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MV Seaman Guard Ohio

Volume 597: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2015

[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the detention of MV Seaman Guard Ohio crew in India.

At the beginning of my contribution, I want to place on record my sincere thanks to Lisa Dunn, the sister of Nick Dunn. She has worked assiduously on behalf of the six men who are still being detained in India, despite having the charges against them quashed more than a year ago. The six men’s families have been absolutely outstanding under the most extreme and difficult circumstances. They deserve the utmost praise for their actions, which have been relentless.

Having said that, this is a very serious case involving, in my view, a serious breach of the international human rights of six British citizens—former military men who served this country on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sadly and understandably, they feel utterly betrayed, abandoned and ignored by the British Government—by the country that they so bravely fought for. At their greatest time of need, they feel betrayed. We should put ourselves, just for a minute, in their shoes. They have had so many false dawns and promises and so much false hope and misinformation. After all this time, they are still awaiting firm action and some decision by the Indian authorities.

I want to mention the staff at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who have kept and still keep in contact with the families. They have done a marvellous job, but they seem to be totally constrained by protocols, democracy and convention, which has been a great source of frustration, as the families believe that little if any real progress has been made.

Is it not worth placing on record the fact that we are dealing with a sovereign, democratic, independent country, and that no British politician can tell the Indian authorities what to do?

There is a lot of merit in what the right hon. Gentleman says, and I will come to that question. At the same time, it is very difficult to tell the six British citizens that there is very little we can do other than just talk across the political divide and speak to the Indian authorities without actually making any progress. They feel betrayed, and that is the problem. It is up to us as British politicians to do what we can to try and help them.

My constituent—indeed, my friend—Ray Tindall, who, as my hon. Friend said, served loyally in some very dangerous war zones on behalf of this country, feels bitterly betrayed. Is it not the case that, even within India, there is no doubt about the men’s innocence? I am sure that hon. Members here have never doubted that either, so perhaps we might see a little more effort on behalf of the British Government to impress that on the Indian Government.

There is no doubt that these people are innocent. All the charges against them were quashed in July 2014, which is nearly a year ago. In my view, they are not even in the judicial procedure, because the charges against them were quashed. I am sure that the Minister will address that point of contention.

The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way again, which I appreciate. If I am wrong on this point, I am sure that the Minister will correct me in his winding-up speech, but I understand that the Indian Prime Minister, Mr Modi, may well visit Britain later this year. If he does and if this matter is not resolved by then, does the hon. Gentleman agree that that would be an excellent opportunity for our Prime Minister to raise the case with the Indian Prime Minister?

I sincerely hope that these gentlemen are on British soil before the Indian Prime Minister gets here. I believe that the British Prime Minister has spoken to the Indian Prime Minister—it has been at that level before—so the issue has been raised between the two parties. However, the families and everyone else will hope sincerely that these people are back way before then. That is how the situation stands.

The families feel as though there has been an extreme lack of any progress. On many occasions, news has filtered through the system from other nationalities. News about different court dates and important items discussed with, for example, the Estonians and Ukrainians has filtered through to our six UK citizens before any information has come from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

I mentioned the Prime Minister to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), and I have spoken to him personally. I have raised this matter on the Floor of the House with him, with the former Foreign Secretary and, on numerous occasions, with the Minister. The question really is: has anybody listened? I do not want to be too critical, but the men are still there after nearly two years. Has anybody listened? The men and their families are extremely angry. The men are still in India; they are not allowed to leave. Their passports are still withdrawn by the authorities, despite the charges of illegal acts being quashed. It is a clear violation of their international human rights. These are innocent people in a Commonwealth country.

I have spoken to the Minister, who I thank for the meetings that he has kindly arranged on this issue. He has stated numerous times that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office cannot interfere in other countries’ judicial/legal systems, but these men have had the charges against them dropped. They are basically destitute. They are stuck in another country—a Commonwealth country—and we should be able to assist. They are innocent.

The series of rather unfortunate events began a long time ago, on 12 October 2013, when the MV Seaman Guard Ohio, a Sierra Leone-flagged vessel owned by AdvanFort, was intercepted by the Indian coastguard off the Tuticorin coast. The vessel had been involved in supporting anti-piracy operations by supplying armed escort services to commercial vessels travelling through a piracy hotspot in the Indian ocean. The crew were arrested and detained by the Indian coastguard near the port on suspicion of possessing arms without the appropriate licences.

The crew of 35 aboard the ship were of different nationalities, including Indian, British, Ukrainian and Estonian nationals. The British crew members were Mr Paul Towers, Mr William Irving, Mr Nicholas Simpson, Mr Raymond Tindall, Mr John Armstrong and my constituent Mr Nick Dunn. All crew members were remanded in custody following questioning on 18 October 2013. Two crew members—the captain and an engineer—were not arrested initially but were later. Q branch then submitted charges against 45 accused persons, including the company, its director, 35 crew members and eight locals, for offences under the Arms Act 1959, the Essential Commodities Act 1955, the Motor Spirit and High Speed Diesel (Regulation of Supply and Distribution and Prevention of Malpractices) Order 1998 and the Indian penal code of 1860. On 20 October 2013, 22 foreign nationals among the 35 arrested crew were moved from the prison they were in to Chennai Puzhal Central prison.

Not until 18 December 2013 were bail applications made on behalf of all the crew. In the bail plea, the crew alleged that the vessel was coming into the port for supplies. The vessel was stormed by as many as 25 officials from eight different agencies as it tried to enter the port. Counsel for the crew contended that, based on the doctrine of innocent passage as envisaged in section 3 of the UN convention on the law of the sea 1982, no charge could be levelled against the crew. However, the High Court in Madras refused bail, stating that the investigations were still at an initial stage and a release could jeopardise the investigation.

On Boxing day 2013, conditional bail was granted after the crew argued that Q branch had failed to file the charge sheet within 60 days of their arrest. However, on 7 January 2014, the Principal Sessions Court cancelled the conditional bail granted by the lower court. In February 2014, a new bail application was filed. It detailed the brutal treatment of the prisoners and their deteriorating health due to malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, mental harassment and emotional trauma. Conditional bail was granted on 26 March 2014, but the men were not released until 6 April, some 11 days later. However, the British vice-captain, Paul Towers, remained in jail. On 10 July 2014, the charges against the crew were quashed in the Indian High Court in Madras.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being generous with his time and I congratulate him on the tireless work that he has done to keep this matter in the public eye. This debate allows me to highlight the case of my own constituent, Mr William Irving from Oban, who is one of the six people in India. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that today Mr Irving had the opportunity to meet his son for the first time? His partner, Yvonne, had to take the baby to India to allow Mr Irving to meet his child for the first time. I spoke to Mr Irving’s parents this morning, and they are very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter again in this way. They feel, as Mr Irving does, both betrayed and abandoned. All they want is this ordeal to stop. Does the hon. Gentleman agree me that until it does, the Government have a duty of care towards the six detained people and that they must look after them in the way that other Governments seem to be looking after their detained seamen? Our Government seem not to be doing that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am delighted that Mr Irving has met his son. It is just such a shame that, two years after this began, his partner and son have had to travel to India. The sister of my constituent, Nick Dunn, travelled there almost a year ago to visit him and saw the horrible, squalid conditions in which he was living in Puzhal prison. Of course we need to be acting, as I have been saying during my contribution.

On 25 August 2014, the state of Tamil Nadu filed an application to appeal the decision to which I have referred. We are almost a year on from that, yet the men remain in India. Despite numerous court hearings, including one that saw all charges against them dropped back in July, their passports have not been returned and they are unable to leave India. Each time the six British nationals and former servicemen have been told that a final judgment on their case is imminent, the deadline has been put back. It had been hoped that a judgment would be forthcoming before the courts in India adjourned for their annual summer recess on 15 May. However, that did not happen and the men have now been told that it will be July before they hear any news.

The treatment that these people have had since their imprisonment has been nothing short of appalling. AdvanFort, the company that owned the vessel, abandoned the men almost immediately. It was more interested in the return of the ship than the safety and welfare of the crew. Despite emails from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and communications from the offices of MPs—including, I am sure, people in the Chamber today—it did not reply or respond to anyone at all. Will the Minister say what powers the Government have in relation to companies, such as AdvanFort, that abandon British nationals to defend themselves without even legal representation?

I would like the Minister also to consider a few questions that have been relayed to me from the families and the individuals themselves. Why have the British Government sat by while they have been illegally detained since September 2014, even though they have been given lawyers’ letters stating that fact? The individuals claim that legal advice has been passed to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office explaining how they are innocent, yet there has been little if any progress. Legal evidence provided to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Chennai and London from legal experts clearly states that the actions of the Indian authorities are a breach of the crew’s human rights. Why has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office not sought to investigate that? Why was that information not taken seriously by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the UK Government? Have the UK Government not just updated their policy on the promotion of international human rights aimed at protecting UK citizens abroad, including in relation to the unlawful detention of our citizens? If that is the case, why is the situation different for our friends, the UK citizens in India?

These men are not allowed to work. They are not allowed to earn a living; they are not allowed to earn anything. They are being held against their wishes and are relying on charity and assistance from their families in order to exist. They have to pay for their accommodation, food and drink and medical treatment. And what about the families back home, who have lost their worldly possessions? They have lost cars, in some cases homes, and much, much more as a result of this illegal detention. Quite simply, these men’s lives and family lives have been utterly destroyed. Will the Minister say what the Government can do to assist in that respect?

The Minster has made reference to the issue being raised continually. Is he able to inform the individuals of the content of the conversations that he and the Prime Minister have had with the Indian authorities? The crew members wonder why the detail of those conversations has till now been kept confidential. Can the Minister clarify that the men were not officially required to stay in India following the quashing of their charges? Why are they currently detained when they should be free men? Why have new passports not been released? Will the Minister confirm his next steps to bring an end to the sheer misery being suffered by the men and their families? I am talking about the mental, physical and financial torture that they continue to suffer through being detained. Please give them, Minister, a glimmer of hope. Remember that these are men who jeopardised their own lives—they put their own lives in danger—for their country. They need the Government to act positively to return them to their loved ones without delay. Remember that these are innocent men.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on securing the debate and I commend the strong support he has given to his constituent, Mr Nick Dunn, and the rest of the British crew of the Seaman Guard Ohio. Three of the men are now represented by three new hon. Members, who I think are all in their places in this Chamber.

The hon. Gentleman has rightly raised with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a number of issues relating to the case. As he concedes, I, too, have taken a close interest in the matter. I have met the current and former MPs involved and the family members several times, most recently in March, and I will meet right hon. and hon. Members again once we have had the verdict of the Supreme Court of India on the case.

I must stress at the outset that this is a legal, not a political, case. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight), who has been assiduous in representing his constituent, has pointed out, the British Government cannot interfere in another country’s legal process any more than we would allow another country to interfere in ours. Incidentally, I believe that that is something that the former Opposition spokesman, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) has struggled to understand.

Will the Minister clarify a point? The charges against the men have been totally quashed, but their passports have been withheld by the Government. Are they being withheld illegally? If the charges have been quashed, why are the men not innocent?

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to develop my speech, I will remind people that the matter has been appealed, and the case starts tomorrow in the Supreme Court. That is the Indian judicial process, within the boundaries and confines of which we have to operate.

Consular staff are not investigative officers or legal advisers, nor can they—or any of us—take a view on the guilt or innocence of those to whom they provide consular assistance. Nevertheless, no one in the Chamber this afternoon will fail to appreciate that this has been and continues to be a difficult and distressing time for the men and their families. I am grateful for the opportunity to put on record the Government’s approach to the case and the consular assistance we have provided and continue to provide. We believe that our consular staff have behaved with professionalism despite considerable provocation at times.

The Minister says that the matter is not political, but will he confirm that of the 35 people originally arrested, the Indian contingent have been allowed to go home and seek employment, the 16 Estonians are being subsidised in their food and accommodation by the Estonian Government, but the six British servicemen have been instructed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to beg from family and friends to house and feed themselves? Although we are not asking the Minister to get directly involved in the Indian judicial system, there must be a system of support from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

I will come to that. At no stage have we asked anyone to beg for anything.

On 12 October 2013, the ship was detained by the Indian coastal guard security off the Tuticorin port in Tamil Nadu. Consular staff in Chennai were alerted on 14 October to reports of a vessel being held, and the Indian legal process began four days later on 18 October. Permission to visit the men was sent on the same day to the Ministry of External Affairs. Consular staff conducted their first prison visit on 21 October and passed on messages to the men’s employer, lawyer and families.

The crew were charged under the Arms Act for being in possession of assault rifles and ammunition, the Passports Act for entering India without a valid visa and the Essential Commodities Act for procuring fuel in India without permission. During the men’s imprisonment, consular staff visited them on no fewer than 18 occasions. Consular staff liaised with the prison authorities to ensure that the men received an enhanced diet, and they raised medical and dental concerns. Staff also helped the men to maintain regular contact with their families, friends and the Mission to Seafarers by passing on letters and facilitating visits. Since the men’s release from prison on 5 April 2014—one was released later, on 19 July 2014—consular staff have continued to provide assistance by liaising with the company AdvanFort, the lawyer, hotel and police, and by putting the men and their families in contact with organisations that offer help from financial assistance to counselling. Ultimately, however, it is each man’s decision whether to take up those other sources of help. Some of the men have also received assistance from private individuals and their own regimental associations.

As the hon. Member for Wansbeck knows, I managed to track down Samir Farajallah, who owns AdvanFort, and I reminded him of his responsibilities, but as I know the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, communication with Mr Farajallah remains extremely difficult. Although, as I have said, we cannot interfere in another country’s legal system, the British Government—the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and his predecessor William Hague, who represented one of the men, Nicholas Simpson; as well as British officials and myself—have repeatedly raised the case with the Indian authorities at local, state and national level, urging resolution as quickly as possible. I raised the matter most recently with the Indian Foreign Secretary in my office here in London on 25 June.

As the hon. Member for Wansbeck said, in July 2014 the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court dismissed all charges against the crew. As is allowed under Indian law, the prosecution decided to exercise its right of appeal and take the case to the Supreme Court in New Delhi, so the legal case continues. At the Supreme Court hearing on 28 April this year, the judge committed to giving a written verdict. The Supreme Court has been in recess since then, and it reopens tomorrow on 1 July. There is no set date for the written verdict, and the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we cannot request one.

Meanwhile, I am conscious that the decision of the Indian authorities to prevent the men from leaving India until the completion of the legal process has taken a great toll. Among other things, it has meant that they could not support their families through illness and the birth of a first child. We have made representations on compassionate grounds and issued emergency travel documents to some of the men, but I repeat that this is a legal process in which we cannot interfere. That is why consular staff have provided lists of lawyers and suggested that the men seek independent legal advice.

Although we, too, are frustrated by the continuing case, we are unable to demand the release of British nationals overseas. We are unable to interfere in another country’s legal process. However, we have made and will continue to make known our ongoing interest in the legal case at the highest level. Indeed, if things are not satisfactorily resolved by the time Prime Minister Modi visits, the matter will almost certainly be raised at that point as well. We will express our desire for a swift conclusion, and we will continue to do all we can within the remit of our consular service for the men and their families.

I thank all the hon. and right hon. Members who represent the families for continuing to take such an interest in the case, and I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House. I repeat that the Supreme Court hearing starts tomorrow, and we hope that it will issue a swift ruling. We do not want to do anything, inside or outside the Chamber, which could in any way prejudice the men’s chances of an early release and repatriation to their families and loved ones.

Order. I would be grateful if hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber did so via the Members’ entrance, because we need to admit some members of the public who are in wheelchairs. I will suspend the sitting for a couple of minutes to facilitate that process.

Sitting suspended.