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French North Africa (Political Prisoners)

Volume 387: debated on Wednesday 24 March 1943

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Major Sir James Edmondson.]

I wish to raise the question of political prisoners in North Africa. I realise that it is a very delicate subject. I realise fully that our men are fighting side by side with Americans and Frenchmen in North Africa, and I would be horrified if any words of mine were to do anything to make their task more difficult. I would like to say at the outset that I know, as indeed we all know here, that North Africa is ruled by France, ruled by General Giraud, and not by us. Any remarks that I make will be made, if I may do so, to General Giraud through the Under-Secretary. What is the position to-day? The latest figures that we have of prisoners were given on 10th February in a reply by the Foreign Secretary to my hon. Friend the Members for North Lambeth (Mr. G. Strauss). He said that 903 prisoners had been released and that 5,407 were still detained on that date. But on 23rd February there appeared an article in "The Times" newspaper which I would like to quote, because the figures contained therein were somewhat different from those given by the Foreign Secretary:

"The weight of evidence, including that which comes from official French sources, goes to show that on November 8th there were between 9,500 and 10,000 political prisoners and refugees detained in North Africa. General Bergeret was correct in saying that 1,300 had since been released. Thus, in fact, the figures remaining must be somewhere between 8,000 and 9,000."
Why this discrepancy between the two sets of figures? I think it arises from the fact that the figures given by the right hon. Gentleman dealt only with those people actually detained in prison camps, and not with those people who because they had resisted arrest were placed in civil and military prisons rather than in prison camps. I understood that a distinction is made and those people who resist arrest are placed in prisons, and not in prison camps. Who are these men? Every one of them, to the best of my knowledge, is an anti-Fascist. Some have national representatives who can speak for them. Many have no national representatives. Included among these are Austrians, Germans, Hungarians and Italians, all of whom have proved in actual combat that they are anti-Fascist, willing to do their utmost to drive Fascism from Europe.

I come to the important question of how they are treated. I wish to give the House some information that I have obtained to-day from a man who was himself in one of the prison camps and who vouches for the accuracy of this information. The information, as far as I can tell—and I say it, naturally, with reserve—is accurate up to 15th January this year. I refer to the camp at Djelfa. In this camp there are in the neighbourhood of 1,500 people, living under canvas in the desert, without even elementary sanitation. Typhus is frequent. Large numbers of young men between 20 and 30 are said to be getting tuberculosis. There is no medical treatment for these men. There is no exemption from work even for the sick. Instead, anybody reporting sick gets 10 to 20 days in the cells, on bread and water for three days with a hot meal on the fourth. The prisoners are sent to dungeons in Fort Cavacelli, and are often, so the report says, actually horsewhipped naked, in front of other prisoners.

It being the hour appointed for the Interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Beechman.]

These reports may or may not be true—I hope sincerely that they are not true—but the only possible way of answering them is for an adequate inspection of these camps to be made, and it is for that that I would ask first of all. I shall no doubt be told that the Inter-Allied Commission has in fact inspected them. I gather from information recently given by the Lord Privy Seal that in a recent tour four camps, with 1,200 people in them, were visited, and if the figures I gave of the total number of people were anything like remotely correct, this is only a very small proportion of the people in the camps. I ask, first, that the Inter-Allied Commission might be increased in numbers if it cannot do its work with sufficient speed, or, alternatively, that it might be possible for General Giraud to allow a small party of Members of Parliament to visit one or two of these prisons which the Inter-Allied Commission is itself unable to visit at present.

The real remedy for this, however, does not lie in better conditions for the men in the prisons, but in their release. Where would these men go? I submit that nine-tenths of them would probably go to the Armed Forces. Many of them are most experienced in fighting and would be exceedingly useful in the North African campaign. They are needed to help defend France to-day. I would appeal to the American people and say to them, "Your sons to-day are fighting on French soil. Are they to be deprived of the help of 3,000 or 4,000 political prisoners who to-day are awaiting the word to come to their aid? These men, formed into a brigade, might give very useful service indeed in the conflict that is now raging in North Africa." Finally, I would appeal to General Giraud himself, and I would say, "We lay no claim to any kind of jurisdiction over your territory. We do not even want to put undue pressure upon you. It is wholly your territory, but our men are to-day fighting side by side with yours at this moment to defend this territory. These men do not like to know that there are thousands of men who might be fighting on their side but who instead are standing behind prison bars. It is not nice for our men to know that." In the name of the great friendship that there is between our two peoples and in the name of all for which France and ourselves are fighting, I would say to General Giraud, "Release these men."

Certainly I have no complaint at all about the very moderate terms of the speech which has just been made by my hon. Friend on this very difficult question. Nevertheless, I am sorry that he has raised this question again to-day, and I am sorry for more than one reason. In the first place, there is very little that I can add to what has been stated in this House by my right hon. Friend. My hon. Friend just now was, in fact, under some misapprehension when he said that the last statement that my right hon. Friend made was on 10th February or some such date.

That is what I understood my hon. Friend to say, but in fact it is not the case. The last statement made by my right hon. Friend was on 3rd March, when he gave very full figures, which differed materially from those quoted by my hon. Friend just now. When he made his statement on 3rd March my right hon. Friend said that between 5,000 and 6,000 political prisoners were still in detention, of whom some 700 were French, some 3,000 Spanish and some 2,000 of other nationalities. He said at the same time that some 1,300 had at that time been released. The hon. Member made a point just now about the distinction between prison camps and military prisons. I do not think that distinction is a particularly valid one, because so far as we know there are no political prisoners detained in military prisons, although there may be one or two so-called political prisoners who are detained for criminal offences.

Since my right hon. Friend made his statement that day we have had a report from the Joint Commission. That Commission has so far visited four of these camps, and although it is quite true that they have not made very swift progress, I think that in all the circumstances they have not done badly. As I have said, they have visited four camps, and the hon. Member can rest assured that my right hon. Friend has impressed upon the Resident Minister the importance he attaches to the work of the Joint Commission.

Will the particular camp I mentioned be given high priority on the list of camps it is proposed to visit?

I will see that that point is considered. The reports to which I referred show that there have been further releases since my right hon. Friend made his statement on 3rd March. I have not the exact figure, but I am informed that it probably runs into some hundreds. The reports give a good deal of information about the conditions in the camps which have been visited. These camps, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, cover 1,300 prisoners. About a half of those 1,300 were Spanish nationals. The report of the Joint Commission shows that the great majority of prisoners are not in camps at all; they are working in local industries at local rates of pay; they live in the town in the locality, and there is no restraint whatever on their movements. At one camp a number of these so-called prisoners told the Commission that they were very satisfied indeed with the conditions in which they were living and hoped that they would not be moved, so that some prisoners at any rate do hot take the same view of their unhappy lot as the hon. Member did, with so much eloquence.

My right hon. Friend has made it clear mote than once in this House that His Majesty's Government do attach importance to the release of political prisoners in North Africa and that they do look forward to the complete restoration of political liberties there. As I said, I have no complaint about the tone of the hon. Member's remarks, but I think we ought to ask ourselves in this House whether we are likely to further the objectives that we have in view by lecturing, in a Very elevated and perhaps rather high-handed manner, the local authorities in French North Africa. I think we might consider what would be the position if the Chamber of Deputies were still in existence and if members of the Chamber of Deputies were to have animated debates from time to time the whole purpose of which was to instruct the Home Secretary upon the administration of Regulation 18B. I am not sure that the reaction would be very favourable even among those of us who disliked the administration of that Regulation by my right hon. Friend. The hon. Member made a suggestion that perhaps three or four Members of Parliament might go out to North Africa and inspect those camps. To go back to the simile which I have been drawing, I wonder whether we would really welcome three or four French Members of Parliament going round our prisons or visiting the Isle of Man and making a report back in Paris. I do not think the reaction from this House would be entirely favourable, and I do not think we would be the more likely to make amendments to our present procedure. I should think that what applies to us would probably apply also to Frenchmen.

The hon. Member pointed out that he realised that French North Africa was not British territory. It is very important to remember that. Sometimes we are apt to speak as though French North Africa were a British Colony, or at any rate an American Colony, and to forget altogether that it is an integral part of France. We have to remember, too, what we went to North Africa to do. We did not really go to North Africa in order to release 5,000 or 6,000 political prisoners. That is incidental. We went to North Africa as part of a highly important military operation of which, as the Prime Minister reminded us earlier to-day, the issue is still in doubt. We went to North Africa not to occupy the country, as the Germans occupied France or Poland, but to bring them freedom, to bring them the opportunity to manage their own affairs. I would suggest to the hon. Member that we cannot have it both ways. We cannot go to a country and say we are bringing them freedom and at the same time compel them by force to pursue the particular line of policy that we would like them to pursue. My hon. Friend himself was careful—and I was grateful to him for it—to point out that he was not threatening General Giraud with a big stick. He was using perfectly reasonable arguments. I am very glad he pointed that out, but I do not think that in all our discussions here that has always been made absolutely clear. Sometimes I think we have given the impression that we are trying by force to compel the French authorities in North Africa to follow a particular line of policy. That, of course, is not the case, and it would be quite improper for His Majesty's Government to advocate a policy of that kind.

I would ask the House to get this matter into its right perspective. It is perfectly proper that we should all have our opinions on this matter and should express them. I think, however, that sometimes we should do well to remember that while we are talking here our fellow countrymen are dying, and while we are giving our opinions they are giving their lives. It would be an impertinence for me to say what the Eighth Army or the Royal Air Force or the Royal Navy are fighting for, but I feel pretty sure in my mind that the Eighth Army is not locked in this bitter struggle on the Mareth Line at this moment in order that political prisoners may be released to-day rather than to-morrow or this week or month rather than the next. The hon. Member drew a picture of the sufferings of these political prisoners which does not conform with the reports that we receive from the Joint Commission, but, even if it were true that the political prisoners have to live in the desert and do not have proper sanitation and so on, we might remember that the Eighth Army does not have too easy a time of it at the moment either.

I have said that my right hon. Friend attaches great importance to the release of these political prisoners. He has impressed that more than once on the Minister Resident, and the Minister Resident has taken every opportunity of impressing it upon the Joint Commission. But we must keep these things in their proper perspective, and to imply, as some hon. Members sometimes do—the hon. Member himself certainly did not—that unless we can get these prisoners released immediately the whole war is lost and everything we are fighting for is lost, is really, to my way of thinking, a ridiculous exaggeration. Since I got up I have received a report on the particular camp to which the hon. Member referred. The report is not very full, but it is sufficiently full to indicate that the picture he gave the House of the conditions was very much exaggerated and that they are not anything like as bad as they were painted. We have every reason to believe that the situation in respect of political prisoners and other matters is developing fairly quickly and in the direction in which we should like to see it develop. We have every reason to hope that that process will continue. The House is familiar with the speech which General Giraud made some time ago and is aware that General de Gaulle has said he hopes to get into touch with General Giraud in the near future. I trust hon. Members will be satisfied that a great deal of progress is in fact being made, progress in the right direction. I hope they will be satisfied that it is a problem which can best be left to Frenchmen to solve and that intervention on our part and initiative from this side are not likely to help that process but rather to hinder it.

I did not intend to say a word in this Debate, but I have been drawn to my feet because I was a little disquieted by some of the remarks of the Under-Secretary. We welcome very much the statements which have been made on behalf of the Government with regard to the release of prisoners in North Africa, and we recognise that the Foreign Secretary and the British Government have made efforts to get the prisoners released bat that the matter is not under their direct control. We did, however, land in North Africa in November, and this is now March. A special representative was sent out in December, and I do not think we are unreasonable or that the hon. Member who raised this matter in a very mild form is unreasonable in questioning a little whether the representa- tions which have been made or the action which has been taken are as vigorous or energetic as they might be. Some of the arguments which the Under-Secretary advanced surprised me very much. I do not think it is reasonable to compare this case with the possibility of the Chamber of Deputies looking into conditions in the Isle of Man. We have not collaborated with Germany at any stage of the war. But I do not pursue that matter any further, because I do not want to enter into controversy.

We are in North Africa not merely to fight Germans but to free Frenchmen and to free democrats. When we go into Europe we shall go there to do the same things. There will be many prisoners in France and other countries and we must free them, unless we are to betray the principles for which we are fighting and the peoples who have been fighting for us. It may be necessary in this matter to take time and I will try to avoid saying anything which will make it more difficult. But the patience of some of us who have watched these events may fray rather thin. We do not consider that this is a subject for which we have not some responsibility. If we go into a territory by force, we have some responsibility for what the government in that country does, a government which exists as a result of the good will, to put it no higher than that, of an invading army. I cannot but think that the Allied Forces in North Africa are in a position in which they can enforce, to a large extent, any civil matters if they have the will to do it.

We all agree that some steps have been taken in the right direction in North Africa in the release of prisoners and there is no doubt that quite a large number have been released. The process, however, seems to be taking a very long time and we are perfectly justified in complaining that further steps have not been taken. We are well aware of the difficulties and nobody wants to be unreasonable. With the battles which are raging not very far away, this matter cannot take first priority. Nevertheless, the Allied Forces have been in Tunisia for quite a long time now, and right at the beginning requests were made by President Roosevelt that the laws affecting anti-Axis activities should be revoked, and, as far as I remember, there was a specific request that all those who were in prison because of anti-Axis activities should be released. I think the Under-Secretary would agree that what progress has been made has been very largely as a result of the requests—I use the word "requests" rather than pressure—coming from this country and the United States. Inevitably the people in Algeria and Morocco and the government there are concerned with public opinion over here. If they are not they ought to be, and I think that any action which can be taken by the Government, fortified if possible by this House, in order to speed the process which is occurring in North Africa to-day is desirable, and I cannot understand why the right hon. Gentleman should complain that we have raised this matter.

What strikes one as particularly inadequate is the inspection of the camps by the Mixed Commission. We are told that it is one of their duties. We know from the stories of people who have come here that conditions in some camps are very bad indeed. Even after all these months, only the camps of about one-fifth of the prisoners have been examined at all, and I cannot understand why more steps have not been taken. It cannot be so difficult to go to these camps in Algeria and Morocco to see what is happening, and I hope something will be done in that matter. The right hon. Member looked at this matter from a broad angle and rather complained that the British, American and other Allied troops fighting in Tunisia are not fighting to release the political prisoners now in internment camps in Algeria.

I did not say that. I said that I could not conceive that they were fighting in order that these prisoners should be released to-day rather than to-morrow, or this week rather than next week.

Plainly not, but the Allied troops are fighting for two purposes: one to defeat the Axis, and the other in order that the principles of the Atlantic Charter should be implemented in all countries which Allied Forces occupy.

This is territory which Allied Forces have occupied for some time, and one does expect that the authorities will make all reasonable haste to see that those principles are implemented in this territory. I disagree completely with the right hon. Gentleman when he says that this is a French affair and that we must leave it to the French who are responsible. It is not true at all. The Allied Nations are responsible for the Atlantic Charter and its principles. What happens in any territory that is wrested from the Axis and occupied by the Allied Forces, is an interest of this country, the United States and Soviet Russia. It is not an interest of the French administration in those countries alone. I disagree completely with the right hon. Gentleman there.

There is only one more point I wish to raise. What happens in North Africa is bound to have an enormous effect on public opinion in Europe. When people in Europe, who have been persecuted by the Axis, understand that these prisoners in North Africa are to be liberated by the Allied troops immediately, it will mean that when Allied troops arrive in their territory they will have a greater desire to support the United Nations than they would otherwise have. Many of these prisoners are International brigaders, who were fighting the Axis years before this country was doing so, and they are friends of the United Nations. Their speedy release in North Africa is bound to have an effect on the European situation, when the invasion of Europe takes place. For all those reasons I beg the right hon. Gentleman to take what action he can in this matter to hasten the release of these people and to see that they are properly treated. It is our affair as well as a French affair, and I am sure that the desire of the whole House is that my right hon. Friend, in conjunction with the Americans, should do what he can in this direction in the occupied regions of North Africa.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.