During the past two years, two men from Cowes have been unjustly imprisoned abroad. Months have been taken out of their lives and a huge amount of time and expense have been devoted to securing their release. Both were eventually released without a stain on their character, but they and two others in my constituency are now prevented from plying their lawful trade of delivering boats to foreign countries or travelling abroad. In short, all four are prisoners in their own country. One of them told me recently how helpful the Foreign Office had been to him in 1979 when it funded his health care when he had been robbed and was ill and destitute in Togo. He said:
“I thought it was a fantastic service.”
He would not say that of this story.
In 1997, the former Royal Navy vessel, HMS Cygnet, was sold by Her Majesty’s Government. The buyer, who renamed her Duanas, wanted her delivered to Morocco and recruited a crew through a reputable international agency, Crewseekers Ltd. Its website describes it as
“the original and premier yacht crew agency…We offer a wide variety of exciting crewing opportunities worldwide…Many gap-year students and people seeking a life-style change join us for travel and adventure!”
“Crewseekers has members in over 50 countries around the globe, and since 1990 has introduced thousands of yacht owners and crew.”
Among them are John Packwood, Henry Stableford, Oliver Bennett and Colin Bocquillon from Cowes on the Isle of Wight. They were paid £40 a day to deliver the Duanas to its new owner in Morocco. In short, they did what thousands of Britons, some professional and some amateur, do every day.
On arrival in port at Agadir on 11 April 1997, the Duanas and her crew were thoroughly searched, and were given the all-clear by Moroccan customs officials. The job was done and the crew flew home to England on 13 April. However, unbeknown to my four constituents, the Duanas’s new owners were members of a Colombian drug cartel. Ten weeks after she was delivered and the Cowes crew had returned home, the Colombians used the boat to smuggle 6 tonnes of cocaine in Moroccan waters. They were caught on 25 June and having given full and detailed confessions they were convicted. The miscreants consistently stated that they had no connection with any of the Cowes crew and that the drugs were brought aboard the Duanas only on the day that she sailed. The Cowes crew’s association with the Duanas was thoroughly explored by Interpol after the event and was dismissed as being wholly innocent.
Seven years passed and in October 2004, John Packwood was holidaying in Spain. He was arrested under an international arrest warrant that had been issued in Morocco in 1997. Spain’s extradition treaty with Morocco, in the fashion of the European arrest warrant, does not require the applicant to demonstrate a prima facie case against the accused. I call this a no-fault treaty. Having languished in Spanish jails for 11 months, attempting unsuccessfully to challenge extradition, Mr. Packwood was finally deported to Morocco in September 2005. Once there, he spent another month on remand. Having presented a comprehensive dossier of evidence illustrating his innocence to the Moroccan authorities and with support from many public figures including Mariella Frostrup, Damien Hirst, Hugh Grant, George Clooney and, on a more mundane level, myself, he was graciously pardoned before trial by His Majesty the King of Morocco. Put thus, it sounds easy. I know that the Minister knows that it was not and I thank him for the consular support, with visits and advice, that he and his office gave at that time. However, for Mr. Packwood, as for his friends and his lawyers, uncertainty reigned. He was incarcerated for more than a year, his legal bill exceeded £80,000, and he cannot work outside the UK. Mr. Packwood’s lawyer, Jason McCue of H2O Law, feared that that needless and protracted detention might be repeated. We petitioned the Moroccan authorities, Interpol and the Minister’s Department for the outstanding international arrest warrants against all four crew to be rescinded, but our requests were unproductive.
In consequence, on 16 October this year another wholly innocent Cowes resident, Henry Stableford, was arrested. Mr. Stableford had been employed at a boatyard in Fano in Italy. Following Mr. Packwood’s release last year, he assumed that the warrant was no longer active. None the less, before travelling to Italy, he took the precaution of checking with the Italian authorities and was assured that there was no barrier to travel. However, when he arrived in Fano and applied for the Italian equivalent of a national insurance number, alarm bells rang, the Moroccan warrant was activated and he was arrested and kept in solitary confinement. Again, he was subject to no-fault extradition proceedings. Mr. McCue sought a diplomatic solution with Morocco and suggested that the deadline set for filing the extradition request might have passed, which would result in his client’s release on procedural grounds. Morocco’s reasons for taking this course are not known, but that is what happened.
On 15 November, Mr. Stableford was finally freed by the Italians, having spent more than 30 fraught days needlessly incarcerated. That was not and still is not the end of Mr. Stableford’s ordeal. First, despite wishing to return home as soon as possible, he knew that if his passport was properly processed on leaving Italy he could be arrested again. He chose to fly via the provincial Bologna Forli airport, which has less rigorous security procedures, but even there he could have been re-arrested. Members of his family, his friends, his lawyers and I were therefore enormously relieved when he touched down at Stansted airport on 16 November. Secondly, we all agreed that neither he nor any other member of the crew could with confidence travel overseas again until the matter of the arrest warrants was cleared up.
The issues on which I seek the Minister’s help are as follows. First, how does someone find out whether a warrant or an extradition treaty exists? Outstanding international arrest warrants prevent my four constituents from travelling abroad. How can any other ordinary visitor check before travelling whether such a warrant exists? How can they find out whether an extradition treaty exists between the country that they are bound for and a country that may have issued such a warrant? How can they find out whether it is a no-fault treaty?
These points are not academic. Eight Britons await trial in Morocco at the moment. My constituents left their boat 10 weeks before it was used for criminal activities, yet still a warrant was issued. Anyone who hires a car or rents a hotel room could find themselves arrested in a third country in circumstances similar to those of John Packwood and Henry Stableford. In a world in which huge numbers of people each year visit countries—10 years ago that would have been impossible—this is wholly unacceptable. Neither Interpol nor the Serious Organised Crime Agency is required even to confirm that such warrants exist and Interpol seems immune to representations from hon. Members. What course of action does the Foreign Office recommend for such people, other than to stay at home?
Secondly, how can a warrant be discharged? When warrants are in place, how can we prevent them from impeding people’s free movement? Neither Interpol nor Morocco responded to requests after Mr. Stableford’s arrest to find out whether it was merely administrative oversight that had left the warrants in place. What action could the Foreign Office take? They told Mr. McCue:
“We are unable to interfere in the judicial process of another country. Your request for us to raise the international arrest warrant with the Moroccan authorities would amount to interference. It is for Mr Stableford’s legal team to determine next steps.”
Mr. Stableford’s legal team, led by Mr. McCue, was assiduous, and on a previous occasion it was not paid for the work that it did. They were doing their best, but surely an intervention in that matter is not interference, when Foreign Office-recommended local lawyers stated that the issue of the arrest warrant was in no way solvable by judicial channels but was, instead, a “political matter”.
Each traveller’s dilemma is circular. If one does not know that a warrant exists, one cannot take steps to have it set aside. One is unlikely to know that a warrant exists until one is arrested under it, in which case one will almost certainly have been arrested in a third country and not enjoy easy access to British lawyers, let alone lawyers who have rights of audience in the extraditing country. To cap it all, Moroccan lawyers advised that a warrant could be rescinded only if the subject of the warrant were exonerated at full trial.
Thirdly, will the Foreign Office facilitate interviews with my constituents on British soil? Apart from brief contact with Interpol in 1997, neither it, the Moroccan authorities nor the Serious Organised Crime Agency has interviewed any of my constituents anywhere about the allegations on which the warrants are based.
Fourthly, will the Foreign Office defend a British citizen’s right to due process? Mr. Packwood’s rights were violated in Spain, where he was remanded despite a complete absence of prima facie evidence, but the Foreign Office failed to intervene. Failing to rescind a redundant international arrest warrant, despite repeated requests, is an equally serious abuse. The question is: when would the Foreign Office intervene? There must come a point when a judicial process is so fatally flawed that it is no longer entitled to that description and the Foreign Office has no option but to abandon its policy of non-interference.
Fifthly, will the Foreign Office intervene when extradition treaties appear to be contrary to European Union law? The treaties under which my constituents were apprehended permit the extradition of Britons, but not of Spaniards or, as the case may be, of Italians. That appears to break EU law, which requires equal treatment of all EU citizens before the legal processes of individual EU countries.
My friend Dan Hannan MEP, with Caroline Lucas MEP, is pursuing the matter through the European institutions to ensure that Britons are not discriminated against. Will the Minister support them and also raise those cases directly with Spain and Italy? It must be made clear to other EU countries that if it is unacceptable to extradite their citizens, it is unacceptable to extradite ours.
Finally, what can be done about the conflicting roles of the Foreign Office? It has consular and diplomatic roles to fulfil. Our country has global interests and the Foreign Office has to operate at a geopolitical level, but the impression is that its duty to the many overrides its duty to the individual. I understand the need to balance them, but it is of little solace to the friends and families of people in prison.
As Mariella Frostrup asked in a headline in The Observer on 19 November,
“Who would you trust to get you out of jail?”
The article began:
“Something is badly wrong with the Foreign Office when George Clooney is more likely than Margaret Beckett to have innocent Britons abroad freed.”
“If the FCO is diplomatically prevented from helping us when we are in trouble, then our Government needs to think of an alternative.”
She suggested either attaching a non-governmental organisation to an embassy, or that European Union countries work together to attach any incarcerated citizen
“to whichever EU embassy has the best local relations.”
“An independent body could serve us better, offer independent advice and, perhaps as often as is needed, roll up its sleeves and get its hands dirty, all of which could be done in a way that is distanced from the embassies’ diplomatic role and thus not damage foreign policy.”
I hope Ministers will explore both suggestions, because until the Foreign Office either extends its consular ambitions—its services are welcome, but its support would be more welcome—or finds someone who will do so for it, innocent citizens will face potentially serious problems if they travel overseas, and my four constituents will remain prisoners in their own country.
It is a pleasure to be a part of a debate administered by your good self, Mr. Jones. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing it, with particular reference to the experiences of his constituents. I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s position on those cases and to explain the action that we have taken.
The hon. Gentleman ended with a rather cheap shot from a friend of his. He referred to an article that asked whom one would trust to get one’s citizens out of jail: George Clooney or my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Lord Triesman, the Minister with responsibility for consular affairs, clearly answered that question in a recent letter. He said:
“Much of what we do to help British nationals in difficult situations abroad is best done behind the scenes; but that doesn't make it any less important. FCO staff support 6,000 British nationals detained abroad every year, as well as 4,000 families whose loved ones die abroad and thousands of victims of theft, assault or more serious crime. We do so to standards that are set out clearly—they include a statement that we can’t get you out of jail just because you’re British, just as we wouldn’t allow any foreign state to make the same argument for its nationals imprisoned here. We work with many of just the kind of NGOs Ms Frostrup suggests to deliver that support—some of which we help to fund so that, as she says, they can carry out work it’d be difficult to do ourselves, such as providing refuges to victims of forced marriages overseas.”
I wanted to quote from Lord Triesman’s letter, because, importantly, the kind of article that Ms Frostrup wrote, and the contribution from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, do a great deal to demean the tremendous efforts that Foreign Office staff throughout the world deploy to help British citizens in difficult circumstances. Ms Frostrup, in her article, contrasted the heroics of Mr. George Clooney with Foreign Office staff, who spend their time mixing
“a decent gin and tonic”,
as she put it. That is not just a travesty, but a slur on the name of people who work very hard for this country in very difficult conditions. We know some of them and we have seen some of the huge tragedies of recent years. Staff go to very dangerous places. I saw some of them myself just last week in Basra, Iraq, and such ignorance as was expressed in that article cannot go unanswered. The hon. Gentleman knows about the Foreign Office’s good work, and I hope that he distances himself from that parody of what is done by Foreign Office officials abroad.
The hon. Gentleman described the background to his constituents’ cases. As he told us, Mr. John Packwood was arrested at Malaga airport on 16 October 2004 on the basis of an international arrest warrant issued by the Moroccan authorities. He was extradited to Morocco on 27 September 2005 and released from prison on 17 November 2005 after receiving a royal pardon from the King of Morocco.
Henry Stableford, another of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, was arrested in Pesaro, Italy, on 12 October 2006. He was also subject to an international arrest warrant and an extradition request issued by the Moroccan authorities. He was released on 15 November 2006 when the Moroccan authorities failed to file the extradition papers within the prescribed 30-day time limit.
I want to make it clear that consular staff visited Mr. Stableford and passed to his lawyers the contact details of the lawyers who had represented Mr. Packwood. Consular staff in London and Italy kept in regular contact with Mr. Stableford’s family and with his lawyers in Italy and in the United Kingdom. During Mr. Packwood’s detention, our consular staff in Madrid, London and Rabat kept in regular contact with his lawyer and with his family in the UK. Because the case involved both the Spanish and Moroccan courts, Mr. Packwood had two legal teams representing him. We ensured that both teams had all the information they considered necessary for assisting him. We also had regular contact with Fair Trials Abroad, which took an active interest in Mr. Packwood’s case.
In February 2005, consular officials in Rabat sent a diplomatic note to the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting consular access to Mr. Packwood, should extradition go ahead, and asking for information about intended legal proceedings in Morocco. We also raised concerns that Mr. Packwood’s Spanish lawyer had not yet received any specific information connecting Mr. Packwood to an alleged transportation of cocaine from Morocco to Spain in 1997. A copy of that note was sent to Mr. Packwood’s sister on 25 February 2005.
While Mr. Packwood was detained in Rabat, our ambassador took a close interest in the case and met Mr. Packwood’s lawyer. Our ambassador, through regular contact with senior Moroccan Ministry of Justice officials, was able to secure Mr. Packwood’s transfer to a more suitable prison. Mr. Packwood had a Moroccan lawyer, who enjoyed full access rights to his client. Our embassy was influential in gaining access rights for Mr. Packwood’s British lawyer, despite the fact that such a right is not given automatically to lawyers who are not registered to practise in Morocco.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that there are other British citizens who are currently being held in Morocco, as there are throughout the world. He said that the number was nine, but my latest figure is six, although these things can change dramatically and he might be right. We know that about 6,000 British nationals will be held throughout the world at some time in any year, and we think that about 2,500 are being held at the moment. The figures can fluctuate, but there are a large number.
The Foreign Office also advised Mr. Packwood and his lawyers on the procedures for requesting a royal pardon and, as is customary for all such pleas, sent the request to the Moroccan authorities under cover of a letter from our ambassador.
My noble Friend Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean wrote to the hon. Gentleman in December 2004, enclosing a copy of the bilateral extradition convention between Spain and Morocco. My noble Friend confirmed that it is not within our consular remit to provide a legal opinion on the convention, but we consulted Mr. Packwood’s lawyer to provide him with information about the procedure of extradition. We explained that our role was one of welfare and that we were unable to interfere in Spain’s judicial process. We advised that the other three crew members might wish to consider contacting Interpol in order to establish whether international arrest warrants had been issued for them. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that it is a serious matter if there have been contacts with Interpol to which it has not responded. Interpol should respond to such contacts, and I shall certainly try to find out what has happened to those requests for information.
The hon. Gentleman also wrote to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in January 2005 to request assurances on the Moroccan judicial system and ask what steps the Foreign and Commonwealth Office could take to ensure Mr. Packwood’s fair treatment in Spain and Morocco. My noble Friend Baroness Symons replied that we had no evidence of systematic or widespread miscarriages of justice in the Moroccan judicial system, and gave assurances that we would raise any justified and serious complaints about ill treatment with the relevant authorities. Baroness Symons wrote again in March 2005 in response to the hon. Gentleman’s question about international arrest warrants, repeating that they were matters for Interpol.
At this point, it may be helpful to clarify what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can and cannot do for British nationals imprisoned abroad. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the consular guide that was published in March 2006 entitled “Support for British Nationals Abroad”, a copy of which I have with me, which I should be delighted to give him after this debate. During the past 12 months, we have provided support to nearly 6,000 British nationals detained abroad. Our role is primarily a welfare one, and I must make it categorically clear that we do not interfere in the judicial systems of other countries, nor do we take up individuals’ claims on their behalf. We cannot get a British national out of jail because he is British, nor is the level of our assistance ever based on an assumption of guilt or innocence.
However, there are actions that we can and do take regularly in support of British nationals who are detained abroad. Complaints of mistreatment are always taken seriously by consular staff and we regularly make representations to the relevant authorities. Consular staff regularly raise a variety of issues with prison authorities—for example, accommodation, diet and family visits. Although we cannot interfere in legal proceedings, we can take certain actions to ensure that the rights of British nationals who face criminal proceedings abroad are protected. Consular officials cannot offer legal advice, but we can provide basic information about the local justice system, including whether legal aid is available. We can also provide a list of local lawyers and interpreters. If a trial is unreasonably delayed or does not appear to be following internationally recognised standards for a fair trial, we will consider approaching the local authorities.
As I have made clear, we cannot intervene in the judicial processes of other states, nor would we expect them to interfere in ours. However, we will sometimes seek assurances from the state that is requesting the extradition regarding welfare, trial or sentencing issues. I know that the hon. Gentleman has carefully followed the case of Mirza Tahir Hussain in Pakistan, in which we felt strongly about the use of the death penalty. That case offers an interesting comparison, although we are considering the cases of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents today.
Before we seek assurances, we take into account a number of factors. We look at the sending state’s extradition procedures, to assess whether they appear independent and thorough, and conform to human rights standards. We also take into account the situation in the country that is requesting extradition, including the likelihood of the prisoner receiving a fair trial, the potential punishment to be applied and any other welfare issues. We will always intervene in the extradition of a British national for an offence that might attract the death penalty in the receiving state. We will also consider intervening where there is concern that a British national may not receive a fair trial or where there is concern that he or she may be tortured.
Mr. Packwood was pardoned before his case was ever brought to trial. My legal advice tells me that there can be no automatic assumption that clemency means innocence from the Moroccan point of view. That is exactly what the hon. Gentleman complained about. Unless those people know that they are innocent, they have the threat hanging over them. I wrote to the hon. Gentleman recently, explaining that we do not hold any details surrounding the circumstances of the pardon. I assume that Mr. Packwood’s legal team would be in the best position to ascertain the details of the pardon, and of the terms and conditions therein.
It has previously been suggested by the men’s lawyer and the hon. Gentleman that the pardon was issued because Mr. Packwood had no case to answer. It follows, they argue, that Mr. Packwood’s crew mates have no case to answer, and that the failure to rescind the arrest warrant amounts to no more than an administrative error. I reiterate that the warrant itself is a judicial process of the Moroccan criminal justice system; therefore, it is something for the hon. Gentleman’s constituent’s legal team to address, rather than the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That may irritate the hon. Gentleman, but it is a fact. The same applies to the Moroccan authorities’ failure to present the necessary papers for Mr. Stableford’s extradition. Again, no automatic assumption can be made that that implies that the Moroccans consider Mr. Stableford to be innocent. He should continue to instruct his lawyers to pursue his case in the Moroccan courts.
The arrest warrant is subject to a judicial process of the Moroccan criminal justice system. As I have already made clear, the Foreign Office cannot interfere in the judicial systems of other countries.
It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.