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Mr Sandy Mitchell

Volume 407: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2003

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4 pm

I welcome the opportunity to have this Adjournment debate and to discuss more fully the case of Mr. Sandy Mitchell from Kirkintilloch, one of my constituents.

I make it clear from the outset that this is not an anti-Saudi Arabia debate. If it is anything at all, it is a debate that is pro-Sandy Mitchell and the other prisoners. It is about Sandy Mitchell, James Cottle, Peter Brandon, Les Walker, James Patrick Lee and Bill Sampson. The others are all prisoners with Sandy Mitchell in Saudi Arabia at the present time.

It may be helpful if I sketch briefly some of the background to the case. Sandy Mitchell has been in prison since December 2000, when he was arrested and charged with being part of a bombing campaign in Saudi Arabia. The bombing had killed a British citizen, Christopher Rodway, in November 2000, so the arrests were made quite quickly after the bombing. The men have continually pleaded their innocence. Since the time of his imprisonment, Sandy Mitchell has spent about 18 months in solitary confinement. He has spent that 18 months and his time with joint cell facilities in an underground cell. Last week's temperatures in Saudi Arabia ranged from 53° F to 56° F, so one can imagine how intolerable that situation must be, just in terms of the heat alone.

Sandy Mitchell is held in a cell for 23 hours every day. He is allowed to leave his cell for one hour. That is withdrawn at weekends: on Saturday and Sunday he spends 24 hours in the underground cell. The cell being underground, it has no natural light at all. He receives one phone call every month, which is his main contact, although of course he has consular contact at the same time.

During his time in prison, Sandy Mitchell's health has deteriorated quite significantly. That is confirmed by his sister, Margaret Dunn. In a recent letter to me, she said:

"I last saw Sandy in January of this year. I was in Saudi Arabia for 1 week. While I was there the Saudis afforded me the opportunity to see my brother, for which I am eternally grateful. They were hospitable and courteous which I appreciated.
I am told my brother is coping. I was told before Christmas my brother was coping. I don't believe that Sandy or any of the men being detained are coping—I saw that for myself in January."

As my hon. Friend knows, Les Walker's sister is one of my constituents. She passed very similar comments to me. Les had a heart condition before he was imprisoned, and the family are very frightened for his well-being because of the heat and the circumstances in which he is held. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should ask our colleagues in the Foreign Office on humanitarian grounds, if for no other reason, to plead with the Saudi authorities to consider the health of these men and to release them?

I am grateful for that intervention. I think that everyone will agree that vast humanitarian arguments are now developing about the situation that the men are in. A consistent story is being repeated about how they are held and the conditions in which they are held. Margaret Dunn feels that the

"situation needs to be brought to an end. Sandy is now well into his 3rd year and he is ill. The situation has taken a toll on ALL the family."
She goes on to make a number of points about his son, who was a newborn baby when his father was imprisoned in Saudi, and is now four years old. There is consistency not only in Margaret Dunn's story, but in Les Walker's family story.

The sister of Sandy Mitchell said that quite naturally he is depressed. He is appealing against a decision to behead him publicly in Saudi, which is what his appeal for clemency is trying to stop. I do not suppose any of us could ever really understand the pressure and anxiety of trying to appeal for clemency against a background of such a decision. Even if we could imagine it, it is horrific to have to he fighting against such a sentence. He is suffering from high and erratic blood pressure, and Margaret Dunn makes the point that both her parents died from heart conditions, so she is particularly concerned for her brother who has, in fact, been taken to hospital during the time that he has been imprisoned because of his heart condition.

Sandy and the other people whom I have mentioned were accused of a bombing in Saudi. The Saudis accused all of them of fighting a turf war on the issue of illegal alcohol and its sale and use in Saudi Arabia. At the outset, a number of important organisations suggested that the bombing had been carried out by a domestic terror organisation, but since that day that has continually been denied by the Saudi Arabian authorities. The central point is that, during the period that the men have been in jail, bombings in Saudi have not only continued but intensified. More recently, there have been massive suicide attacks on western housing compounds in Riyadh. If evidence were needed, that conclusively proves the case that there was and has been a domestic terror element in Saudi. It might be difficult for the Saudis to admit that, but the facts speak for themselves.

Sandy Mitchell originally appeared on Saudi television to confess his part in the bombing. Anyone who has seen a recording of that on the news or elsewhere will have seen a person who was frightened, who had a stilted delivery and who was obviously reading from a statement that had been produced for the television cameras. I think that we can discount any confession that people make on Saudi television in this case—whether it is Sandy Mitchell or anyone else.

One can only imagine the state of mind of not only Sandy Mitchell and the others, but the family. Given the confession by Sandy Mitchell on public television, is my hon. Friend aware of any professional assessment made of his mental health?

I welcome my hon. Friend's question. I do not know whether there has been a professional assessment, but anyone with an O-level or A-level in psychology would be able to determine that the confession on television was far from natural. Other evidence also points to torture and forced confessions from these people.

I said that these men confessed on television. Later, those confessions were withdrawn by all the people involved. Clearly, physical and psychological torture has taken place. It is not a one-off case, as ample evidence exists of other cases in which people have been physically and psychologically tortured in Saudi Arabia. The case of Ron Jones is a prime example. He went to the UK courts recently to prove that he was abused in Saudi. There is plenty more evidence. David Morin, a friend of Sandy Mitchell, who worked in Saudi at the same time as he did, claimed that he had been tortured in Saudi.

In February, the UN representative and special rapporteur, Param Cumaraswamy, visited the men in prison. He concluded that there had been "substantial procedural irregularities" in their case. He went on to describe the men's claims that they had been tortured into confessing as certainly consistent. As my hon. Friend said, an independent voice from the UN is substantiating the men's claims about their torture and forced confession.

The case has changed quite dramatically in the past few months. An appeal for clemency towards the men—including Sandy Mitchell, of course—has been presented by their lawyers and is now before King Fahd. The Foreign Office needs to lift its game and intensify the campaign on behalf of Sandy Mitchell and the others. We cannot allow the clemency appeal to be considered in isolation: there must be political pressure to accompany it. The Saudis need to know how the British Government feel about the case.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I triggered a debate on the topic some two or three weeks ago. Since then, I have received a letter from the Saudi ambassador in England, and I think that there might be mileage in asking the Foreign Office to facilitate sending a deputation of MPs to see the Saudi ambassador in private. Does the hon. Gentleman think that there is merit in that?

I do. That is a good suggestion, because it would give all of us representing a constituent's interests the chance to make representations collectively. If the hon. Gentleman's suggestion would help, I would be happy to do it. I am happy to exert as much pressure as I can, because it would be pointless for me to insist that the Foreign Office exerts pressure if I were unprepared to do so myself.

By the end of the debate, if we achieve nothing else, we need to make sure that the Minister will tell my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs that those of us involved in the debate, and in representing our constituents' interests, want him to put as much pressure as possible on the Saudis. He must tell them that the British Government fully support the appeal for clemency. As I have said, it is time to intensify the campaign. There must be personal intervention, if that is what is needed. It is certainly what the families demand. They want more activity; they want it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is all very well for people to criticise them and say that they are putting too much pressure on the Government, but any family would naturally want to do that if a relative were involved.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On the issue of the families, I am a mother, a sister and a daughter, and I cannot imagine how horrific the situation must be for the family members of Mr. Mitchell and the other men. I wonder how desperate they are. I know that they will have made many representations to the Minister. What about their health and sleepless nights, and the hell that they are going through?

I welcome my hon. Friend's eloquent comments. She has properly put the matter into perspective. We have been talking throughout about the health cost to those who have been in prison. There is a cost—and I do not think that it can be measured—to the friends and relatives who are trying to do something about the situation, but who almost feel that it is a waste of time, and that they are not making any progress at all. I am conscious of that.

There is another issue that I must raise, because I have been asked to do so by Sandy Mitchell's sister. She has been told by the Foreign Office that even if Sandy Mitchell is successful in his clemency appeal, the Foreign Office will not pay the air fare to bring him and the other men back to the UK. I put on record that I am horrified that the Foreign Office should take that stand. It is crass and insensitive; it displays the sensitivity of a torturer. I cannot believe that it has made that decision. That should not be a consideration at this stage. The priorities should be the clemency appeal, the freedom of the men and getting them back to the UK. After that the question of the fares can be dealt with.

In my opinion, Sandy Mitchell and the others are innocent. They must have the full support of the Foreign Office in every possible way. The well-being of the prisoners and of their relatives and family is central—my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) made that point.

At the beginning of the debate, I said that I did not want this to be an anti-Saudi discussion. I am quite prepared to accuse the Saudi Arabian authorities of physical and psychological torture, because I believe the men, and they say that that is what they faced. I also believe Ron Jones, who is another valid witness to all this. The legal process in Saudi Arabia that was used to sentence the men raises serious and fundamental judicial procedure questions. The plight of the men must become a priority, because the clemency appeal needs to be decided as quickly as possible, and I think that our pressure can achieve that.

I finish with a simple point. I have a photograph of Sandy Mitchell with a newborn baby. That baby is now four years old. He has never seen his father. I hope that the Minister and the Foreign Secretary can swiftly change that.

4.16 pm

I rise to mention a couple of facts. The Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding sponsored a trip by five parliamentarians between 17 and 19 May. I almost pulled out of it because, a few days before we left, the suicide bomb exploded in the foreigners' compound in Riyadh. The Foreign Office was opposed to our visit: it said that it was too dangerous. My family was opposed to me going, too. I only decided to go because my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) said that I could be useful in making representations on behalf of Sandy Mitchell. I felt that it was a risk worth taking.

I am pleased that I went. The five parliamentarians met 12 different groups and individuals, such as Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi Foreign Minister, and a large group of members of the Shura council. We made a plea of clemency for Sandy Mitchell and the other prisoners in Riyadh at every one of those meetings. I am not sure that we made any impact, but if effort is what counts we should have had some success because we tried very hard. We explained that we were not criticising Saudi criminal law: we were simply asking for clemency for these prisoners, and particularly for Sandy Mitchell.

4.18 pm

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) on securing this debate. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell), set out our anxieties about the men detained in Saudi Arabia in a debate on 3 June, and I welcome the opportunity further to emphasise our deep concern about this case.

My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden asked specifically about the case of Sandy Mitchell. We are concerned about all the men who are detained. Mr. Mitchell is one of the detained persons who are accused of involvement in a series of bombings. We have serious concerns about the case and have been working on behalf of the detained men. This is a very difficult time for Sandy Mitchell and his family, and for the families of all the men involved. We are trying to resolve the case on behalf of each of them, and I would not wish to say anything today that will make that more difficult.

Let me deal specifically with some aspects of Sandy Mitchell's case. We share the deep concern that is felt about it. We have raised Mr. Mitchell's case at the highest level with the Saudi authorities and will continue to do so until it is successfully resolved. I give a clear undertaking that that is the position of the Foreign Office.

My hon. Friend raised several issues, and I shall deal with some of them. He referred to the payment for airline tickets back to the United Kingdom when the men are released. In such cases, the Foreign Office can, if required, make funds available to British nationals and their families. We shall consider their ability to pay. The loan is usually made available, so that British nationals do not have to worry about funding tickets immediately and can return to the United Kingdom as quickly as possible. However, I take my hon. Friend's point and we may have the opportunity to talk about the matter later.

I want to put on the record my thanks to colleagues in the Home Office for the sympathetic way in which they have dealt with Mrs. Walker, who is a Filipino citizen. Their actions have shown that the Government take a common-sense approach, for which I am particularly grateful.

I take note of my hon. Friend's thanks. The Home Office, like the Foreign Office, takes a sensible approach.

There has been a request that a group of Members of Parliament meet the Saudi ambassador. It may be helpful to reinforce the public concern that is felt in this country about the case.

Will the Minister confirm that the Foreign Office will do something to help a private deputation take place?

The Saudi ambassador will obviously have to consider whether he wishes to see a deputation. If my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden wishes to lead such a delegation, as he introduced the debate, I will discuss with him whether we might satisfactorily approach the Saudi ambassador.

I am pleased that the Saudi authorities allowed Margaret Dunn to see her brother. It enabled her at least to see for herself how he was. Her concern about his health is a matter that the Foreign Office takes seriously and we have raised such matters with the Saudi authorities. Although the British Government are working tirelessly on behalf of Sandy Mitchell, we have taken the view that that is most effectively done by engaging with the Saudi authorities in private.

We have not sought publicity because we have made the judgment that until now that would be detrimental to Sandy Mitchell's interests. As he has made clear, at least to Foreign Office officials during visits, he does not wish the Foreign Office to discuss the detail of his case in public. He has legal representation and is in close contact with his lawyers. I understand that he can have private meetings with them. The lawyers talk to the Saudi authorities about the progress of the case. We have regular contact with Sandy Mitchell's family and keep them informed, in so far as we are able, about developments. It has been a long and difficult process for the family. We do not underestimate how upsetting it must be for them. We certainly extend our sympathy to them for the upset that they have experienced.

The background to the case is known. A series of small bomb explosions in Riyadh and Al Kobar between November 2000 and September 2002 resulted in the death and injury of British nationals and other westerners. When considering the case of the detained men, we must also remember that in Britain the families of those who were killed and injured want justice to be done. We will not forget the bombings, which caused a huge amount of pain, hardship and distress to the victims and their families.

Some people accuse the Foreign Office of putting our trading and defence relationships with Saudi Arabia before the welfare of the men detained. My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden did not suggest that, and it is certainly not the case. However, it is worth putting it on the record that our trading relationship will not prevent us from actively taking up the case of those men with the Saudi Government. We can pursue the case because we have a relationship about a range of issues with Saudi Arabia. When it is merited, we are prepared to criticise that country. We cover a wide range of matters with the Saudi authorities, and we raise human rights issues, both generally and in the context of Sandy Mitchell's case.

In the Adjournment debate on 3 June, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary described how we raised a wide range of human rights issues with the Saudi authorities, so I do not need to rehearse that fact. The UN special rapporteur for the independence of judges and lawyers visited Saudi Arabia last October. He examined the case of the British men detained and voiced his concerns about it.

More recently, Saudi Arabia has shown a greater willingness to engage with the international community on human rights issues. It has produced reports for unanswered questions from the UN treaty monitoring bodies. Saudi Arabia has submitted its first report to the UN Committee against Torture since it ratified the convention in 1997. In May 2002, the committee asked Saudi Arabia about its use of flogging and amputation by judicial and administrative authorities, the powers of the religious police and prolonged pre-trial incommunicado detention.

The fact that Saudi Arabian authorities also answered questions from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in March 2003 is another indication of Saudi Arabia's greater willingness to engage on human rights issues.In the report, the UN committee raised worries about the rights of foreign workers, among other issues.

The ratification of the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women is also a welcome sign. However, we are concerned about the wide-ranging reservations placed on that by Saudi Arabia. There is universal compulsory female education; women have had access to university education since 1962 and attendance is increasing; opportunities for women in commerce are improving; and many businesses are owned and run by women. However, their situation in Saudi Arabia still gives cause for public concern.

In May 2002, Saudi Arabia adopted new criminal justice procedures, which were aimed at modernising the criminal justice system. Among other things, those procedures provide for lawyers to represent defendants and for greater transparency in court proceedings. Saudi Arabia has announced its intention to establish two human rights bodies. We respect the Saudi wish for a legal system based on Sharia law, but we are worried about the system's willingness to comply with all international standards. We remain committed to encouraging the Saudi authorities to improve their human rights record. We are encouraged by the Saudi Government's ratification of some of the UN human rights treaties. We wish to see the Saudi Government more deeply reflected when dealing with some of those concerns.

Given that the appeal for clemency can take place at any time, can the Minister give us any assurance that the appeal and the decision will not be made until every representation by every interested party has been made?

I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend that we will continue to press at the highest level for an early resolution of the case. I cannot go further than that, but I can reassure him that we are serious about resolving the matter. The Saudi Arabian authorities know how deeply worried we are about it and it is being dealt with at the highest level. Our work on behalf of Sandy Mitchell has been consistent with our wider consular effort, helping British nationals in distress overseas. It is one of the most important elements of the Government's foreign policy.

On that basis, we can provide a level of reassurance to the families that those who are detained are not forgotten and that we will continue to do all that we reasonably can—

It being half past Four o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.