LONDON A British court blocked on Tuesday the extradition of a former Iranian diplomat wanted by the United States after he was caught in a sting operation trying to export night-vision weapons' sights to Iran.
Nosratollah Tajik, 59, a former Iranian ambassador to Jordan, was arrested in London in 2006 after agents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security posed as arms dealers seeking to sell the military kit in violation of arms embargoes.
Britain's Home Office, or interior ministry, which ordered Tajik's extradition last year, said it was disappointed by the High Court's decision and was considering an appeal.
The High Court proceedings revealed this year that the British government had tried and failed to persuade the Americans to withdraw the extradition request to avoid endangering British diplomats in Iran.
Tajik spent years fighting extradition on grounds of ill health. The courts rejected these arguments in 2008 and he then appealed to the Home Office with new medical evidence.
The Home Office rejected his appeal in November 2011 and ordered his extradition. Tajik launched new court proceedings against the Home Office's decision, culminating in Tuesday's ruling.
But the High Court hearings revealed that for almost three years while Tajik thought the Home Office was considering his medical evidence, the ministry had already decided that ill health was not a valid reason not to extradite him.
The real cause for the long delay in issuing the decision was that the British government had asked Washington to drop the extradition request. It received no response for more than two and a half years despite repeatedly raising the matter.
The court was shown correspondence between the Home Office and the Foreign Office, dating back to early 2009, that showed officials were concerned that if Tajik were extradited Britain's ambassador to Tehran could be expelled and its embassy in the Iranian capital could come under attack.
Britain's embassy in Tehran was stormed in November 2011 over sanctions imposed by London on Iran over its nuclear program. The embassy was evacuated and has been unstaffed since.
Delivering his judgment, after hearing two days of arguments last month, judge Alan Moses criticized the United States for taking so long to respond after Britain asked in early 2009 that it consider dropping the request for Tajik's extradition.
"The USA advanced no justification for choosing to reply to the United Kingdom's request in August 2011 and not much earlier, in 2009 or 2010," the judge wrote in a summary of his 20-page ruling.
"The only inference the court could draw was that it (the United States) had arrogated to itself the time for choosing when Mr Tajik should be extradited and face trial, without advancing any justification for its decision."
The judge said British law did not allow for such a stance and the matter should have been dealt with urgently. The delays in the case were in breach of British law and therefore the extradition should not take place, he said.
Tajik had been free on bail but tagged and subject to a night-time curfew pending the outcome of his legal battle.
(Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; editing by Robert Woodward)