LONDON – LONDON (AP) — American authorities accuse him of plotting to sell missile components to Iran in a deal exposed in an undercover sting — but British retiree Christopher Tappin insisted Tuesday he is the innocent victim of entrapment by U.S. customs agents.
Tappin, a smartly dressed 63-year-old, faces three charges in the United States over an alleged plan to sell specialized batteries for Hawk missiles to Tehran.
He says he will fight extradition, in the latest case to expose tensions in arrangements for transferring criminal suspects between Britain and the United States.
Two men alleged to have been Tappin's accomplices already have been jailed in the U.S. over the plot, which customs officials say took place between December 2005 and January 2007.
Authorities claim Tappin used the alias "Ian Pullen" in contacts with undercover U.S. agents, who used a fake company to strike a $25,000 deal with the Briton for him to buy five specialized batteries.
According to an indictment filed at the Texas Western District Court in February 2007, Tappin spoke with the customs agent at least five times in 2006 to arrange the deal. He then wired a $25,000 payment into the fake company's bank account to pay for the batteries, and sent a $5,000 check to one of the undercover agents through an intermediary.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency alleges Tappin was then involved in arrangements to smuggle the equipment to Iran through Britain or the Netherlands.
Tappin told reporters at a news conference in London he had been duped by the customs agents, had no contacts with Iran and had stood to make only $500 from his role in the deal.
"I deny these allegations," Tappin said, visibly distressed as he offered his account. "I was the victim of the unlawful conduct of U.S. agents who pretended to belong to a false company, known as Mercury Global Enterprises. It exists solely to ensnare unsuspecting importers."
The retired shipping company director said he would fight attempts to extradite him to Texas, but would be prepared to answer the charges in a British court. Tappin said the allegations had left his family "nervous and unsure" about the future. "We just want to resolve this situation as soon as possible," he said.
Ben Seifert, a spokesman for Tappin's lawyer, Karen Todner, said their client was "of unblemished good character and has won industry awards for his achievements as a businessman."
Tappin was previously a director of Brooklands International Freight Services, based in southern England, and is currently chairman of the Kent County Golf Union. He wore his golf club's mauve and blue tie as he faced reporters at a lawyer's office in London.
"Even though I am certain I did nothing wrong, I would be happy to face trial here in the United Kingdom, and not the U.S.A.," Tappin said, with wife Elaine, 61, and lawmaker Jo Johnson — who represents the couple's home town — at his side.
He told reporters he had been in contact with companies in Iran and "all over the world" during his career, but had never been involved in arms deals.
Tappin's case is the latest to expose trans-Atlantic tensions over the exchange of criminal suspects.
Lawyers complain that under "fast track" extradition procedures introduced after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. is not required to offer substantial proof of an allegation when seeking to extradite a suspect from Britain.
Britain's new coalition government has pledged to review the extradition law to make sure it is fair, but it not expected to make proposals until Sept. 2011.
Until the law is overhauled "no one who indulges in foreign holidays, business dealings or mere use of the internet is safe from being shipped off like freight on the basis of allegations from around the world," said Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights advocacy group Liberty.
Earlier this year Home Secretary Theresa May ordered a halt to the extradition of hacker Gary McKinnon, who is wanted in the U.S. for allegedly breaking into American military computers. She said his case is on hold while extradition procedures are reviewed.
Tappin is due to appear at a London court on Sept. 2 for a formal extradition hearing. The court will decide whether to send the case to May, who must make a final decision on whether to send him to the U.S.
According to the U.S. indictment, Robert Gibson — an associate of Tappin's — contacted the fake company set up by customs agents by e-mail in April 2006, later visiting agents in El Paso to inspect the items. By October 2006, Tappin told the agents the sale was a "done deal," but failed to supply licenses needed to trade in weapons components.
A second man, Robert Cardwell later traveled from Portland, Oregon, to San Antonio, Texas, to finalize details to export the batteries out of the U.S., introducing himself as Tappin's representative. Authorities say Caldwell failed to supply a proper export license.
Caldwell was later sentenced to 20 months jail and Gibson pleaded guilty and received a two-year prison sentence over the plot, the customs agency said.