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Uganda (Mr D Hills And Mr S W Smolen)

Volume 893: debated on Monday 16 June 1975

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With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement about the two British subjects imprisoned in Uganda.

Hon. Members will know that Mr. Hills has been convicted and sentenced to death by a military tribunal on charges connected with his authorship of a book, as yet unpublished, which has been held to be critical of President Amin. Mr. Hills had previously appeared before a civil court, when similar charges against him were withdrawn by the prosecution and the magistrate stated that there was no case to answer.

Mr. Smolen has also appeared before a military tribunal on a charge of hoarding under the recently introduced Uganda economic crimes decree. Under this decree he is liable, if convicted, to a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment. However, President Amin is reported by Uganda radio to have said that he too will face the death penalty if found guilty. Mr. Smolen's case has been adjourned until 18th June.

Her Majesty's Government have been embarked on an intense round of diplomatic activity since the danger to Mr. Hills' life first became apparent. I cannot at this moment indicate all the steps which are being taken, but a number of world leaders and Governments have made or will make representations to President Amin on humanitarian grounds on behalf of our two citizens. Some have requested that we should not reveal the messages they have sent, and I shall, of course, respect their confidences. It could in any case well be that their messages will thus be more effective. The House will wish me to express its appreciation to them and particularly to President Kenyatta, who has been in contact with President Amin on several occasions and through whom we have been aware of developments in the Ugandan position.

I have instructed our acting High Com missioner in Kampala, Mr. Hennessy, to deliver the personal message to President Amin signed by the Prime Minister, and he has done so today.

The normal means of communication between Governments are through diplomatic representatives. I have, of course, given very careful consideration to the report emanating from radio Uganda that President Amin has demanded that the message be delivered by myself or by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, although the Ugandans have not so notified us in any formal way. I wish to inform the House that I do not think it would assist good relations between our two countries in the long run if I were to deliver such a message under duress. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear.") But if, as I hope, humanity prevails in the cases of Mr. Hills and Mr. Smolen I should be very willing to discuss with President Amin in the near future the state of relations between our two countries. Amongst the subjects I would wish to raise with him is the future of the 700 or so Britons remaining in Uganda.

I am grateful to hon. Members who refrained from pressing me to answer questions on this subject last week. The House will appreciate that it is necessary for me to continue to exercise reticence.

The Secretary of State has been good enough to keep the Opposition informed, through me, of what has been happening. I am most grateful for that. Is he aware that the Opposition have strong feelings of indignation and concern about this situation? I assure him that it is our intention to do everything we possibly can to help him with this tragic situation. For the time being I am sure that he is right in saying that exercising reticence is the correct procedure. The time will come when that situation no longer applies and the matter can be discussed. For the time being I am sure that the House supports the efforts being made by the Foreign Secretary.

Although it is right that the cases of these two citizens should receive widespread publicity, does the Foreign Secretary agree that unhappily there are other citizens, some of whom are known personally to Members of Parliament, whose fate is equally uncertain? Does he therefore accept, as we accept, that diplomatic activity is the right answer, especially amongst those Commonwealth countries which are members of the Organisation of African Unity?

I am much obliged to the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) and the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Maudling). Yes, Sir; I think that in this matter diplomatic activity is the best chance we have of ensuring that humanity prevails. I propose to pursue this in an intense but, I hope, non-provocative way.

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that those of us who have in the past interceded on behalf of prisoners will understand the difficulties under which he has been labouring, and that it is only because of that understanding that there have not been more vocal expressions of the disquiet which so many of us feel so strongly?

Yes, I recognise that. It was for that reason that I volunteered this statement today, in order that I could say to the House as much as possible in the circumstances and in order that the House should recognise that I feel that I have a responsibility here.

As Mr. Hills' brother-in-law is a constituent of mine, may I thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary for his statement this afternoon? Those of us who have connections with these two unfortunate citizens wish to show forbearance in any way that we can in order to assist the excellent work which the Foreign Office and the right hon. Gentleman have done. But would he not agree that if barbarous sentences are meted out, this will be seriously deleterious to British-Ugandan relations in the future?

The sentence has already been announced in the case of Mr. Hill, and it is now for President Amin to consider whether he will exercise clemency in this case. I believe the whole House will join in making that request to him. As regards Mr. Smolen, he has not yet been convicted, but the sentence which President Amin has said will be carried out if he is found guilty appears to go beyond what is laid down under the economic crimes decree.