Page last updated at 20:24 GMT, Thursday, 6 November 2008

From 'king of salsa' to traitor

By Sarah Bell
BBC News

Daniel James (left)
Daniel James (left) translated for Gen David Richards

A former British soldier has been found guilty of spying for Iran - but what motivated him to betray his country?

Corporal Daniel James was described in court as a fantasist, a Walter Mitty character, an "oddball" with grandiose ideas about his self-importance.

His trial heard how he had been in contact with an Iranian diplomat in Kabul.

The motivation for James' betrayal was bitterness at being passed over for promotion, the Old Bailey jury was told.

In a testimony which bordered on the bizarre, James, who was arrested in December 2006, told the court he had been plucked from obscurity by Jonathan Ross to dance on a television programme.

He also claimed to be a Cuban black magic priest who carried out a ceremony to protect his boss from the Taleban.

Prosecutors said the role of spy would have appealed to him as something "exciting and special."

I actually did black magic for General Richards to protect him from the Taleban
Daniel James

James, 45, joined the Territorial Army in 1987 and was posted to Kabul in Afghanistan in March 2006.

Born in Iran, he came to Britain in his early teens and said he joined the Army because he wanted to give something back to the country which had taken him in.

Because of his valuable ability to speak Farsi and Dari, he became an interpreter for the head of multinational forces, General Sir David Richards.

The general, who is set to become the next head of the British Army, was leading 35,000 troops in the 37-nation International Security Assistance Force.

The Taleban insurgency was growing at the time, with suicide and roadside bombs a daily occurrence.

Prosecutor Mark Dennis QC said of James: "He has been described as a very flamboyant person, outgoing, extrovert but also as something of an oddball in many ways."

Salsa class invite

In court, Gen Richards agreed James' behaviour could be "bordering on the bizarre", adding he "appeared to like the limelight".

He said: "I remember him asking me if I wanted to go to a salsa class. I declined."

Gen Richards said James would sometimes style himself as "General James" when he was translating speeches for him.

He described how he would have to say under his breath: "Don't forget, I'm doing the speech - you're just interpreting."

James seemed "obsequious" to senior officers and "arrogant" towards others, revelling in his position close to the general.

His sense of military discipline also "left much to be desired".

On one occasion he kept the entire Afghan parliament waiting after he was late for an appointment to translate Gen Richards' speech into Dari, a local language akin to Persian.

'Divided loyalties' claim

Born Esmail Mohammed Beigi Gamasai in Tehran, James moved to Britain in his early teens and became a British citizen in 1986, while retaining his Iranian passport.

He lived in Brighton and married in 1982, divorcing six years later. He worked as a casino croupier and as head of security on the town's Palace Pier.

In 1997 he changed his name by deed poll to Daniel James.

James had been a body builder, kick boxer and ranked third in the country at power lifting before he moved into salsa dancing.

He said TV presenter Jonathan Ross approached him and asked him to dance weekly in a show called "Solid Soul".

James said he had become known as "Danny James, king of salsa" at a venue called Club New York where he gave nightly lessons to hundreds of people.

Raised a Muslim, James said he became interested in a Caribbean black magic religion, with African roots, and became a priest when he travelled to Cuba.

He said: "I actually did black magic for General Richards to protect him from the Taleban. Black magic is not bad."

The general was not present when he conducted the ceremony, so he used a picture of him, he said.

Increasingly frustrated

The prosecution said he had become increasingly frustrated about a lack of promotion, believing he was a target for racism.

He may have been subject to "divided loyalties", having been born in Iran and still having family and property there, Mark Dennis QC said.

Money, resentment at his treatment, or an exaggerated sense of his own importance could also have been factors in his betrayal, he added.

James was said to have been in contact with an Iranian military assistant based at Tehran's embassy in Kabul, called Colonel Mohammad Hossein Heydari.

The authorities do not know whether James had been accepted as an agent or was simply trying to prove his worth to the Iranians.

But one message from James stated: "Many thanks. Any other work that you may have, I am at your service."

His defence said he was never party to any secrets or confidential information and he denied any communications alleged in the case.

James was found guilty of communicating information to an enemy.

But jurors in the case were discharged after failing to agree on further charges of collecting documents useful to an enemy and wilful misconduct in public office, both of which James denied.

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