa they were known as the Armscor Four.[2][3]

Arms smuggling

The four South Africans plus three Britons were charged in the Coventry Magistrates Court on 2 April 1984 with conspiring to export to South Africa high pressure gas cylinders, radar magnetrons, aircraft parts and other military equipment[4] in violation of the mandatory arms embargo imposed by UN Security Council Resolution 418. The uncovering of their smuggling operation and subsequent arrest followed the discovery of a shipment of artillery elevating gears at Birmingham International Airport in 1984.

The "Coventry Four" were Hendrik Jacobus Botha, Stephanus Johannes de Jager, William Randolph Metelerkamp and Jacobus Le Grange. In the front company, McNay Pty Ltd, they operated on behalf of Kentron. Metelerkamp was the Managing Director, Botha was in charge of administration and security, De Jager was the company accountant, while Le Grange was the technical expert. One of the ways in which they worked around the international arms embargo was for Le Grange to travel to the United States to source military materiel - this would subsequently be imported by Fosse Way Securities in the UK, before being shipped onwards to South Africa via other countries.

A fifth man, professor Johannes Cloete of Stellenbosch University – a key player in South Africa's missile development program – was arrested at the same time as the Coventry Four. But, according to The Guardian of 17 December 1988, Cloete's arrest was quickly followed by his release without charge on instructions from senior Whitehall officials.

The three British men arrested at the same time were Michael Swann, Derek Salt and Michael Henry Gardiner. Salt had previously been dismissed from another company for manufacturing ammunition dies for the South African military, which he concealed as sewing machine equipment. After his dismissal, Salt continued to deal with Armscor, despite the international arms embargo. His company in Coventry manufactured mortar casings to Armscor's specifications, and also sub-contracted the manufacture of the high-precision artillery gears seized by HM Customs to a German company.[5]

Derek Salt was given a 10-month jail sentence and fined £25,000 for his part in the operation, while the UK companies involved paid fines of £193,000.

Evading trial

According to David Pallister in The Guardian of 8 December 1988:

The Coventry Four, led by a Colonel in the South African Defence Force, Hendrik Botha, was one of the most successful undercover teams in South Africa's efforts to circumvent the United Nations arms embargo. Using a group of Midlands businessmen, the team channelled millions of pounds worth of high technology parts from America and Europe to South Africa for six years from 1978. It was instrumental in keeping aloft South Africa's ageing Buccaneer light bombers, used in raids in Angola and Namibia.
Five businessmen were sentenced for their part in the trade at Birmingham Crown Court in July 1985, but the South Africans, who had been allowed to return home on bail, refused to attend their trial on the orders of their government. The furore caused a blip in official Anglo-South African relations and fury among opponents of Pretoria. Despite repeated assurances of action to the anti-apartheid movement, the British Government did nothing but seek an explanation from the then ambassador, Mr Denis Worrall.
A Labour front bench spokesman, Mr Donald Anderson, described the Government's response as "cool, lame and laid back and essentially 'business as usual' with the South African Government".
The four, employed by Armscor, Pretoria's arms procurement agency, were arrested by Customs in March 1984 at a London hotel. Besides Colonel Botha, they were Stephanus de Jager, William Metelerkamp and Jacobus Le Grange. They were first remanded in custody by Coventry magistrates. Mr Worrall's successor as ambassador, Mr Marais Steyn, was promptly recalled to Pretoria for consultations.
In April, the four were granted bail after the first secretary at the embassy, Mr André Pelser, offered to waive his diplomatic immunity and stand surety of £25,000 each with a £100,000 surety of his own. Their passports were confiscated and they were ordered to report daily to police from accommodation to be found by the embassy. Six weeks later, after the magistrates refused to relax their bail conditions, they went before Mr Justice Leonard, sitting in chambers in the High Court. In an unusual ruling which allowed accused criminals to leave the jurisdiction, the judge agreed the men could go home on condition they returned for the next court hearing in June. Bail was doubled to £400,000. The four turned up in June for another remand, but South Africa then found a reason to avoid a trial.
In September, the South African Foreign Minister, Mr Pik Botha, said the four would not be returned because Britain refused to hand over to the South African police six anti-apartheid leaders who had sought refuge at the British consulate in Durban.
When the case came up again at Coventry magistrates in October, counsel for the South African Government, Mr George Carman QC, said:
"They were simply obeying the expressed intention of their own government."
Mr Pelser, who remained at the embassy for another two years, agreed to forfeit the bail money.
The then Foreign Office Minister of State, Mr Malcolm Rifkind, told the Commons that relations with Pretoria would be "significantly affected" if South Africa continued to make no effort to co-operate with the British courts.
The response from Pretoria was a calculated insult. The four men were presented at a press conference by Armscor from which foreign journalists were excluded. They claimed they had been subjected to seven weeks of degrading treatment at Winson Green prison in Birmingham and Colonel Botha spoke with pride that "our own contribution helped South Africa to develop many weapons systems." He said the £400,000 was peanuts compared with the money they had saved the country in weapons purchases.
Britain has been remarkably lax in its treatment of illegal arms dealers to South Africa and South African diplomats implicated in illegal acts. In 1982, an Old Bailey trial heard that part of a £1 million arms racket to South Africa was paid for from the embassy. No action was taken.[6]

Controversial visit

On 2 June 1984, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher controversially invited South Africa's president P W Botha and foreign minister Pik Botha to a meeting at Chequers in an effort to stave off growing international pressure for the imposition of economic sanctions against South Africa, where both the U.S. and Britain had invested heavily. Although not officially on the meeting's agenda, the "Coventry Four" affair clouded both the proceedings at Chequers and Britain's bilateral diplomatic relations with South Africa.[7]

Thatcher critic

In August 1989, British diplomat Patrick Haseldine was dismissed for publicly criticising Margaret Thatcher in the press of double standards over the release of the "Coventry Four".

The Guardian published Patrick Haseldine's letter on 7 December 1988

Text of Haseldine's letter:[8][9][10][11]

"It is all very well for Mrs Thatcher to inveigh against the Belgians and the Irish with such self-righteous invective. Naturally, she would not care to admit it but in the not too distant past her allegations of being soft on "terrorism" and allowing political considerations to override the due legal process could have been levelled at Mrs Thatcher herself. Remember the "Coventry Four"? These were the four (white) South Africans brought before Coventry magistrates in March 1984 and remanded in custody on arms embargo charges. Rumour has it that Mrs Thatcher was rather annoyed with the over-zealous officials who caused the four military personnel to be arrested in Britain. Rightly, she refused to accede to the South African embassy's demand for the case to be dropped but she was keen for the embassy to know precisely how the legal hurdles governing their release and the return of their passports could be swiftly overcome. Thus the First Secretary at the embassy stood bail for the "Coventry Four", having declared in court that he was waiving his diplomatic immunity. (The embassy did not, however, formally confirm the waiver.) Then a petition to an English Judge in Chambers secured the repatriation of the four accused. Clearly, Mrs Thatcher wanted the four high-profile detainees safely out of UK jurisdiction, back in South Africa and off the agenda well before her June 1984 talks at Chequers with the two visiting Bothas (P W Botha and Pik Botha). Strange that Pik Botha, the foreign minister, was able to find an excuse for not allowing the "Coventry Four" to stand trial in the Autumn of 1984. Stranger still that Mrs Thatcher failed to denounce Mr Botha's refusal to surrender the four 'terrorists' (cf declaration by U.S. Governor Dukakis that South Africa is a "terrorist state").[12]

Parliamentary Questions

In an article headed "Commons Test for South Africa Arms Row" Richard Norton-Taylor and David Pallister wrote in The Guardian of Friday, 9 December 1988:

The Prime Minister and Sir Geoffrey Howe, the Foreign Secretary, have been asked to explain to the Commons how four white South African arms smugglers were allowed to return home while on bail and avoid trial in Britain four years ago.
A series of questions was tabled by Labour MPs yesterday after allegations by Mr Patrick Haseldine, a Foreign Office official, that Mrs Thatcher and Mr P W Botha, the South African president, shared an interest in seeing that any embarrassing details never emerged.
Mr Haseldine, who has been suspended for publishing the claim in a letter to The Guardian, was yesterday awaiting news of a disciplinary hearing.
The MPs were first refused permission by Commons officials to table any questions on the subject on the grounds that the matter was "past history". But Mr Dale Campbell-Savours said the Speaker, Mr Bernard Weatherill, ruled that they were in order because ministers had been quoted, albeit anonymously, on the story.
The questions, which should be answered next week, seek to establish the nature of any communication between Whitehall and Pretoria over what was one of the largest arms smuggling cases in recent years. Arrest warrants are still outstanding for the four employees of Pretoria's arms procurement agency, Armscor.
The South African government refused to allow them to attend their trial, after they were allowed home by a High Court judge. It said this was in retaliation for Britain's refusal to hand over six anti-apartheid leaders who had taken refuge in the British Consulate in Durban.
One of the questions seeks information about the role of a fifth man - a South African professor of applied electronics - who was arrested but released without charge. It is understood that the man, a radar expert, had met Ministry of Defence officials in Britain. He was arrested at Heathrow with one of the four as they were about to fly to Paris.
While the four were on bail, Mrs Thatcher, who took a personal interest in the case, met Mr Botha at Chequers for the first time. A spokesman for Customs and Excise, whose officers dealt with the case, said yesterday that 10 Downing Street's request for daily summaries of their investigation was not unprecedented.
Mr Brian Wilson, a Labour MP, said there was a 'prima facie' case to suggest that Downing Street was involved in assisting the four to avoid trial.
Mr George Foulkes, a Labour foreign affairs spokesman, said in a letter to the Prime Minister that Mr Haseldine's allegations "imply some collusion between your office and the South African embassy in relation to the four and the arrangements to allow them to flee to South Africa to evade the proper process of law in this country".[13][14]
Foreign Office minister, Malcolm Rifkind, reported to the House of Commons that the South African government was wholly to blame for the men's non-appearance in a British court, and that Pretoria should cooperate. In the event the men did not come back to stand trial and no action was taken against South Africa.[15]

See also


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