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Gerhardt Eisler (Arrest)

Volume 465: debated on Monday 16 May 1949

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(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will make a statement on the arrest of Herr Eisler on the Polish ship "Batory."

I am informed that on 14th May a United States Embassy representative applied to a Southampton magistrate for a warrant for the arrest of Gerhardt Eisler, who was on board the s.s. "Batory," anchored in Cowes roads, on the ground that he had been convicted in the United States of perjury, that perjury was an extraditable offence under the Extradition Treaty between the United Kingdom and the United States, and that he had as an appellant broken his bail. The Southampton magistrate decided to issue a warrant and it thereupon became the duty of the police to execute it.

Two Southampton police officers, accompanied by two Scotland Yard officers, accordingly boarded the ship in Cowes roads and informed the master that they had a warrant for the arrest of Eisler. Two Polish consular officials who were on board the ship protested against the arrest on the ground that Eisler was under the protection of the Polish Government. The police officers asserted their right and duty to execute the warrant, but offered to delay execution, provided that the master would give an undertaking that the ship would remain in Cowes roads, until this afternoon in order that the matter might meanwhile be further considered. This offer was not accepted and the police proceeded to execute the warrant. Eisler resisted arrest and was carried off the ship by police officers and lodged in Southampton police station.

Eisler appeared before the Southampton magistrates this morning and was remanded forthwith to Bow Street Police Court, where applications for extradition are dealt with.

May we take it that the arrest of Herr Eisler does not involve any departure from the British principle that we do not extradite for offences of a political character, since the question as to whether it is of a political nature, which is partly a matter for the magistrate and partly for the discretion of the Home Secretary, does not arise until the facts have been investigated by the magistrate? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that these matters of civil liberties are of equal importance whether the request comes from the East or the West?

As far as the last part of the supplementary question is concerned, I agree with the statement made by my hon. and learned Friend. With regard to the other part, we must await the receipt and the investigation of the evidence before any decision can be made.

Is the Minister aware that the suggestion of perjury arises from the fact that when Herr Eisler was an anti-Nazi refugee and——

Whether it is perjury or not is a matter which is sub judice. That is now before the courts and we must not raise it here.

Then I will ask another question, Mr. Speaker. Is the Home Secretary aware that it is a tragic situation when Ministers who claim to be Socialists are responsible for such a shocking and shameless affair as the treatment of this anti-Nazi refugee? Is there any limit to the depths of degradation to which this country can be drawn at the command of America?

It is not an improper insinuation; it is God's truth. [Interruption.] Quiet, you fellows—

"This England …"

May we assume from what the Home Secretary has said that, irrespective of the technical issue as to whether it is an extraditable offence or not, if Herr Eisler claims to be a political refugee the Home Secretary will accord him the traditional right of asylum accorded political refugees by this country?

No, Sir. It is not what the man claims to be; it is what the facts reveal him to be.

In the first place, may I ask the Home Secretary whether, when the magistrate at Southampton granted a warrant for this man's arrest, he was satisfied that there was a prima facie case of perjury——

One must not challenge the magistrates on whether there is a prima facie case of perjury. The matter has now gone to Bow Street and the whole thing is sub judice. The only thing which may be criticised is the action of the Home Secretary.

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. With reference to your last Ruling, may I draw your attention to the terms of the Act on which our Treaty with the United States of America is based? It provides quite expressly that a matter of this sort is never in a sense sub judice so as to take it out of the purview of the Home Secretary, who, as the Act expressly provides, may at any time intervene when he thinks a matter is a political matter and may stop all proceedings almost as though he were the Attorney-General. I am referring to Section 7 of the Act of 1876, which no doubt you have in mind, Mr. Speaker.

I cannot carry all these Acts in my head. What the hon. Member says may be right or it may be wrong. However, I am certain that it is quite wrong for us to discuss a matter which is now before the courts, and that is my Ruling.

Further to that point of Order. As the matter is of great importance to everyone in this House who is concerned with the tradition of Great Britain in protecting political refugees—[Interruption.]—on this side and I believe some on the other side as well. [HON. MEMBERS: "Czechoslovakia."] There is not a single example of this sort of business in Czechoslovakia. Can hon. Members opposite give a single example? [Interruption.] If I may proceed with the point of Order, before you make your Ruling as to whether this is sub judice or not, Mr. Speaker, may I read you the terms of Section 7 of the Act, which runs as follows:

"If the Secretary of State is of opinion"—
I interpolate by saying not as result of evidence before the magistrate necessarily but on any grounds at all—I will show why that is the proper construction in a moment—
"that the offence is one of a political character, he may, if he thinks fit, refuse to send any such order"—
that is, the order which precedes the arrest, and therefore it does not give the possibility even of the opinion of the Home Secretary being based on evidence before the magistrate because this anticipates the proceedings—
"and may also at any time order a fugitive criminal accused or convicted of such offence"—
that is, an extraditable offence—
"to be discharged from custody."
That being so, I have no doubt that you, Mr. Speaker, would say that discussion in this House as to the political content of this man's alleged offence, or the offence for which he has been convicted in America, is really not debarred by the fact that at some time in the future some magistrate or some other court may consider the matter. I ask you to say that all questions as to this man's clearly publicised claim that he is a political refugee should be open to the consideration of the House with a view to our trying to induce the Home Secretary to take the obvious and honourable step of discharging the man at once.

Further to that point of Order. I would point out that this arrest was not effected under that machinery. This man was not arrested as a result of my order——

but under an alternative procedure where the responsibility is on the magistrate.

Is not my right hon. Friend clear that, under whatever procedure the man may be held in custody, the duty of the Home Secretary, if he thinks fit, is to order his release at any stage of the proceedings as soon as he is satisfied that the crime put against him by the Yankees—I beg pardon—the requesting country is of a political character?

I have certain very extensive powers, and very responsible duties to discharge, under this Act, but I must have the evidence in front of me before I can make up my mind.

Can the Home Secretary explain how it was that several officials from the United States Embassy were present with the police on board this boat, what their function was and why they were allowed to intimidate the captain of the vessel in order to get Mr. Eisler arrested?

Certain United States Embassy officials laid the information before the magistrate and they went to the ship. As far as I know, there was no intimidation of the captain of the ship. I have no evidence before me to indicate that.

May I ask the Home Secretary, in view of the terms of Article 6 of the Anglo-American Extradition Treaty which specifically exempts from the terms of the Treaty those whose crime consists of a political offence, whether he will give an assurance that he will decide on the basis of that Article before there is any question of deporting Mr. Eisler to the United States?

I shall have to discharge my duties as soon as I can get the evidence. When the evidence comes, I shall examine it most carefully and make up my mind on the decision I ought to take, but at this stage I will not do anything that indicates a prejudgment as to what the evidence will be when it comes.

Is my right hon. Friend quite satisfied that the request by the American Government and the arrest of this man is valid under international law?

That is a thing which the magistrate to whom the application was made had to decide. I was not asked to arrest this man.

Is it not a fact that the procedure as to arrest would have been exactly the same if this had been a Polish request affecting somebody on an American ship?

Yes, the procedure would have been exactly the same if the Polish Government had gone to the magistrate instead of asking for an order from the Secretary of State.

Further to a recent answer of the Home Secretary, are we to take it from that answer that if any citizen of this country lays information about another, he has a right to go with the police and to participate in the arrest of the one against whom he has laid the information?

The hon. Gentleman is not to understand that. The United States officials went on the ship on their own responsibility and not on the responsibility of the police.

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the ruthless attitude adopted towards this well-known anti-Nazi political refugee, the attitude towards the officers of the ship, the fact that American officials were allowed to accompany the British officers aboard this Polish vessel and to use threatening language to the ship's officers and consular officials, and the necessity of getting further explanations on this matter, I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House.

I could not possibly accept that Motion. What is quite definite and urgent is that the matter should be tried before the courts and not in the House of Commons. Therefore, I cannot accept that Motion.

I have refused the Motion. That is quite definite and I do not want to argue it.

I am not dealing with what is coming up in the courts, I am dealing with what happened on the ship, which has nothing to do with what is coming up in the courts. I want to know why they were so ruthless towards this man, why were the American officers allowed or taken on board when the Polish officers did not want them and the Polish consul did not want them. The British must have taken them on. Why did they take them on?