I beg to move,
That this House welcomes the national petition launched by the Kesri Lehar campaign urging the UK Government to press the Indian government to sign and ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which encompasses the death penalty, with the result that India would abolish the death penalty and lift this threat from Balwant Singh Rajoana and others.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this debate, and for having considered our representations as a matter of urgency. I am also grateful to all the many colleagues from across all parties in the House for supporting the request for a debate.
The motion replicates the Kesri Lehar—wave for justice—petition launched last year. The UN motions refer to general human rights abuses, which can be interpreted as including the death penalty. The intent of the motion is clear: it calls on the UK Government to assist in every way they can in ensuring the abolition of the death penalty in India.
I acknowledge that technical point, but the motion’s heading highlights what the Kesri Lehar campaign wants us to debate and impress upon the Indian Government: the need for the abolition of the death penalty in India. The death penalty is abhorrent to the vast majority of Members, especially as we on this side of the House are, as socialists, opposed in principle to it. We want to make the call for its abolition loud and clear through the Punjabi community—I have a very successful one in Coventry—and it will be the principal burden of my remarks, if I am called to speak.
Exactly, and this follows in the tradition of Governments of all political complexions in recent years, and of the representations that have been made to the Indian Government. I am grateful to the Government for their recent activities on this matter, which I will discuss later.
This is an historic debate, but it would not be taking place today had it not been for the dedication, hard work and commitment of the Kesri Lehar campaigners, and I wish to pay tribute to them. Last year, when we received the first inkling that India was considering ending its eight-year moratorium on implementing the death penalty, members of the Punjabi community in our country, especially the Punjabi Sikhs, came together and launched the Kesri Lehar campaign. Since then, they have secured more than 100,000 signatures to their petition to abolish the death penalty and address other human rights concerns.
A large proportion of the Sikh community in Huddersfield passionately agrees with the motion, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. For eight years we all hoped and thought there would be no more capital punishment in India. We should note that the record on capital punishment—on the number of people killed—is far worse in China and the United States, but this is a very important debate, and I am pleased to give my full support to it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I hope that across the House we are all friends on this matter.
The Kesri Lehar campaign organised a mass lobby of Parliament last autumn, and it has worked with human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Liberty, to press the Indian Government for the abolition of the death penalty. On behalf, I hope, of the whole House, I want to thank all the Kesri Lehar campaigners, many of whom have joined us in the Gallery today.
I will visit the Sikh temples in Derby on Sunday to pick up a petition to bring to this Chamber next week or the week after, or whenever Mr Deputy Speaker will allow me to. It is interesting how this issue has captured the imagination in our local areas and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate.
I am grateful for the work the hon. Lady is undertaking. When we visit the gurdwaras, it is interesting to see not only the range of men and women who support the campaign but the number of young people who have joined and led it recently.
I raised the death penalty and human rights abuses in India in this House last year, but I do so today with an even greater sense of urgency. Why? India has started to execute people again. When India secured its independence from Britain, it retained its 19th century penal code, which included the death penalty for murder. Until the 1980s, capital punishment was implemented regularly. From then on, although death sentences were pronounced by Indian courts they were increasingly not put into practice. In 1980, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty should be used in the rarest of rare cases, which led eventually to an eight-year moratorium on the death penalty being implemented within India.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) and I have a large Punjabi community in Coventry, which is very concerned about the death penalty. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) agree that the British Government should be encouraging the Indian Government to honour and sign international treaties against the death penalty and, more importantly, to reform the police force? We have seen in the media instances of the police force not investigating serious crimes against women or not taking them seriously. Last night, I presented a petition on behalf of the Punjabi community not only in Coventry but nationally.
I am grateful for the work that my hon. Friend has undertaken in this campaign over the years—his involvement is not merely recent. It is interesting that although the debate is focused on the death penalty, it has emerged that there have been extra-judicial killings, too.
My hon. Friend referred to the fact that the Indian authorities have recently started to execute people again. Clearly, that was in the context of a terrorist attack that caused many lives to be lost. The precedent has been set, however, and there is now a real danger that many people who had been given a death sentence that had not been applied, and their families, will undergo a period of great difficulty and stress. That applies to many communities in India and not just the Punjabis.
Exactly. I am sure that other Members will raise the question of what is happening with the Dalits and other groups.
The eight-year moratorium lulled us into a false sense of security. Naively, many of us thought that although India retained the death penalty on the statute book the continuation of the moratorium was an indication that it would eventually be abolished once and for all. Unfortunately, that was a naive judgment and our hopes were dashed in the spring of last year when reports emerged that the Indian Government were moving to execute Balwant Singh Rajoana and, possibly, to authorise the execution of Professor Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar. That caused widespread concern among the Punjabi community in the UK, across many of our constituencies and across the world.
I want to refer to the two cases, as they have been prominently mentioned in the media and carry immense significance around the world, the Rajoana case for its historical context and the Bhullar case because it is almost now a symbol of the injustice meted out to so many Sikhs in recent decades.
Let me deal first with Balwant Singh Rajoana, a former member of the Punjabi police. He has publicly acknowledged his role in the killing of the chief Minister of the Punjab, Beant Singh, in 1995. He has refused to defend himself and refused legal representation, and he has not asked for mercy. However, Sikhs and Sikh organisations in gurdwaras have appealed for mercy on his behalf, and urged the Indian Government to appreciate the context of Balwant Singh’s actions and the feelings of the Sikhs at that time and now.
Balwant Singh was party to killing Beant Singh, the chief Minister of the Punjab. We now know that Beant Singh personally commanded the police and security forces in the killing and disappearance of possibly more than 20,000 Sikhs—men, women and children. Faced with the failure of the Indian authorities to take action against the former chief Minister for his crimes against humanity, Balwant Singh and a co-conspirator took the law into their own hands. Nobody, including Balwant Singh, claims that he is innocent of the killing, but Sikh organisations, human rights lawyers and human rights groups are urging the Indian Government to take into account the context of his actions, the scale of the human suffering that the Sikhs were enduring at the time, and the anger that young men such as Balwant Singh felt at the failure of the Indian state to bring to justice the chief Minister responsible for the atrocities against the Sikhs in the Punjab. On that basis, they plead for understanding and mercy on Balwant Singh’s behalf and that the death penalty is avoided at all costs.
If Balwant Singh Rajoana symbolises the suffering of the Sikhs in that period, Professor Bhullar symbolises the injustice meted out to Sikhs, to be frank, over the years at the hands of the Indian police and the judicial system. Professor Bhullar came to the attention of the Punjab police because he investigated the abduction and disappearance of a number of his own students. The disappearances were linked to the Punjab police. The resultant persecution of his family, with the disappearance of his own father and uncle and others, led him to flee to Germany for asylum. Tragically, the German authorities believed the assurance of the Indian Government that he would not face the death penalty, and he was returned to India.
The German courts have now ruled that that deportation was wrong. Professor Bhullar has been in prison for 18 years. He has been convicted of involvement in an attempted political assassination solely on the basis of a confession, which he retracted, with not one of more than 100 witnesses identifying him at the scene, and on a split decision of the court judges. In split decisions in India, the practice of the courts is not to impose a death penalty, but Professor Bhullar has been sentenced, held in solitary confinement for eight years and, despite his deteriorating health, his plea for mercy has been rejected. Despite a further petition to the Supreme Court, the fear is that the Indian authorities could move to execute him at any time. This is a shocking miscarriage of justice waiting to happen unless we can intervene effectively.
The fears for Balwant Singh Rajoana and Professor Bhullar prompted the launch of the Kesri Lehar campaign last year. Our fears were compounded when on 21 November India ended its moratorium on the death penalty and executed Ajmal Kasab. In December the United Nations voted for the fourth time for a resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions; 111 countries voted for the moratorium, but India voted against. That is another clear indication of its intent at that time to return to the implementation of the death penalty.
A further execution by hanging took place on 9 February this year. There is a real risk therefore that, with more than 40 people now on death row in India, with 100 more sentenced to death each year, many more executions are likely to follow unless action is taken.
The hon. Gentleman just mentioned the UN vote. The Prime Minister has just come back from India and the UK Government and Governments around the world have high expectations of the future for India. What message does the hon. Gentleman think it sends to the rest of the world that India voted against the moratorium at the UN?
The message was clearly interpreted by our communities, our constituents and the Kesri Lehar campaigners as showing that India is now intent on the restoration of the death penalty with its full force. That is our fear. The executions that have taken place have confirmed those fears.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate, which concerns many of our constituents throughout the country. Was not the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) also making the point that this campaign is important because India’s own standing in the world will be severely jeopardised if it proceeds in this way, and that it is in India’s own interests that the Indian Government change course?
I could not concur more strongly. I shall discuss that point later in my speech.
There is also concern that India is expanding the scope of the death penalty: new laws passed in 2011 provide for the death penalty for those who are convicted of terrorist attacks on oil and gas pipelines that result in death and, in Gujarat state, for those who are found guilty of making and selling illicit liquor.
The list of crimes that attract the death penalty in India now also includes honour killing and, more recently, rape that leads to death, but campaigners against violence against women in India have not been impressed by those additions, because they do not provide the protection that vulnerable women need but are a reaction by the Government to the horrific violence meted out to a young woman on a bus in Delhi recently.
That is the specific point I was about to make. We all abhor and condemn that appalling crime, but it should not be used as an excuse to implement the death penalty.
The manner in which the Indian authorities have dealt with executions has also raised concern across the human rights community. The two recent executions were announced to the public after being carried out, which violates all international standards on the use of the death penalty and makes timely interventions and final appeals before execution almost impossible.
Amnesty International points out that the use of the death penalty in India is “riddled with systemic flaws”. According to the briefing Amnesty International provided to Members for this debate, of particular concern under anti-terror legislation is the broad definition of terrorist acts for which the death penalty can be imposed. In addition, there are: insufficient safeguards on arrest; provisions that allow confessions made to the police to be admissible as evidence; obstacles to confidential communication with counsel; insufficient independence of special courts from Executive power; insufficient safeguards for the presumption of innocence; provisions for discretionary closed trials; sweeping provisions to keep secret the identity of witnesses; and limits on the right to review by a higher tribunal.
In its briefing, Amnesty succinctly sums up why we abhor the death penalty and urges India to join those nations that have rejected its use, stating eloquently that the death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. It violates the right to life as enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights. It is arbitrary, discriminatory and can be inflicted upon the innocent. I would add that all the international evidence demonstrates that it is also ineffective as a deterrent to crime and can often result in terrible, irreversible miscarriages of justice. For all those reasons and as a friend of India—someone who has close family ties and community links with India—I urge the Indian Government to join now that community of nations that have renounced the use of the death penalty and have abolished it once and for all.
I hope today that we can speak with one voice on this issue. By doing so, we may be able to impress better on India the need for change. So many MPs have supported the campaign not only because of their own personal conviction, but because they are reflecting the views put to them by many of their constituents. Somebody from the media argued that the reason so many MPs support the debate is they have Punjabi and Sikh constituents. Well, that is undoubtedly true. MPs are simply doing their job in representing their constituents’ views—that is what we are elected to do. It is also worth understanding why so many Punjabis and Sikhs have made representations to us. First, there is of course a real fear on their part that a number of their compatriots could be executed, and on humanitarian grounds they wish to prevent that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, and on doing so at the right time. As he said, the reason all of us here support this cause is not that we are anti-India. We must kill the myth that we are anti-India or that we are interfering in India’s internal affairs. We are taking a matter of principle and fighting for the rights of the people living in India and abroad.
My hon. Friend talked about Members representing their Punjabi constituents. I have a petition with over 1,200 names on my desk, and what is significant about it is not only the number of Punjabi names, but the number of names of English origin, which I think reflects how the whole community in this country regards this policy in India. Does he agree that, if pursued, it will be damaging within not only the Indian diaspora in this country, but the indigenous and long-standing white community?
I fully concur. I think that it will definitely be seen as a setback for us all.
Secondly, there is understandable concern among the Punjabi community because of the abiding sense of injustice within the community about the historic human rights abuses endured in the 1980s and 1990s, for which there has been no proper redress, and the ongoing human rights abuses experienced in recent times, such as physical abuse by the police, evidence of torture in cells and deaths in custody. That has also been experienced, as I have said, by the Dalit community and others.
Thirdly, people should also understand that the Sikh and Punjabi culture abhors the death penalty and human rights abuses. When the Sikh nation was established and the Darbar Sahib, or golden temple, was founded, the Sikh religion instilled in Punjabi culture a profound respect for life. Sikhs are always portrayed as warriors, but they were only warriors to defend their religion. During the period when there was an independent Punjabi nation, the death penalty did not feature in the law or governmental system and no one was put to death. That tradition of abhorrence of the death penalty and respect for life is reflected now in the Kesri Lehar petition calling for the abolition of the death penalty.
What can we do to bring about reform? We must first recognise that the historical relationship between India and Britain means that the UK Government are uniquely placed to urge the Indian Government to end the death penalty. Therefore, I call upon the UK Government to use every forum and every mechanism of communication established with India, formal and informal, to press the Indian Government to halt the executions now and sign up to the UN convention opposing the death penalty.
I wrote to the Prime Minister before his recent visit to India to urge him to raise the issue with the Indian Government, and I hope that today the Minister can report back on that and on the continuing pressure that successive Governments of different parties have put on the Indian Government. To add weight to the British Government’s representations, I urge them to raise the issue again with our European partners and to seek a joint representation from Europe on the subject. I urge the British Government, working with other Governments, to raise this call within the United Nations. With the UN Commission on Human Rights meeting imminently, this is an ideal time to put this back on the UN agenda.
My final words are addressed to the Indian Government. I said in the debate last July that India is the largest democracy in the world, yet it now stands alone in the developing world by still supporting the death penalty. Since then, unfortunately, it has stepped backwards and recommenced implementing the death penalty. I appeal to India, the country of so many religions and value systems that value life, the country of Gandhi and non-violence, the country that now seeks to be a world leader, and to our Indian brothers and sisters in government there to embrace humanity by ending the state killing once and for all.
As hon. Members can see, 10 Members wish to take part, plus the Front Benchers. We will move on to the next business no later than half-past 2, so I ask for some self-restraint on time, and if that is not forthcoming a time limit will be imposed.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on this very timely debate.
I would like to start by paying tribute to the Sikh community in Hadley in my own constituency. I have regular interaction with not only ordinary members, as it were, of the Sikh community but its senior leadership. I find that interaction and dialogue very helpful, not least in being able to rise today to support this campaign.
As we head towards the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and other important multilateral and bilateral meetings where India sits at the table, it is timely that it should be reminded that while it is the world’s largest democracy and a growing economy that is seeing expansion in many areas, not least its military, the maturity of a democracy is judged not on how big the army, the economy or the electorate are, but on how that democracy treats its minorities. India certainly has an issue—if not in reality, in perception—about how it treats its minorities, not least Sikhs, and, indeed, other religious faiths, including the Christian Church. While the federal Government may express their concerns and underscore their commitment to religious freedom and religious freedom of speech, it is important that the states themselves do not ascribe powers to themselves that inhibit and restrict those freedoms.
I have no hesitation in supporting this campaign. I declare an interest in that I am the elected chairman of Parliamentarians for Global Action. One of the purposes of that group—I encourage all Members across the House to join if they are not a member—is to see the ratification of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. I was recently in Rome with other parliamentarians and representatives of other international bodies, not least the International Criminal Court itself in The Hague, to discuss this issue.
It is important that India recognises that while it has medium-term United Nations ambitions for a bigger seat at the big table, it needs to ensure that it abides by the UN convention against torture and other cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment or punishment. It would be a big mistake for India to think that it can continue, perhaps with more gusto, to execute prisoners without the international community ensuring that the spotlight is put on to it. When so many positive things are happening in that country—that democracy—it would be unfortunate that there should be this unhelpful and retrograde distraction for it.
I will keep my remarks very brief, Mr Deputy Speaker, in order to allow colleagues to speak. I conclude by saying that India is a close friend of the United Kingdom, and friends can be candid. As a candid friend of India, I think that, across parties, we are saying to that wonderful, beautiful and proud country that it is not in its own interests to bring back the death penalty in great numbers. There is a debate to be had about the speed with which the federal Government may move towards outlawing execution. It cannot be done overnight; it has to be done in consultation with other states and must clearly have cross-party support. That will not be an easy thing, but things worth fighting for are not always necessarily easy.
I hope that the message sent out from the House today is that this Parliament is a close friend of the Indian Parliament. I hope that our parliamentary colleagues in India will ensure that the death penalty does cease. I pay credit to the Sikh community of this country and in my own constituency.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate on the Kesri Lehar campaign to abolish the death penalty in India, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) has mentioned the warm relationship between the UK and India, which has been a sovereign independent state for 65 years. Let us be clear from the beginning that no other Government can tell the Indian Government or Parliament what to do. It is a sovereign state with its own laws, elected Parliament and judicial system. The modern relationship between the United Kingdom and India is one of equals and of mutual respect. There is a great deal of interaction on trade, education and culture, and it is in that spirit of friendship and mutual respect that this debate is being held.
Many thousands of my constituents originate from the Punjab—and from the city of Jalandhar in particular—where either they or their parents or grandparents were born. I have had the pleasure and honour of visiting India three times since being elected to this House in 2005. I have visited Jalandhar, where so many of my constituents have family roots. I helped to organise an education partnership between schools in Wolverhampton and in the Punjab. I worked with the Punjabi Wolves football supporters club to foster a friendship agreement between Wolves and JCT football club of Punjab. I have met many people in India from non-governmental organisations and from the Union Government and state governments, and have been greeted everywhere with warmth and friendship. I was honoured to be able to pay a pilgrimage to Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple at Amritsar and spiritual home of the Sikh community throughout the world. That is an experience that I will never forget.
Relations between our two countries are good, but we are having this debate because of the grave concerns of the large population of those of Indian origin in the UK, many thousands of whom, as I have said, I have the honour of representing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington has said, the Kesri Lehar petition has been signed by tens of thousands of people throughout the UK. Some of the signatures were presented to No. 10 Downing street in December and I was pleased to be able to speak at that day’s lobby to express my support for the campaign to abolish the death penalty in India.
The campaign has arisen from the grave concerns of the thousands of people who have signed the petition, and those of the UK’s Indian population, particularly the Sikh community, about a number of issues in India. They are concerned about the treatment of some members of the Sikh community in India and, as my hon. Friend has said, about a lack of accountability and the lack of an investigation that holds widespread confidence into the events of 1984, when so many Sikhs were killed. They are also concerned about the death sentences passed on Sikhs. It is those issues that the Kesri Lehar campaign seeks to draw our attention to.
The Sikh community in this country is a successful community. It plays a very positive role in our national life: it works hard, respects faith and family, and contributes a great deal to the UK. I am honoured to represent many thousands of Sikhs. As my hon. Friend said, it is within the rights of our constituents and within our rights to take up issues that are of concern to them. The Sikh communities in Wolverhampton and many other parts of the country are very concerned about this issue.
Attention has been drawn to the cases of Professor Singh Bhullar and Balwant Singh Rajoana, which were outlined by my hon. Friend. Let me be clear that I do not seek to be the judge and jury in those cases or in any others; it is for the courts to determine guilt or innocence. However, I believe that there are certain principles that it is important to establish and that we can speak up for.
The first principle is that justice should be carried out in a fair and transparent way. When facts are disputed, there should be proper investigations with results that can be trusted. Too often, that is not the case. Many of my constituents do not feel that that has happened in the cases that have been raised or over the wider events of 1984. They do not believe that the various commissions that have been launched have got to the truth. The pain of the events of 30 years ago is still very real and very raw for the Sikh community in the UK.
Secondly, people should be accountable and responsible for their actions, no matter what positions of influence or power they hold in society. Thirdly, I believe that this country was right to cease the use of the death penalty many years ago and that we should seek to end its use in other countries. We should have a fundamental concern about the death penalty not only in India, but wherever it is used around the world. Amnesty International reports on its website that in 2011, some 20 states used the death penalty. That is down from about 30 states a decade before. There is progress in that a declining number of states are using the death penalty, but it is still being used too often in too many states.
India’s Supreme Court said in 1980 that the death penalty should be used only in the
“rarest of the rare cases”.
Despite that, the death sentence has been passed regularly by courts since that time. In the past decade, about 130 death sentences a year have been passed. Therefore, the campaign goes on.
I respect fully India’s sovereignty. As a friend of India, I hope that it will think again about the use of the death penalty and join the ranks of the nations that have abolished it. I hope that that happens and that it is a decision freely taken by India. If it takes that decision, it will be welcomed throughout the world.
I congratulate the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) on securing this debate. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), and I look forward to hearing the contributions of other hon. Members from both sides of the House.
Let me state clearly from the outset that the Government strongly support the worldwide abolition of the death penalty. We believe that the death penalty undermines human dignity, that there is no conclusive evidence of its deterrent value, and that any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is both irreversible and irreparable.
It is for those reasons that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office supports projects throughout the world that campaign against the death penalty. We continue to work actively towards global abolition, in line with our strategy for the abolition of the death penalty, by raising the issue bilaterally and through the EU and the UN. I believe we are closer to achieving that goal than we have ever been. In its most recent report, Amnesty International reported that 70% of the world’s countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. As we have heard, only 21 countries carried out executions in 2011. That is the second lowest number on record, and a third less than a decade ago.
In line with that trend, the biennial UN resolution against the death penalty has attracted increasing support each year since the first resolution in 2007. In December last year it received 111 votes in favour out of 186, which was a record. The United Kingdom played an important part in that through lobbying by diplomatic missions and ministerial contacts, and that should be applauded.
The death penalty in India is a complex issue and continues to be the subject of much debate across Indian society. India has a strong democratic framework that guarantees human rights within its constitution, as well as a functioning and independent judiciary. It was disappointing, however, that India’s de facto moratorium on the death penalty, which had existed for more than eight years, ended with the hangings of Mohammed Ajmal Kasab and Mohammad Afzal Guru last November and February this year respectively. Kasab and Guru were convicted of very serious crimes—involvement in the Mumbai attacks in 2008, and the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament—and it is important to remember the impact that such acts of terrorism have on the people of India.
During my recent visit to India I visited the Taj hotel in Mumbai, one of the targets of the 2008 attacks where at least 31 people were killed. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister visited the Taj memorial and the police memorials commemorating the victims of the Mumbai attacks, and the issue was brought home to me when, exactly a week ago when I was still in India, 14 people were killed in a bomb attack in Hyderabad. Having just spent three days with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and seen the optimism and opportunities across India, such attacks are a shocking reminder of the terrorist threat that we face. That is why we are working more closely than ever with our colleagues in the Indian Government to combat that shared threat from wherever it emanates.
I agree with the Minister’s remarks about the impact of terrorism in India and elsewhere. He referred to his visit to India with the Prime Minister but did he, the Prime Minister, or anybody else from the Government take the opportunity to discuss the death penalty during that visit?
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, all will soon be revealed.
It remains the British Government’s long-standing policy to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle, and I hope the Indian Government will re-establish a moratorium on executions in line with the global trend towards the abolition of capital punishment. When I was in Delhi last week, I reiterated the British Government’s position on the death penalty to India’s Foreign Secretary, Ranjan Mathai, the permanent under-secretary equivalent at the Ministry of External Affairs. We will also raise our concerns about the death penalty at the EU-India human rights dialogue, which we hope will take place soon.
The Minister is being very generous with his time. May I press him a little on the consequences of this issue for the UK? For example, suppose a terrorism suspect from India is in the UK. If India moves forward with executions, what will be the UK Government’s position on extradition to India?
I am going to make some progress. The motion points out that the Indian Government have not ratified the United Nations convention against torture. Central to the British Government’s torture prevention policy is encouragement to countries such as India to sign, ratify and effectively implement that convention and its optional protocol. Not only does the convention define what is meant by an act of torture, it obliges countries to take measures to prevent such acts. Such measures include legislating to make torture a criminal offence, educating officials on the prohibition of torture, conducting prompt and impartial investigations where there are reasonable grounds to believe that torture has taken place, and providing redress and compensation to victims.
The optional protocol provides an important additional layer of monitoring and reporting to prevent torture from happening in any place of detention by allowing visits from national and international monitoring organisations. For those reasons, we continue to call on the Indian Government to expedite the ratification of the United Nations convention against torture and its optional protocol, and adopt robust domestic legislation to that effect. The United Kingdom made a specific recommendation on that issue during India’s universal periodic review in May last year. The EU delegation in Delhi has also hosted a number of events on the importance of ratifying the convention.
While not directly related to the abolition of the death penalty, right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that India is not a state party to the Rome statute to the International Criminal Court. India has expressed its reservations and said that it does not see ratification of the ICC as a priority. That is a strongly held view. The British Government are a strong supporter of the ICC and we actively promote universal ratification. We believe it is in all our interests to support the ICC, which can help prevent devastating and irreparable damage caused by the most serious crimes in the international community, and extend the protection it offers to citizens and state parties.
Concerns have been raised about the treatment of the Sikh community in India, and let me say how proud and privileged I felt to visit Amritsar and the golden temple with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last week. I understand that it was the first time a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has visited the golden temple, and spending time in the garden of remembrance at Jallianwala Bagh was a particularly moving experience for us all.
During my visit I heard about the prominent role and contribution of the Sikh community in India. The head of the Indian planning department is Sikh, and Sikhs are prominent in the security forces. Indeed, the Indian Prime Minister is a Sikh. Members across the House need no reminding of the respected and thriving Sikh community in the United Kingdom that has such a long and proud history. It is also a community that will be following today’s debate with close interest.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), along with other colleagues who have secured this debate. My hon. Friend and I have campaigned over the decades for the rights of the Sikh community, sometimes to the slight astonishment of some of our colleagues that we can work so well together. I was pleased to be with my hon. Friend in December when we presented a petition at Downing street, along with our hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), and for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), representatives from the community and Amnesty International, which, over the years has played an honourable and prominent role in several campaigns in support of human rights in India, particularly for the Sikh community.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington in congratulating Kesri Lehar—wave for justice—on the success of the petition that has attracted considerable support. As my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) pointed out, such support is found not only among the Sikh community but much more widely, and the petition has secured considerable publicity for this worthy cause. Many of those from the community are in Westminster today to observe the debate and show their support for the campaign.
Securing 100,000 names on a petition requires a huge amount of work and a lot of organisation, and our appreciation of that effort by Kesri Lehar should be properly recorded. My constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington have substantial Sikh populations—many are second, third or even fourth generation. We should also record that, in the past year, we have lost two prominent and respected members of that community from Parliament: Marsha Singh, the MP for Bradford West, and my great friend Tarsem King—Lord King of West Bromwich—who was previously leader of my council, Sandwell, which, incidentally, is twinned with Amritsar. I pay tribute to both of them.
Within the Sikh community there is an overwhelming concern about repression in the Punjab and the rights of those living there. That feeling was particularly strong in the difficult years of the emergency following the storming of the golden temple in Operation Blue Star and the murder of Indira Ghandi. There were a host of atrocities in the Punjab at that time, widespread abuse of human rights, much loss of life, and rape and torture. Many disappeared, with their families having no idea as to their fate. The families feel that they can never have closure until they know what happened to their loved ones. We know from the history of Ireland how devastating that can be.
In May last year there was a significant increase in tension and great fear in the population in the Punjab when it was believed that Professor Bhullar and Balwant Singh Rajoana would be executed and the authorities instituted a major crackdown. The concern at the fear expressed in the Punjab manifested itself here most visibly in the sea of orange flags in the midlands showing solidarity with their fellow Sikhs. Lord King, a moderate figure who was by no means hostile to India, visited family in the Punjab at that time. I remember him describing graphically the concerns and fears of those in his community there.
More recently, that concern has resurfaced with the case of Balwant Singh and the possibility of his being hanged, especially following the regrettable end of the informal moratorium and the recent executions of Mohammad Afzal Guru and Ajmal Kasab. The Minister will know of the concern in the Kashmiri community about whether they received adequate representation at their trials.
As a former Minister with responsibility for the armed forces, aviation and Northern Ireland, let me be clear that the Opposition oppose terrorism. India and other countries on the Indian sub-continent have suffered grievously from terrorism—the Minister rightly drew attention to the atrocities in Mumbai—but executing Balwant Singh, Professor Bhullar and others would not end terrorism, but instead damage the image of India, which has been making huge progress on being considered rightly as a modern progressive state with a major role in the world.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington has rightly identified the concerns of the German courts at the decision to deport Professor Bhullar. Will the Minister in this instance expand on his reply to the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller)? My understanding is that the long-standing and consistent policy of the British Government under all parties is that we will not deport someone to another country where there is a risk of them being executed. I am offering the Minister the opportunity to clarify that for the hon. Gentleman and the House.
Is it not a fact that, when countries have the death penalty—for example, the United States—the British Government must seek an assurance that it would not apply? Otherwise, the courts in this country will never allow anybody to be extradited to countries when there is a risk of the death penalty. The Home Office has had problems over many years in getting people out of this country because of the bad human rights records of many countries around the world.
I thank my hon. Friend, the previous Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, for that clarification. That is exactly my understanding of the position, and it is useful that he has made it clear.
The Minister said that he raised his concerns with senior officials during his recent visit to India. However, will he clarify the concerns expressed to the Indian authorities by others on that visit and by the Foreign Office elsewhere? Were those concerns raised by the Prime Minister during his visit to India, which included a visit to Amritsar?
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) rightly stated, the number of countries using the death penalty has gone down. As the Minister said, 70% of countries have either formally or in effect renounced the death penalty. The commitment of countries around the world was shown clearly by the vote in the UN on a moratorium. It would be a significant step for India, as a major player on the international scene and the world’s largest democracy, not just to reinstate the moratorium formally, which would be welcome, but to abolish the death penalty. India is poised to play a major role in world affairs in the coming decades and such a move would considerably enhance its authority.
I do not have the polling information immediately to hand. It is clear from the debates that took place in this country that it took us a long while to come to that decision, but no Government or party have sought to turn the clock back. The death penalty in its finality never allows for the prospect of error, and confessions can be obtained under duress or torture—that has happened in this country. People who have been released because they had been unjustly convicted would, in previous times, have been executed. That goes through to public opinion. Quite apart from other aspects of the death penalty, its finality and the inability to remedy injustices is the reason why two thirds of countries have taken the correct decision not to use it.
As has been stressed, a continuing theme of British policy under this and previous Governments has been not only to abolish the death penalty in the UK, but to campaign against it in all countries, including in the US, our great ally. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) was right that, despite our strong relationship with the US and our huge respect for its legal system, we demand absolute assurances that the federal authorities will guarantee that the death penalty will not be applied even for offences that could attract it.
I congratulate Ministers on not only the general campaign that they have been running, but their representations on the specific cases of Balwant Singh and Professor Bhullar, and I thank the Minister for his recent letter on this, which makes clear the actions they have been taking, not just last year but more recently.
While the death penalty is hugely important and has obviously played a significant part in this debate, it is not the only issue of concern, either generally in the community or for the petitioners. I am pleased that the UK is active in encouraging the improvement of the treatment of minority communities in India. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington has been campaigning for a long time on this issue. We understand that the British High Commission has discussed minority rights issues with the Indian National Commission for Minorities, and I hope that we are making some progress on that.
I am pleased also that the Minister made a strong case for India, along with other countries, to sign and ratify the Rome treaty setting up the International Criminal Court, which is another laudable aim of this petition. I hope that the Government will have some success in persuading those countries along that path. We also welcome previous assurances from Foreign Office Ministers that these issues have been raised in the annual India-EU human rights dialogue—the Minister mentioned that this work was undertaken not only directly, but through the EU. I hope that the Minister will be able to report progress in the future on the discussions with the Indian authorities; let us know when the next meeting for those discussions will take place; tell us what progress we are making on India’s security legislation and the reports of a significant number of cases of torture by police and security authorities; and report on what progress has been made, not only in ratifying the convention against torture, but adopting robust domestic legislation to that effect.
I shall conclude in order to allow other hon. Members to cover issues that will have been raised very strongly by their constituents. I congratulate Kesri Lehar on its campaign, which has united the community whatever people’s broader views, and gained wide public awareness of the issues that we are discussing today. I also reaffirm the united determination of this Parliament to secure justice for the Sikh community of the Punjab.
I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing this debate. I also congratulate the signatories to the Kesri Lehar petition which has been extremely influential in securing the debate.
Many hon. Members have talked about the importance of this issue to their constituents of Punjabi origin, and that is certainly true for my home town of Bedford and for Kempston, but this issue affects the whole community in the United Kingdom. We should all embrace it as a matter of importance. I draw Members’ memories back to the part of the Olympic opening ceremony that celebrated all that is great about our open, multicultural society, when Tim Berners-Lee said, “This is for everyone”, and talked about the interconnectedness of modern society. One of the things that makes our country unique and so special is that we can draw on people’s experiences from their origins around the world, and it is right that this Parliament, the mother of Parliaments, should debate this issue today.
We debate the issue in a spirit of humility, because we are talking about the legislation and rules of another sovereign country, which is—as the hon. Gentleman said in his opening speech—the world’s largest democracy. We need to be extremely respectful and humble in the representations that we make here today, but we also need to carry forward determination and conviction from our own experiences of the death penalty in the UK, and the ways in which politicians over the ages here worked, on principle and for practical reasons, to seek the abolition of the death penalty. In that there is a message for modern Indian politicians.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about being respectful of the sovereignty of other nations, but we can also point out that, according to Professor Steven Pinker, the professor of cognitive psychology at Harvard university, western Europe is now the safest place to live in history in terms of person-on-person violence and even war and interstate violence. That is in a society with the complete absence of the death penalty. It is worth pointing that out to other places in the world to encourage them to change, rather than demanding that they change.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point perhaps more eloquently than I could. This is a matter not just of principle for many hon. Members, but a matter of practical impact. The existence of the death penalty can exacerbate situations and stimulate other criminal activity as a response.
I wish to make a couple of points that perhaps go a bit further than the petition in making representations to our friends in India. Although a moratorium is desirable, the intent should really be outright abolition, because history teaches us that moratoriums are not always an effective long-term solution. As has already been mentioned, India has had a moratorium, and it has ended—the consequences of that remain to be seen. We have also had the experience of the United States, where the Supreme Court issued what was essentially a moratorium. That went away, and before George W. Bush became President he was one of the most excited and active executioners of people under the US criminal code when he was governor of Texas. There are pressures on politicians and the judiciary when there is still the option of ending the moratorium. Modern societies need to strive to achieve abolition if we are to accomplish both the in-principle benefits and the practical benefits of the elimination of the death penalty.
My hon. Friend obviously speaks with great experience from before he became a Member of Parliament in dealing in highly conflicting situations with people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds in Europe. Those differences can lead to extremism and the actions of governing authorities can create martyrdom situations that exacerbate divisions. Any healing democracy always wishes to heal the divisions within society. The death penalty is not a friend of that aim; it is an opponent. As we can see from the petition, there are real concerns that the existence of the death penalty in India will exacerbate the tensions within Indian society rather than achieving a better long-term solution.
The human aspect for those under threat of the death penalty must also be a considerable concern to us. It is inhumane treatment to leave a human being on death row for many years. No one should have to go through the psychological trauma of not knowing if or when their appeal may be heard and whether they may be executed. That is not a mark of a decent society.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned George Bush, and some years ago, when I was a member of the Home Affairs Committee, we visited Huntsville in Texas, where most of the staff were against the death penalty. People had been on death row for 17 or 18 years, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is utterly inhumane.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support for that point. The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) mentioned the recent reaction in India to the issue of rape. If there is still the possibility that the death penalty can be applied, and if its application would have political currency in certain situations or be popular at a particular moment, politicians will use that as a reason to bring it back. It may be completely ineffective, or out of step with what is needed at the time, but it is always alluring to politicians who believe that the death penalty has popular support to seize on it as a remedy. A moratorium always leaves that possibility: abolition removes it.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that appalling episode occurred while the death penalty was in existence, and, indeed, while all indications pointed to its greater implementation? Is that not a demonstration of the ineffectiveness of the death penalty to deal with such incidents, and a reflection of a wider problem that has to be dealt with in a more sophisticated way than the crude implementation of this policy?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to what has already been said about the situation in India with regard to rape. The broader point is that there are lessons for politicians of all countries about the possible use of the death penalty in political discourse. The hard-learned lessons in this country are that we end up with a more effective and fairer criminal justice system if we abolish the death penalty. There is no stopping point along the way to abolition that will ultimately provide the security of those two outcomes: there has to be outright abolition.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is being very kind. To back up his argument from history, again from Steven Pinker, we can draw on the example of England. Some 800 years ago, the death penalty was commonplace and there was a hangman’s hill in every village throughout the British Isles. An Englishman was 50 times more likely to be killed by a fellow Englishman in a society that had the death penalty than they are in the modern day when there is no death penalty.
That is an interesting statistic, which I am sure also pertains to Scotland.
Another point that I humbly submit for our friends in India to consider is that this issue shines a light on the general operation of the judicial system in India. Those who study the British empire—I have read only a few books on it—learn that the English judicial system is one of the gifts we gave to the world. I am sure we talk that up a lot, but there is a lot of truth in the fact that many people around the world see the British judicial system as a reliable and trusted friend when they are in conflict situations. There are issues relating to the Indian judicial system that exacerbate concerns about the existence of the death penalty. I have mentioned the implications for the mental health and well-being of people on death row. With the case load in Indian courts so backed up, what is it that says that a certain case should move forward or not? How are those decisions made? What is the due process in a system that finds itself not fully capable of dealing with its work load?
Constituents of mine who have had legal disputes in India have always made the point that they have had to go back to India to deal with them. Without putting too fine a point on it, sometimes that is because of issues to do with money in the criminal justice system. I have no idea whether that is true and certainly, of course, none of my constituents has been involved in any of that, but it is interesting that there is that question. Our friends in India, being part of a great hope for the world, need to address those issues. The petition shines a light on how the world will look on the decisions made regarding the death penalty in India as a result of those issues.
The Minister kindly responded to the question of what India moving forward with the death penalty would mean for UK relations in certain circumstances. He was right to talk about considering cases on an individual basis. However, if India became a more active proponent of the death penalty, that would have significant implications for how the UK would look at extraditing people to India. We do not want the death penalty to affect our relationship when there is so much that is positive that we want to talk about, and we do not want to have ongoing disputes on this issue. I therefore hope that the British Government would look very dimly on extraditing any person to India that might result in their being subject to the death penalty, and seek assurances that it would not be applied in any such cases.
I again thank the signatories to the petition. This issue may be of particular concern to our Sikh community, but it is a concern for all of us in this open United Kingdom and for all of us in Parliament. May we together send the message to our colleagues who sit in the Indian Parliament that on the issue of the death penalty it is often the politicians who have to lead public opinion, not the other way around? They should have the courage to halt executions immediately, and to step forward not just to reinstate a moratorium but to effect outright abolition.
I was pleased to support my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) in his application to the Backbench Business Committee for this debate. As hon. Members have said, it is very important that we in this Chamber make clear our views on the death penalty still being in use in India and around the world. We should stand up and show that we totally disapprove of that, and say that all nations should abolish the death penalty.
It is tragic that India, the largest democracy in the world, still uses the death penalty. The worst offenders are China, which is not a democracy, and Iran, which executes more people per head of population, including children, than any other nation. That is not a democracy, either. It is sad to me, and I am sure to many other hon. Members, that the United States is the leading democracy that still uses the death penalty. Our purpose today is to represent the views of the many Sikh and Punjabi citizens in our constituencies, as well as those who are not of Sikh or Indian origin, to show that we want to see India, that great nation and friend of the United Kingdom, abolish the death penalty for good. Many Members have given examples of why that should happen.
I pay tribute to those who started the Kesri Lehar—wave for justice—petition, which many hon. Members and I presented at No. 10 Downing street just before Christmas. In a way, that was the start of the process that led us to today’s debate, and we have had some superb contributions so far.
I am sure that many hon. Members recall Danny Boyle’s award-winning 2008 movie, “Slumdog Millionaire”. The opening scene shows a poor young man being tortured in a police station—an unfortunate but, according to some evidence, accurate image of what perhaps occurs in India. Many Members have already said that the death penalty is an inhuman and degrading punishment. It is irreversible and can be inflicted on the innocent. As many examples provided by hon. Members have shown, it has never deterred crime more effectively than other punishments. It should therefore be abolished in India, as it should be in all other countries. India should honour articles 3 and 5 of the universal declaration of human rights: the right to life and not to be tortured or subject to any cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said in his opening speech.
Let us look at the background to India’s use of the death penalty. On independence in 1947, India retained the 1861 penal code, which provided the death penalty for murder. It has been estimated that between 3,000 and 4,000 executions occurred in India between 1950 and 1980. It is more difficult to understand the impact of the death penalty since the 1980s. The international community has moved further towards abolishing the death penalty. On 19 November 2012, 110 countries approved a UN General Assembly draft resolution calling for a moratorium on all executions. India was part of a tiny minority that voted to retain capital punishment, arguing for it to be used sparingly and in cases of particularly heinous crimes. On 21 November 2012, India ended its unofficial eight-year moratorium on executions when it hanged Ajmal Kasab and followed that up on 9 February 2013 by hanging Afzal Guru. Both executions occurred in secrecy, with the families being informed only after they had taken place—that would shock anybody who was not already shocked by the use of the death penalty.
Pranab Mukherjee, India’s President, has now ordered the death penalty for seven convicts in the past seven months, which is more than any other Indian President in the past 15 years. India is currently reporting one death penalty sentence every third day, according to The Times of India this month. That all happened before the recent knee-jerk reaction to the change in the law to extend the death penalty following the horrific rape and murder in Delhi on 16 December 2012, which my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) mentioned. Human rights activists in India are worried that this precedent could affect the 500 or so people now on death row in India, including political prisoners such as Professor Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar and Balwant Singh Rajoana. As of 11 February 2013, 476 convicts were on death row in India.
I wish to discuss the case of Professor Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar a bit more. Although many hon. Members have mentioned him specifically, I know from my constituents that his case is a real cause célèbre; he has been tortured and treated inhumanely in prison, all for bringing to the public’s attention his concern about the disappearance of 42 of his university students. Professor Bhullar was a lecturer at Guru Nanak Dev engineering college in Ludhiana, but he felt he had to flee India for a safer place in 1994, following threats to his life and harassment from the police for bringing this issue to the attention of the authorities and the media. As we have heard, he went to Germany, arriving on 18 December 1994. However, he was detained because the German authorities were not convinced of his claim, mainly because he had false papers on him, and he was deported, under escort, from Germany on 17 January 1995 and handed over to the Indian police at Indira Gandhi airport, New Delhi, by Lufthansa staff.
The Indian authorities gave specific assurances to the German authorities that Professor Bhullar had nothing to fear if he was returned to India and that he would not be tortured. However, as we know, he was arrested on his arrival and has now been in prison for more than 18 years, the past eight of them in solitary confinement, dealing with the daily threat of hanging. The professor’s mental health has deteriorated over the past two years and has now reached a life-threatening state. By deporting someone to a death penalty-prone country, Germany violated the European convention on human rights and remains morally obliged to do all it can now to seek the professor’s immediate release. Professor Bhullar was examined by a police-assigned medical doctor recently. Although the professor is a highly educated man, his medical examination document is co-signed by him with a thumbprint.
We know that the case against Professor Bhullar is highly dubious; it is based on information that has not been properly corroborated, with the prosecution having offered no corroboration at all. None of its 133 witnesses identified Professor Bhullar. Many witnesses actually claimed he was not the man they had seen. One prosecution witness, a rickshaw worker in Delhi, informed the court that he had no knowledge of the case but had been threatened and forced by the police to provide a false statement. Almost every legal system in the world is based on the idea of proof beyond reasonable doubt and respects procedures in order to obtain safe evidence. The Supreme Court of India seems to have departed from those things in the most important of all cases—that involving the death penalty—thus setting an unfortunate new precedent for Indian law.
I am aware that we are short of time today, and I do not want to take up too much more of the House’s time, but I am concerned that there is corruption in the Indian legal system. According to Transparency International, judicial corruption is attributable to factors in India such as
“delays in the disposal of cases, shortage of judges and complex procedures, all of which are exacerbated by a preponderance of new laws”.
However, no case of judicial corruption has ever been put on trial in India; under the Indian system, it is almost impossible to charge or impeach a judge. Another factor at work in India is the low ratio of judges per million of the population; there are as few as 12 or 13 judges per 1 million of population in India, as against figures of 107 in the United States—no surprise there—75 in Canada and 51 in the United Kingdom. The high work load in India encourages delays and adjournments on frivolous grounds. The judicial system, including judges and lawyers, has developed a vested interest in delays, as well as corruption; it promotes a collusive relationship between the different players.
I have been privileged in the past two and a half years—nearly three now—to chair the all-party group on British Sikhs. In that role, I have tried to bring to this House and to my fellow Members of Parliament some of the issues that Sikhs throughout the UK raise with me and with other MPs. These Sikhs are British citizens who form an integral part of so many constituencies and make such a huge contribution to the daily life in our constituencies. I am happy to say that in my constituency I have brought the Sikh community together with the big Jewish community that I represent, because they have so many values in common. Among those values, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington has said, is that of respect for life which precludes violence of one person against another. When one goes to a gurdwara, as many of us have done, one feels that sense of respect for one another, and the respect of men for women and of women for men; it is a very welcoming and friendly environment.
I echo the comments made by the other Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), about visits to the golden temple in Amritsar. I went with my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), the former Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, on one of the Committee’s visits in 2006. Again, I felt that spirituality, sense of warmth and sense of equality as we walked around. So it was really good to see the Prime Minister of our country walking through the golden temple—through that holy place—barefoot, as people have to be, in his suit, as we had to be, and with his head covered. Although, clearly, I am not a Sikh, I was so moved by my visit that I rang one of my close friends in my constituency to tell him that I was standing there at that moment. He said to me, “God bless you for being there.”
So this debate is not about attacking our good friend, India; it is not about saying that India is a terrible place. We want India to be there with us in the group of nations that say that the inhumanity of the death penalty should be abolished. There should not be a moratorium; there should be a complete abolition. We want India to succeed. India is growing in importance in the world. India is our close friend, and many of us have close friends who are of Indian origin and who have family in India. I have visited the place three times now, so I hope that the result of this debate is that our Government will, as the Minister has said, put further pressure on the Indian Government. I hope that Members of Parliament will talk to their colleagues and friends in India, including perhaps those in the Lok Sabha, the Indian Parliament. I hope that we will talk to families we represent and that they will talk to their friends and family in India to change Indian public opinion about this important issue. I hope that India will see the sense of abolishing, once and for all, this inhuman and evil act of execution.
Like everyone else, I wish to thank the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for sponsoring and supporting this debate, which is important not only internationally, but to many people in the UK. I have busily been trying to edit my comments to avoid repeating what previous speakers have said and to save a bit of time, so what I say today will not be the only thing I have to say on this issue; it will be the bits that are left. I may avoid repetition, but there may be a few pauses in my speech as I try to make the best of what I have.
We have had an overwhelming response to the petition, with well over 100,000 signatures nationwide. Some of my constituents have travelled all the way from Bradford for this debate, and I hope they are viewing it in the Chamber. We are going to No. 10 to present the Prime Minister with an additional petition of 2,000 signatures from local people in Bradford and the surrounding area, calling for the abolition of the death penalty in India. Many people in Bradford East feel strongly about this issue, and it is important to highlight the fact that those signatories are from all walks of life. They find the death penalty abhorrent, and the issue speaks to everyone, no matter what community they are from.
There are many long-established arguments for and against the death penalty, some of which have been mentioned today. I do not intend to go through them again. We have all been well briefed for the debate by Amnesty International and other organisations, and the evidence shows that despite the comments by the Indian Supreme Court in 1983, there are nearly 500 people on death row in India today. For the record, it is important to note that we do not condone the actions of people who illegally take or endanger lives, no matter what their cause, but it is also vital to highlight the fact that the death penalty is wrong and should not be part of any judicial process in any part of the world.
A matter that has not been touched on, apart from in a passing reference by the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller), is the difficult question of a nation criticising another nation. We need to be careful not to appear holier than thou, especially when we are criticising other democracies. Yes, we have abolished the death penalty and we can therefore speak with some authority on that matter, but we must be careful none the less, because I believe that such events as the Iraq war reduced our moral authority. It had many tragic consequences, one of which was that it reduced our moral authority in the eyes of the international community. Whether we are talking about arms sales, foreign interventions or prevention of terrorism legislation, we need to be sure that we can speak with authority, and we therefore need to be careful about what we do. I was delighted to see the Prime Minister’s statement about the deeply shameful event in Amritsar in 1919, but we are still waiting for Tony Blair to make an apology for what has happened far more recently.
My key point is that we must be ever vigilant about what we do and how we behave. The message from this debate needs to go out not just as a message from a relatively small group of Back Benchers on a Thursday afternoon; it needs to be a message from the Government. If it is to have any authority, however, we must constantly watch what we are doing, to ensure that we are above reproach ourselves. When I was in the west bank recently, I challenged the forcible removal of Bedouins from the land that they had lived on for hundreds of years, but the question was thrown back at me: “What about how you treat the Travellers at Dale Farm?” We are debating this matter here in the Chamber today, but we are also being listened to by the world, and we must take care not to appear righteous when we have not earned the right to do so.
As a liberal, I believe that it is our intrinsic right and, more importantly, our fundamental duty to speak up for all people, and especially for minorities who do not have suitable champions for their cause and who face persecution, wherever in the world that might occur and no matter what entrenched views or self-interest they might be battling against. The oppressors often have powerful weapons at their disposal to stifle debate. For the whole of my political career, I have fought and campaigned against prejudice and injustice, at a local level in my constituency and internationally, and I welcome the opportunity that this debate provides today. I thank other hon. Members for turning up in such numbers today—there were more here earlier—because it is crucial that this “small-l liberal” issue should be raised.
I have touched on the necessity for India to uphold the basic human rights that are espoused in the United Nations convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. This is an important issue for my constituents, especially those in the Sikh community, who have long borne the brunt of judicial and societal discrimination in parts of India. We are fortunate to have more than 5,000 people from the Sikh community living in Bradford. They make a vital contribution to the social, religious and economic fabric of the local area, and it is appalling that those vibrant and flourishing communities are not treated with the same dignity and respect for human rights in all parts of the world as they are in Bradford.
The number of states that still have execution as part of their judicial process is thankfully now relatively small, but there are still far too many. It is an outdated and barbaric penalty, and although only a handful of states now use it, there are still too many.
Over the past few years, I have been approached by a number of constituents about the cases involving Balwant Singh Rajoana and Professor Bhullar. I know those cases well, and I am sad that those people are still on death row. I must be honest and tell the House, however, that on researching this issue more thoroughly, I was deeply shocked to discover the sheer scale of the human rights abuses that the Indian Government have not acted against, over many years. I am a member of Amnesty International, and I regularly receive the evidence that it produces. It is shocking to learn of the extensive use of forced evictions, the excessive use of force, arbitrary arrest and detention, and the fundamental lack of due process that are still prevalent in India. Amnesty states:
“Impunity for abuses and violations remained pervasive.”
The continuing existence of India’s controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act gives the Indian army arbitrary powers and near-immunity from prosecution. I have been vocal in the past on the subject of Kashmir, and I was aware of the scale of human rights abuses in Indian-occupied Kashmir, but not of their prevalence in wider India, especially against members of the Sikh community.
India is the third largest economy in the world, and will be an indispensible trading partner for Britain and the EU.
Order. For the hon. Gentleman just to walk in and intervene in this way is discourteous to everyone else in the Chamber. I understand that he wants to make an intervention, but he must be in the Chamber for at least five minutes before he does so. I am not making a personal attack on him, but he must show good manners to everyone else.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
India’s growing status in the world, its growing economy and its importance to Britain and the EU are no excuse for not doing anything about this matter. They provide an imperative for ensuring that the crucial link between our two countries can be used as a lever to bring about change in India. When we are seeking to improve our own economy, particularly through exports and international trade, the temptation is there, but there is a danger that we hold back for fear of offending a foreign economic power with which we feel we need to develop closer links. It would be immoral, in my view, if growing trade links were used as an excuse for holding back on deserved criticism.
It is crucial for today’s debate that pressure is placed on the Indian Government— not by a group of Back Benchers or petitioners, but by this Government—to uphold basic human rights as a fundamental policy and procedure. We need to outlaw this terrible death penalty once and for all. It is one of the most inhumane and abhorrent punishments used in today’s world—and it needs to end.
When I listened to my hon. Friend’s speech on television earlier, I noticed him stressing the importance of our role as a Parliament in commenting on what happens in other countries. Does he agree with me, however, that on issues such as the death penalty in India or the rule of law in Kashmir, it is right for all Parliaments to be committed to improving human rights throughout the world?
That is essential. My earlier point was that if we are to make criticisms, particularly of other democracies, we need to be cleaner than clean and we need to ensure that our record is clean in all respects so that we can speak with moral authority on these crucial issues affecting so many parts of the world.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and others on securing this debate. I am proud to speak in it as the Member of Parliament who probably represents more members of the Sikh community than any of my colleagues.
Earlier today, a couple of hours ago, when I complained about Slough’s rail service to London, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), suggested that I had not made similar complaints under the last Government. He was wrong. I have been making this complaint for 15 years. I mention this because I think that his cynical attitude to politics is absolutely the opposite attitude to that of those people who have promoted the Kesri Lehar petition and have encouraged us to debate this issue here in Parliament. They believe that we can make a difference; they believe that Members of Parliament uniting across the parties can play a role in persuading the Indian Government to change their mind.
I know that representatives of the Indian Government will feel tempted to fall back into the lazy assumption—cynically, like the rail Minister—of saying “Oh, this is a former colonial power, so it would say that, wouldn’t it?” From listening to this debate, it is clear that we have been able to demonstrate that what we are saying is not just an expression of a left-over bit of British colonialism, telling India what to do, but an expression of something that every democratically elected member of any Parliament in the world has a responsibility to do—tell other countries not how to run their affairs, but how to uphold basic international human rights standards. That is what we are doing here, and it is great to hear so many powerful and passionate speeches doing precisely that.
As we have heard, the move towards the abolition of the death penalty has become stronger and stronger. Of those countries that still retain it on their statute books, 35 do not in fact use the death penalty. That is what some of us thought India was moving towards. Following the rarest of the rare pronouncements at the beginning of the ’80s and following the moratorium, we thought India would be in that group of countries and would start the journey towards abolition. We thought that until the more recent executions of Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru over the last two years.
We have also heard today about the cases of Balwant Singh Rajoana and Professor Bhullar. Those cases move great passions among people, and there is a great deal of concern about them. The case of Professor Bhullar is particularly concerning because the German authorities did what Britain does, has always done and, I hope, will continue to do, although the Minister was not absolutely clear about it in his remarks. By that, I mean ensuring that if someone faces extradition to a country that retains the death penalty, there is an absolute commitment not to using it in that case.
I hesitate to state again what I said earlier, particularly when the hon. Lady has been a Minister in the Home Office and should be aware of it, but it is absolutely the case that for a requested extradition to a country that uses a death penalty, our policy is to seek assurances that that penalty will not be implemented. As I said, if such assurances are not forthcoming, Ministers have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether extradition should nevertheless take place.
I am sure that the last sentence is absolutely right. In my experience, Ministers have decided not to proceed in every case, and I hope that this Government will continue that tradition of decision. I referred to this matter because Germany decided in that way.
If I may say so to the hon. Lady, this is precisely the point. If we wish to decide on a case-by-case basis, as the Minister rightly said, and if India goes down this current route, it will necessarily complicate our relationship with India. There will be consequences for our relationships with India unless the Indian Parliament looks at this issue very seriously again and makes the changes that Members are asking it to do.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I also wanted to make the point that Germany got that commitment, yet we know that that commitment is at risk of not being fulfilled in this case. That is something I am very concerned about. We must keep pressing on the principled issue, which is that international human rights standards are not things that can be conveniently negotiated, as they are standards that we need to be at the forefront of upholding.
Speaking as someone who has campaigned strongly on issues relating to violence against women and has asked for more effective prosecution of such cases, tougher sentences and so forth, I strongly feel that India’s response to the horrific case in Delhi has been a failure of understanding. The Government have wanted to look tough—traditionally part of the problem with the death penalty is that it makes Governments look tough—but have not brought along people who can make a real difference. I am particularly concerned that under the proposed new law, the present exemption for marital rape, whereby it is not an offence in India, is being retained. I am diverting from the real subject at issue, however, which is the use of the death penalty in India.
As I think everybody has said, every speaker in this debate regards themselves as a friend of India. Speaking as friends of India, we want the country to be able to fulfil its enormous and growing potential in the world. One thing that makes that less possible is the existence of the death penalty. We are concerned not just about it continuing, but about the way in which its deployment helps to divide communities in India, making the country less safe and less stable.
I am worried that the rights of religious, ethnic and caste minorities in India are not sufficiently well protected. The people who sent us the briefings have brought that issue to the debate because of their sense that the death penalty is being used to target dissidents or campaigners for those minorities. People like Professor Bhullar who have exposed some of these cases are being punished, as it were, pour encourager les autres.
It seems to me that we have a responsibility to say to India, “We expect you, as the largest democracy in the world, to promote the standards of democracy and human rights that we expect, and to recognise that if the death penalty is used in this way, there is a risk that you will deepen the divisions between ethnic and religious communities in country. There is a risk that you will make your country less safe and less peaceful for all who live in it.”
I believe that if India were to commit itself to abolition of the death penalty, it would build its capacity to fulfil its potential as a leader in the south for the developing world. Its economy is growing, and I think that if its reputation for respect for democracy and human rights grew at the same pace, it would play a great role in making the world safer. In respecting the rights of its Sikh, Christian, Dalit, Muslim and other residents, it would become stronger. It is in India’s interests, as well as the world’s interests, for the motion to succeed.
I join others in thanking the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for initiating this valuable debate. Like the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and every other Member who has spoken, I regard myself as a friend of India. I have been privileged to go there twice, and would have gone again this month had not a certain by-election and other distractions forced me to postpone my third visit.
India is a wonderful country. One of the things that is so great about it is that it is not only the largest democracy in the world, but a democracy that has devolved power to its states. It is also very diverse, and it is a place where many faiths, and none, are equally valid, respected, enjoyed and appreciated. It is a melting pot: in my experience, it is the only place in the world, apart from Israel and Palestine in the middle east, where so many different strands of culture, history and faith come together.
We have come here with that attitude, but some of us have come here with, also, a lifelong commitment to fighting the death penalty. I held that position and argued that case before I entered the House, and have continued to do so throughout my time here. I first joined Amnesty International when I was at university, and campaigned on cases individually. I was in Amnesty’s Southwark group before I was elected, and we made representations to Governments around the world asking them not to exercise the death penalty.
For many of us, this is part of a traditional campaign. I pay tribute to the Members who have spoken so far, and spoken extremely well. The right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) made a very effective contribution, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller). We heard an intervention from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who is no longer in the Chamber, and I also greatly appreciated the contribution of my friend the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), with whom I travelled to India a couple of years ago.
Several of my colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward), have signed the motion that we are discussing. For obvious reasons, some of my colleagues are not present in as large numbers as they might be, and they send their apologies. As the deputy leader of my party, I want to associate them with the motion. I should mention my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), my hon. Friends the Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart), for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) and for Solihull (Lorely Burt), my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming)—who is present, and who intervened briefly earlier—my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who has campaigned against the death penalty for many years.
It is good that this is not the only occasion on which the issue of the death penalty has been raised this week. A number of questions about it were asked in the other place, including one from Lord Low which specifically concerned the death penalty in India and which was answered by Baroness Warsi on behalf of the Government.
I welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has already contributed to the debate. I do not want to make a long contribution myself, but I do want to make a few comments about the logic of the case that we are making to the Indian Government—while respecting the Indian Parliament and Government, and the office of President—before asking the Minister some questions and suggesting ways in which we might proceed. I realise that the Minister will not make another speech today, but I would appreciate it if he could think about those points, and reply later to me and to my colleagues.
I understand why countries have the death penalty, I understand why countries have had the death penalty, as we did until relatively recently, and I understand the difficulty of moving from having the death penalty to not having it. Not having the death penalty looks like a sign of weakness, and may be thought to make it more likely that people will commit serious offences and “get away with them”. I understand that events such as those of the 1980s involving the golden temple, for example, have led to a culture in which it is felt that people must not be allowed to get away with activities of that kind. I understand how terrible terrorism is, in India as in this country and anywhere else, and I understand why people who are involved in and convicted of terrorism are thought to be in need of the ultimate punishment.
However, we should also reflect on the fact that, since India gained independence in 1948, the death penalty has not deterred such people. It did not prevent any of the events of the 1980s, and it did not prevent the events referred to by the Minister when he was in India only the other day. Bomb blasts, revenge killings and assassinations have continued, as they have in other countries where the death penalty operates. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar made the telling point that Europe, where most countries do not have the death penalty, is the safest place in the world. There is no link between a lack of crime and the death penalty. Indeed, according to the most recent evidence that I have seen, in the United States of America the states with the death penalty generally do not have a lower rate of crime than those without it.
It is—as is ensuring that justice is done and is seen to be done, and that justice is done promptly.
A real problem for our friends in India, and for the Government of India, is that justice has often ground to a halt there. That is not just my view. The other day a bench of the Supreme Court in India spoke of how slow the processes are, and in January last year a Supreme Court bench said that people’s faith in the judiciary was dwindling at an alarming rate, posing a grave threat to constitutional and democratic governance of the country. It acknowledged serious problems such as the large number of vacancies in trial courts, the unwillingness of lawyers to become judges, and an inability to fill the highest posts. Dealing with the backlog in the courts is one of the difficulties in India, although it is not unique to that country; we have been dealing with it in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
There are matters that need to be addressed—matters that can be addressed—which could change the culture in India and give people more confidence. There is, for instance, the need to deal with corruption, which is sometimes a problem in our own country. We have just seen an officer of the Metropolitan police convicted of corrupt activities. Like other Members who have spoken, I am not trying to pretend that we are perfect. However, corruption needs to be dealt with in India and other countries where it undermines democratic values and principles and international credibility. I agree with those colleagues, including the hon. Member for Slough, who have said that if India—its Prime Minister and President—were brave enough to move to abolishing the death penalty, they could be the leaders in their part of the world. They could change the culture of other, smaller democratic countries and later, we would hope, of currently non-democratic countries such as China, so that they could all move on and we would end up not with 110 or 111 countries voting in the UN against the death penalty, but with the remaining countries understanding that there is a better way to proceed—that there is a better and fairer way to punish people.
The ultimate argument is this: not only is it not a deterrent to have the death penalty, but, as the right hon. Member for Warley said, it is a final solution which all too often through history has proved to be wrong. If an injustice is done and the convicted person has been in prison for 20 years, that is terrible but at least they can come out and enjoy the rest of their life, but if there is an injustice and the person is executed, it is too late to undo that, of course.
I want to make the specific case for people like Professor Bhullar and Balwant Singh Rajoana, as I did when I was last in India. I add my voice to those of others calling for the relatively new President of India to return to the moratorium his predecessor followed. I hope that can be a first, or interim, stage before abolition. I understand, too, that having people on death row is a dreadful and inhumane punishment, so a moratorium is not an adequate answer, and I hope that, collectively, we can help India understand the arguments for moving forward.
I have a specific proposal. Later this year there is to be a Commonwealth Heads of Government conference. It is currently scheduled to be held in Colombo, although that is controversial and has been the subject of discussion. Ministers have recently been to Sri Lanka, and our country has rightly not decided what level of representation we will give because of recent human rights issues in Sri Lanka. I assume that there will be such a conference this autumn, however, either in Sri Lanka or somewhere else, and I would like our Government to see whether we can put on its agenda the remaining issues to do with the death penalty in Commonwealth countries, and see whether that could be linked with questions of justice and the speed of justice. I ask the Minister to discuss that with his colleagues, including the Foreign Secretary.
There is a commonality of interest. I do not come to this debate because I have a huge number of Sikh constituents. In fact, I have very few constituents of Indian origin. I have no gurdwaras or temples in my constituency, but I have a large Muslim community and large Roman Catholic Irish and Latin American communities, as well as the largest African community in Britain. Although I have no constituency interest, however, I have worked a great deal with the Sikh and other minority communities in India, and the Commonwealth needs to step up to the plate and do better in making sure these issues are on the Commonwealth agenda. I would like Her Majesty’s Government to put failures of justice and the issue of the death penalty on the agenda this year.
I also ask Ministers to reflect on how we might be more effective more immediately, in the UN Human Rights Committee meeting in Geneva which will take place in the next few weeks, and on whether we might take forward further initiatives there. Sri Lanka is on its agenda, and we might be able to ensure that these death penalty issues are addressed at it, too.
It would be helpful to keep these issues at the top of the EU priority list, too, but not in an old empire way, but because it is good to seek to work with our friends in all countries of the world, as well as our friends in the Commonwealth. The Minister told us he raised these issues when he was in India with the Prime Minister and the UK delegation last week, but it would be helpful to know whether the Prime Minister raised them in his meeting with the Prime Minister of India or with other Ministers. If he did not, would he be willing to do so, because I am sure the increasingly good and frequent links between UK Ministers and Indian Ministers would allow the point to be put respectfully? I also ask Ministers to reflect on whether, irrespective of the Commonwealth conference, there might be an initiative from the UK and other Commonwealth countries asking the Indian Government to return to the moratorium while these issues are under consideration.
May I end by making one final suggestion through you, Mr Deputy Speaker? The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union can be influential on occasions, and you, as well as Mr Speaker and his other deputies, can be influential in that regard. There may be a case for a parliamentary initiative. Will you, Mr Deputy Speaker, speak to Mr Speaker and your colleagues about whether we and other Commonwealth Parliaments might seek to convene a gathering or conference on this matter, perhaps to be hosted here, or in India? There is an opportunity for this Parliament and the Indian Government and Parliament and the Commonwealth to be seen to be taking the initiative. I hope this debate does not merely flag up our concerns and our desire to change things; rather, I hope it is a stepping-stone to more practical interventions, so that there can be this change in the largest democracy in the world in the very near future.
My right hon. Friend has been more disciplined than I was in keeping to the issue of the death penalty. I am sure he would agree, however, that even if it were to be abolished in India, many other human rights abuses are taking place in that country that also need to be addressed.
That is true, and I do not want to back away from that at all. When I visited India with my friend, the hon. Member for Leeds North East, and other parliamentary colleagues, we saw the Tibetan community in exile. Before that, I had been to Punjab and, for the first time, to Indian-occupied Kashmir—or Kashmir in India—and I had been to Amritsar and the golden temple, and had the same wonderful spiritual experience others have talked about.
There are, indeed, big human rights issues. There is a job for the International Commission of Jurists, Justice and many of us to do to try to make sure democratic Governments uphold the standards we sign up to and that they sign up to documents such as the Rome statute and the UN convention against torture, which are referred to in the motion. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, therefore.
There is work to be done, and this is a very serious matter. Some colleagues may wonder why some of us are here in the Chamber today, rather than in Eastleigh. I hope people understand that although by-elections are, of course, important, trying to change the way one of our best friends deals with justice is at least as important. When this debate ends, I will go and do my duty in Eastleigh.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing this important debate, and wish to place on record my thanks to, and pride in, the Kesri Lehar campaign, which is based in my constituency. I congratulate it on its tireless work and grass-roots campaign for human rights for all minorities in India. I also wish to echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), who stated that this debate is held in the context of our friendship with India and the great value we place on that relationship. This is a matter for the Indian population and the Indian Government, but it is also a matter on which we can express our views and those of our constituents.
We participate in many debates in this House, but this one is literally about life and death. I have had a long-standing personal opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances and I am proud to live in a country where it has been abolished. This is a matter of humanity and, as someone once said, it is not for the state to kill people who kill people to show that killing is wrong.
The purpose of this debate is to encourage India to take action to stop the human rights abuses facing all minorities and any of its citizens, be they Sikh, Dalits or from other communities, which are an issue of great concern to so many in the Indian diaspora in Britain and across the world. Our pride in India as a nation also encourages us to raise these concerns.
The motion requests that India sign and ratify the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court and the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and address the human rights of political prisoners, an issue raised by Amnesty International. Two specific cases have rightly been mentioned: that of Professor Bhullar, about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) spoke so eloquently and whose health is now a matter of great concern; and that of Balwant Singh Rajoana, about whom I shall speak further.
Kesri Lehar, as has been mentioned, means the wave of justice. I have supported the Kesri Lehar campaign since it originated a year ago, when there was a significant increase in concern in the Sikh community, the Punjab and across the world when it was believed that Balwant Singh Rajoana might be executed. Hundreds in my constituency approached me in the gurdwara, on the streets, through my mailbox and in petitions. It was incredibly moving to see a community mobilised in such a way on a cause that was a great matter of justice and to see that young and old men and women have been engaged in the campaign. Many are in Parliament today to watch the debate and many others will be watching it on channels such as Sangat TV, which has also been a great supporter of the campaign.
At that time, I wrote to the Foreign Secretary and the Indian Government to raise the concerns of many in my constituency, and to call for a stay of execution. I also raised the specific concern that the execution of Balwant Singh Rajoana could and would cause social unrest and roll back progress in the Punjab.
This is not just a theoretical question for members of the Indian diaspora; it goes closer to home. In previous periods of unrest in the Punjab, my late uncle was nearly killed, and it was only because he managed to play dead that he escaped with his life. Punjab is the home of the Sikh religion, and the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which I have also visited, is a place of pilgrimage for many and a place of magnificence and inspiration for all, whatever their faith. The stay of execution in the Rajoana case was welcome, but the campaign to abolish the death penalty and establish better human rights in India and across the world continues. Along with my hon. Friends the Members for Hayes and Harlington and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East and others, I was honoured before Christmas to help present at No. 10 Downing street the petition, signed by more than 100,000 people, that called for the issue to be debated.
The execution of Balwant Singh and others would not end terrorism or causes of concern, and would damage the image of India, which has been making great progress towards being rightly considered a modern, progressive state with a major role and great influence in the world. We know that the partnership between India and Britain is one of which we can all be proud. Two years ago, I had a life-changing experience as a participant on the Dishaa programme, which was set up by both Governments to support the next generation of leaders in Britain and India and to ensure that our future together remains strong.
India is a nation with more than 1,500 languages and dialects and is a showcase to the world in business, culture, arts and crafts. The Sikh community in India and around the world leads in business and agriculture, where it blazes a trail. The work of the Pingalwara charity in the Punjab shows the deepest compassion for those in the community with the least and those with the greatest disabilities. It is also leading the thinking about how to deal with environmental issues so that we can have a clean environment and tackle the vital questions of quality of life and the supply of water and good food for so many. The Sikh religion has at its heart the principles and values of equality that many of us hold so dear. It would be a significant step for India, as the world’s largest democracy, if it not only reinstated the moratorium but took steps to abolish the death penalty altogether. India is a world economic power that is sure to play an increasing role in world affairs over the coming decades, and such a move would considerably enhance its authority and encourage other countries to end the death penalty.
If India is to fulfil its great potential, we know that challenges lie ahead as we work together to tackle these wider human rights atrocities and help build a reformed justice system that has the confidence of all. There have been wider concerns about justice for Sikhs since 1984. More recently, the brutal and tragic rape and murder of a 23-year-old young woman on a bus in India at Christmas showed that we must tackle violence against women in India in a far greater way than before. A vigil in support of her and her family was held at a temple in my constituency and concerns were raised about the behaviour of the police, the scrutiny and transparency of the case, and police accountability. Concerns about the police in human rights cases demonstrate the need for reform in the police and justice system. In that regard, we can share many of our experiences in the UK to help India on its path to an improved justice system that has the confidence of all.
On V-day two weeks ago, men and women in India also stood up together as part of One Billion Rising, the global campaign to end violence against women and girls in which many in this House and across the country also took a stand. Days such as V-day must not be a one-day wonder for which we prepare for six months and then move on. The message must be kept alive and channelled into all aspects of domestic and international diplomacy throughout the year. Today’s debate about standing up for human rights in India is another circumstance in which we can stand up for the rights of women and children and ensure that their voice is heard.
Another great concern is the fact that in the world’s greatest democracy we have recently seen innocent people suffering and being killed in the crossfire when peacefully protesting for improved human rights. Last year, a horrific case that touched us all deeply was the death of Jaspal Singh. Jaspal was an 18-year-old Sikh college student peacefully protesting against capital punishment last March who was killed when police opened fire on a crowd of just a few hundred to make them disperse. There are concerns about the level of inquiry into how and why that tragedy happened and why others were injured. There are different ways of keeping the peace in communities and of policing, and I hope there will also be ongoing conversation between India and other nations about how areas of perceived public disturbance or concerns can be better policed.
This has been an important debate, and a sad one, because of the cases and human life issues that have been raised. I hope that the UK and other Governments can now lead a renewed effort to persuade the Indian Government and other nations to renounce capital punishment and address the outstanding concerns about human rights abuse. Part of that is having a reformed justice system that has the confidence of all. We can work with our friends in the Indian Government towards this.
I pay tribute again to the work of the Kesri Lehar campaign. As politicians, one of the most noble contributions we can make to human progress is to do what we can to see a safer world for future generations, effective justice systems in every nation, a holding to the standards of international human rights and, I hope in my lifetime, a global end to the death penalty.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to contribute. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) on securing this debate about this important issue of human rights and dignity. The Kesri Lehar petition has raised an essential debate about the use and abolition of the death penalty all over the world, but particularly in India, for many reasons. I have received an abundance of letters and correspondence from my constituents, irrespective of their faith and community, a majority of whom still have strong links with India and are dismayed by its continued use of this outdated, cruel and inhumane method of punishment. Just for clarification, I have the largest Sikh electorate—21.6%—in my constituency, so I have a moral authority to speak on their behalf on this matter.
The universal declaration of human rights, adopted by India, recognises the right to live and the right to be free from subjection to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment. By keeping the death penalty, India goes against the fundamental rights that it has agreed to. It is one of only 58 countries to retain the death penalty, and one of only 20 to have applied the death penalty in practice in recent years. It cannot be acceptable for a democracy such as India to keep practising this unfair punishment.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on being the representative of the largest number of Sikh residents anywhere in the United Kingdom. His constituency is well known for that. Does he agree that a petition such as the one that has been presented to me and my colleagues will add to the pressure on the Government of India, because it is signed not only by Sikh community members but by non-Sikhs? Does he agree that organisations such as the Sikh Federation (UK) can persuade people to coalesce around this cause and have an extremely loud voice in the UK for the abolition of the death penalty in India?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend.
We cannot always assume that the judicial system is faultless. Therefore, using death, an irrevocable act, as a punishment for a crime, puts the system at risk of punishing the innocent irreversibly. There have been examples in the past of wrongful executions. It was the case of Timothy John Evans that, among others, contributed to the abolition of the death penalty in this country, after a long campaign by Labour MP Sydney Silverman. Evans was falsely convicted of murdering his wife and infant daughter, sentenced to capital punishment and hanged in 1950. It was three years later that the police discovered multiple bodies in the flat of downstairs neighbour and serial killer, John Christie, and realised their mistake. Can it really be just to execute a person who, while at the time of conviction is believed guilty, might well be innocent?
It is the mark of a modern civilised society that it does not tolerate torture and admits that a death sentence is not an appropriate way to respond to criminality. As the world’s largest democracy, India should adhere to these precepts. Every human being has an inalienable right to live; sentencing a person to death goes against that principle. The state and the judicial system cannot deprive an individual of the value of their life. Taking the life of an individual is also hugely inconsistent with the values that Indian culture prides itself and is based on—fairness and equality.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu is believed to have said, “To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, it is not justice.” I agree: justice cannot be provided with a reciprocal sentence. The justice system cannot proclaim, on the one hand, to condemn the act of killing and, on the other, exact punishment with death. This also establishes an inappropriate link between the state and violence, thus brutalising society and, to a degree, legitimising state violence. It is also abhorrent to note that there are still countries that hand capital sentences to individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs. We should not tolerate the existence of the death penalty to punish those with different spiritual values or beliefs.
I would finally like to point out that, while there has been much justified consternation and outcry over the recent executions in India itself, unfortunately a growing number of voices in India have called for those men responsible for the brutal attack and rape of the young Damini to be hanged. I have spoken many times in this Chamber about my sadness and dismay at her tragic death, and I am heartened to hear calls for justice on her behalf. However, the death penalty is in no case justice: it is simply revenge. What India needs now is to reform the law and justice system to address the many underlying issues which perpetuate this endemic cycle of violence against women and girls, not to blindly apply capital punishment to the perpetrators.
As the Kesri Lehar petition states, I encourage the Indian Government to
“sign and ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the UN Charter against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment”.
As the world’s largest democracy and a multicultural, multi-religious and secular country, India should be a leader in the defence of human rights and fundamental rights, and abolish the death penalty, which taints its long history of peace-making.
I am grateful to the hon. Members who have made such valid and thoughtful contributions today. I know that many have been dragged down to Eastleigh for the by-election to pester constituents to no effect whatever, but I am grateful to those who have come along today, because it has demonstrated that this House speaks with one voice on this matter, and that voice is the plea to India to end the current threat of the implementation of the death penalty and move towards its abolition.
The tone was struck by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) and reinforced by the hon. Members for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and for Bedford (Richard Fuller), my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma). We are speaking as friends of India. We recognise and respect the sovereignty of India as an independent state, but our historic links give us the opportunity to speak as friends.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) explained the background and the historical human rights abuses that unfortunately have still not been addressed, and described how they are being compounded by the threat of the death penalty that now hangs over Balwant Singh Rajoana and Professor Bhullar. The Minister has explained the history of representations that we are pleased that the Government have made and continue to make. The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley and I have offered other practical ideas and opportunities for further interventions to try to move this issue along to fruition.
We thank the Kesri Lehar campaigners who brought this issue to us and made this debate fundamentally important in the campaign to save the lives of the two individuals we have referred to, but also to end the death penalty once and for ever.
The last word in this debate should be from the family of one of the men. During the debate, a letter came in from relatives of Professor Bhullar. They say that they can only pray that people are listening and that everyone will do everything they can to stop this inhuman execution of an innocent person and a terrible miscarriage of justice. They beg the House today to please help Professor Bhullar to be saved from the death penalty and to help them immediately. That message goes out not only from that family, but from all of us. We want to ensure that no one else suffers the death penalty in India. We want a peaceful and harmonious society to be constructed, and such a society cannot be constructed on the basis of the death penalty.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House welcomes the national petition launched by the Kesri Lehar campaign urging the UK Government to press the Indian government to sign and ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which encompasses the death penalty, with the result that India would abolish the death penalty and lift this threat from Balwant Singh Rajoana and others.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Can you advise us whether you have received a request from the Secretary of State for Education to make a statement to the House to explain his outrageous comment about schools in east Durham made in a speech last night, that:
“when you go into those schools you can smell the sense of defeatism”?
That is a slur on the hard-working teachers, students and parents of the area. Why is he talking down our schools and young people? He should come to the House and apologise to the people of east Durham.