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Detention of Jagtar Singh Johal

Volume 698: debated on Wednesday 30 June 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the debates. There will also be suspensions between debates. Members participating either physically or virtually must arrive at the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.

I must also remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their cameras on for the duration of the debate and that they will be visible at all times, both to each other and to those of us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address, which is: westminsterhallclerks@ Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

There will be a time limit in this debate, which I will advise after the Member in charge has finished speaking, but I warn Members now that it is likely to be between two and three minutes.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the detention of Jagtar Singh Johal.

It is good to see you, Mr Hollobone, in the Chair and to see that so many Members have been able to join us, either physically or virtually. Members joining the debate today, either here in the Boothroyd Room or online, will be glad to hear first that I intend to keep my contribution relatively short today. I only really have one question to ask the Minister, and I think that Jagtar’s case will be best served by allowing other diverse voices from across these islands to speak on his behalf and to demonstrate to the UK Government that there will be no let-up until Jagtar is released.

Let us get to my question for the Minister, which I will ask again when I sum up: why have the UK Government deemed that Jagtar Singh Johal’s detention is not an arbitrary one? Of course, many other questions today will flow from this one and I am sure that we will hear it being asked in other guises over the next hour. But the Crown’s Minister must answer it.

I have raised the case of Jagtar Singh Johal with Ministers almost 20 times since my first point of order about it on 15 November 2017. The week after that, I first raised it at Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office questions, when the allegation of torture was still fresh. The House of Commons was told by the then Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who was responsible for consular policy, that

“We will work very closely to investigate the matter and will, of course, take extreme action if a British citizen is being tortured.”—[Official Report, 21 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 858.]

That Minister is no longer in the Government—indeed, he is no longer even a member of the Conservative party. Nevertheless, when a Minister speaks from the Dispatch Box, we should be assured that their words will be believed. I still remember my own surprise that day at hearing the use of the words “extreme action”, but both the Singh Johal family and I would be content right now with a simple ruling of arbitrary detention and for the concomitant obligations to kick in.

I have spoken at length about many aspects of this case on many occasions, most notably in an Adjournment debate on the first anniversary of Jagtar’s detention on 27 November 2018. I do not intend to go over too much of that material again, but it is worth remembering how this case began.

Jagtar was a young man from Dumbarton, fresh from his wedding that week, who was enjoying his time with his new bride in Jalandhar, until suddenly a group of unidentifiable men in plain clothes leapt from a van, hit him and took him away. I am sure that we can all appreciate the terror and helplessness that his wife must have experienced in that moment—it would be unimaginable. The next few days, as Jagtar was held incommunicado, must have seemed like an eternity. Allegations of torture—and more recently, the reality of covid in an overcrowded maximum security prison half a world away—have weighed heavily on the family. I must say that their resilience in the face of this ordeal has been extraordinary.

By my reckoning, Jagtar has now been detained for 1,335 days without any substantial charges being brought in the case—that is coming up to four years. We know that the FCDO had been looking at a designation of arbitrary detention and, from conversations with Ministers of all levels, we know that they have been thinking about this for some time. This issue must surely have grown more recently. In January, we were glad of the estimation made by the charity Redress that Jagtar’s detention was an arbitrary one, and even more so when a cross-party group of 140 MPs signed a letter to the Foreign Secretary asking him to ensure that the FCDO intervenes to secure Jagtar’s release, as he himself is on record restating the policy quite recently.

Given that it is the opinion of Reprieve and Redress and their legal counsel that Jagtar’s detention is a clear breach of categories 1 to 4 of the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention’s definition, I again ask the Minister why the UK Government do not share that view. I expect the Minister to speak about many of the things that the UK Government have been doing for Jagtar, so please let me put on the record—I also do so on behalf of the family—that the work of the FCDO staff, both in post and in the prisoner policy and human rights team of the consular directorate here in London, has been immense. There has been immense support for the family and myself. They have diligently undertaken all that has been asked of them—and gone above and beyond on occasion, as I am sure they will know. I am only sorry that convention does not allow me to thank them by name.

However, these are civil servants who pursue their work through a framework established by their political masters. It would be remiss of me not to mention some of the issues that FCDO Ministers have either allowed to pass by or should immediately seek to remedy, beginning with the failure to ensure that an independent medical examination was undertaken to establish the facts around the allegations of torture made by Jagtar against the Punjabi police. There is the continuing lack of private consular visits, and the continuing reluctance of the Secretary of State specifically to meet with Jagtar’s family and myself, as his predecessor did. Finally, there is the decision of the Prime Minister not to raise Jagtar’s case with Prime Minister Modi when they last spoke virtually in April.

Taken together, these issues tell me that we have a group of FCDO civil servants who are ready and able to implement Government policy, but senior Ministers who are reluctant to escalate representations beyond simply raising them with the Indian Government officials. If they can do so with Governments of other countries where UK nationals are arbitrarily detained, why can they not do so with the Republic of India? Doing so would not be intervening in the internal affairs of the Republic of India unnecessarily. I have been clear from the start of this case that all we ask for is transparent due process and rule of law. When at least two of these elements are missing, as was so clearly demonstrated at Jagtar’s 161st pre-trial hearing today, it is my responsibility as his local MP to ask why. Neither the Singh Johal family nor myself is asking for the “extreme action” that, as I mentioned, we were promised by the UK Government at the start of this process: we are asking them only to recognise an obvious fact.

This week, Jagtar was able to speak by video call with his brother for the first time since his incarceration. He was as good as could be expected under the circumstances, but most of all he wondered when he would get to see his family again in the flesh. That was a sobering moment for me. Jagtar Singh Johal is a husband, a son, a grandson, a brother, an uncle, and a son of the Rock of Dumbarton. He is arbitrarily detained in India. Why can the United Kingdom Government not recognise that? Let us get Jaggi released: let us bring him back to Scotland and let him see his family.

The debate will last until 5.50. I am obliged to call the Front Benchers no later than 5.27, and the guideline limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, and 10 minutes for the Minister, after which the Member in charge will have three minutes to sum up the debate at the end. There are nine Back-Bench contributors. If there are no interventions during Back-Bench speeches, we can have a three-minute time limit.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

While in India for his wedding on 4 November 2017, British citizen Jagtar Singh Johal was shopping with his newly wedded wife when he was bound, hooded and bundled into a car by plain-clothed police officers. Leaving his wife with no explanation why he had been taken, Jagtar was taken into police custody and denied his right to see a lawyer, family members or a representative from the British high commission. Once imprisoned, Jagtar reported being tortured by police. He said crocodile clips were placed on him, with electricity fired through his body. Such was the severity of the torture that Jagtar had to be carried out of the interrogation room. To make the pain stop, Jagtar reports that he was forced to confess to the alleged conspiracies.

Why has he faced these basic violations of his rights? Prior to his arrest, Jagtar was involved in raising awareness of human rights abuses against India’s Sikh population. Human rights organisation Reprieve fears that he has been targeted for exercising freedom of expression and his right to it. It has already cost him four years in prison without trial. He has endured torture and now there is a real risk that confessions extracted through torture could be used to sentence him to the death penalty. Jagtar now languishes in prison, where mass covid-19 outbreaks have triggered calls for states to protect vulnerable prisoners.

In the face of these humans rights abuses, what have the British Government done? Rather than standing up for the rights of British nationals overseas, they have failed to follow Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office policy to lobby for arbitrarily detained UK nationals overseas, and ignored calls from myself and 139 colleagues earlier this year to do precisely that. The Government have even failed to secure an independent medical assessment of Jagtar to judge the severity and extent of torture, and to secure private consular visits with him for over three years. The Foreign Secretary has failed to meet with Jagtar’s family and despite calls from human rights organisations to raise the issue, the Prime Minister failed to challenge Indian Prime Minister Modi on Jagtar’s detention and treatment in a meeting in April.

This is a shameful dereliction of duty, Mr Hollobone: a pattern of what is happening in India and how the British Government are failing to stand up for human rights. In recent years in India, there have been a growing number of arrests of humans rights defenders, student leaders, trade unionists, journalists, and others critical of the ruling Government. In occupied Kashmir in 2019, the Indian Government unilaterally revoked articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for securing this important debate and for his tireless efforts.

Many residents in my constituency are deeply concerned about Jagtar’s continued detention. As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on British Sikhs, I know the ongoing work that that group has done. In a previous Parliament, I spent an extraordinary amount of time lobbying for the release of my constituent Billy Irving, wrongly detained for years in an Indian jail. I know the horrendous impact of that ordeal on his family and can imagine that the impact on Jagtar Singh Johal’s family is similarly huge.

Let us remember that Jagtar was taken from the street where he was walking with his new wife, who was not even given an explanation for her husband’s detention. They had just got married and were looking forward to their future home in Scotland. Even more concerning now is the analysis by his legal counsel in India confirming that he faces a possible death sentence on at least three of the charges levelled against him. Forced confession, allegedly extracted through torture, is the primary evidence on which these death penalty charges are based, so his fair trial rights have been gravely violated and detention is clearly arbitrary. Despite the fact that the UK Government’s policy is to lobby for the release of arbitrarily detained British nationals overseas, the Foreign Secretary has not yet done so in Jagtar’s case. I would like to hear from the Minister why the UK Government have failed to implement their own policy on arbitrarily detained British citizens.

Of course, we are looking at all this through a particular prism, because covid puts an urgent complexion on everything. I can only imagine the anxiety that Jagtar and his family face knowing that he is so far from them—with covid rife and them unable to do a thing to keep him safe. He is in a horrifically overcrowded prison. Even though the state government has recognised the challenges that covid is causing and recently sanctioned the emergency release of thousands of prisoners—even those accused of murder—Jagtar was not included and remains incarcerated.

I applaud all the efforts of the family and of the all-party parliamentary group on British Sikhs, and I applaud the sterling work of Sikhs in Scotland and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire and others who have been working on this issue. So much effort has been expended, but what we really need is action in India. For that to happen, we urgently need this UK Government to take these issues on board, to listen and to act. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I commend the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for securing the debate and for his advocacy on behalf of his constituent. There is a great deal that I could say about this case, but time is short. I will limit myself to three brief points.

First, I understand the concerns that the Minister will have with regard to the apparent interference in the criminal justice system of another sovereign state. That is well rehearsed; it is not new territory for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. However, I bring to his attention the quite remarkable and wholly inappropriate briefing note circulated to Members of this House today; it was brought to the Deputy Speaker’s attention by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire. I gently suggest to the Minister that it demonstrates, in the way in which it is constructed—both in terms of its highly misleading and inaccurate content and how it strays into discussion of the procedure and indeed substance of the case against Jagtar Singh Johal—that in fact the Indian Government themselves do not have great regard for the propriety of the independence of their own criminal justice system. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind when he formulates his own position with regard to it.

Secondly, the absolutely most crucial point, made by the hon. Member, is that Jagtar Singh Johal has been the subject of very strong prima facie arbitrary detention. As has been made clear by counsel instructed by Reprieve and Redress in the briefing they provided for Members today, this is caught by categories 1, 2, 3 and 4 of the guidance produced by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. I was in legal practice myself for long enough to know that lawyers can come to different conclusions, so if the advice given or the conclusions drawn by the Minister and his staff are different, I hope he will explain exactly where these differences come from.

Thirdly, Jagtar’s position is undoubtedly grim, but he is actually in a much better position than just about everybody I have ever campaigned for and worked with when they were facing the death penalty, because he has not yet been through the judicial process. I have looked at just about every death penalty case I have ever been part of and thought, “Dear God, if only we had got to this at first instance.” We are well ahead of that point at the moment. The Government should be implementing their own policy with regard to arbitrary detention. They have rightly done it for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and others often enough. Why are they not doing it for Jagtar?

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

For Jagtar Singh Johal, it is hard not to feel angry, defeated and despondent. I cannot imagine how difficult it has been for his family—and his wife in particular, who has not heard from her beloved husband since he was snatched and detained by plain-clothes officers in India just three weeks after their wedding in October 2017.

As we know, Jagtar is a British citizen, a loving family man and valued citizen of Dumbarton, but the UK Government—the Government of the country of Mr Johal’s birth—have fallen silent and deserted him. Why have the Government not demanded the release of their own British citizen? Our Foreign Secretary has not so much as met Mr Johal’s grief-stricken family, despite his predecessor accepting that Mr Johal had no chance of a fair trial and was in grave danger. However, in their attempts to strike new trade deals the Government seem to have damaged our global moral standing and neglected our humanitarian responsibilities. It is dangerous brinkmanship of the highest order, but it is also what we have come to expect. It seems the UK Government would sooner allow Mr Johal’s death than jeopardise any future trade deal. As recently as April this year, the Prime Minister met the Indian Prime Minister remotely and once again neglected to raise Mr Johal’s case during the meeting.

It is time for the Government to act to secure Mr Johal’s release. They must work towards a medical assessment of Mr Johal and of the facility in which he is imprisoned, and they must push for a private consultant to visit and gain access to where Mr Johal is confined. At the earliest opportunity, Ministers should meet Mr Johal’s family. The Government’s silence is a moral outrage and an unforgivable dereliction of their duty to protect a British citizen.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for securing this vital debate. We have spoken privately about this issue in the past, and I wholeheartedly agree that its importance cannot be overstated.

That a British citizen can be arrested and held for so long in another country with no indication of when his case will finally be resolved by due process should shame our lazy and hands-off Foreign Secretary. What is more, the Home Office attempted to add to the family’s burden by trying to expel Gurpreet Kaur, Jagtar Singh Johal’s wife, which shows the contempt with which this Government are prepared to treat those in peril.

Many of my Coventry constituents will be deeply concerned about this matter because two of our neighbours face a similar prospect this year. Two brothers resident in my constituency were hauled into custody after raids on their homes last year. That has traumatised their families and sent shockwaves through our local community in Coventry. As British citizens who have lived in our country their whole lives, they deserve from the Government the same protection that we all receive, but they are now languishing in custody ahead of extradition later this year, and they are profoundly worried about what the future holds for them.

Ministers have offered the stock assurances that the brothers will be properly treated by the Indian authorities and that they will not face the death penalty, but none of what they or their families have been put through can be said to have inspired confidence in promises made by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office or the Home Office. Given that the two men in question have been investigated previously and the Home Office decided that there was no further case to answer, it is not surprising that so many in the community are asking why the arrests took place. Those doubts have been reinforced in the minds of many by the simple fact that in the week before the arrests were made, the Foreign Secretary visited India and met Ajit Doval, a key national security adviser. What is the Foreign Secretary sacrificing in his haste to wrap up a trade deal with the current Indian Government?

If the Government will not stand up for British citizens abroad, how can any of us be safe? Those constituents of mine, and all who are in the same position, deserve fair treatment and a Government here at home who are willing to fight for them to secure due process. Instead, they are left in fear for their lives because this Government prefer to purchase new friendships abroad, setting at naught inalienable in their attempts to revive our faltering trade relationships. It is time for the Government to offer some leadership on this issue, instead of importing sectarian politics from abroad into our debate here in the UK. Minister must assure for all our citizens, regardless of their background, the fundamental right that defines being British.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) on securing this hugely important debate.

Jagtar Singh Johal, a British citizen and a Sikh human rights advocate from Dunbartonshire, sought to use his platform to raise awareness of historical abuses carried out against the Sikh population. In 2017, he travelled to India to get married, and three weeks after the ceremony plain-clothes police officers abducted him on the street. According to the human rights organisation Reprieve, the police brutally tortured Jagtar with electricity and brought petrol into his cell, threatening to burn him alive. To make the pain stop, he signed blank pieces of paper and recorded video statements confessing to the charges against him, some of which carried the death penalty.

Jagtar’s imprisonment clearly amounts to arbitrary detention under international law. He has now been detained for more than three years without trial. When a British national is arbitrarily detained and tortured and faces a potential death sentence, all on the basis of trumped-up political charges, the British Government must make it clear that that is unacceptable. Despite it being Government policy to lobby for the release of arbitrarily detained UK nationals overseas, the Foreign Secretary has yet to do so for Jagtar.

Will the Minister explain why the Government failed to implement its policy to seek the release of arbitrarily detained British citizens in Jagtar’s case? This is even more urgent after a mass outbreak of covid-19 in the prison in which Jagtar is detained. The World Health Organisation and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have called on states to protect vulnerable prisoners during the pandemic, to immediately release those who have been arbitrarily detained and to secure non-custodial alternatives to detention.

In April, I wrote to the Prime Minister urging him to raise Jagtar’s case during a meeting with his counterpart, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government raised Jagtar’s arbitrary detention with the Indian authorities, either at that meeting or at any other time?

Although the UK Government are anxious to improve relations with India so they can secure a post-Brexit trade deal, the UK-India relationship, and indeed all our diplomatic efforts, must be deeper than just trade. They should be based on the promotion of democracy, human rights and upholding international law. The Government must do all they can to ensure Jagtar’s safety and release.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for securing this debate and representing his constituents so passionately on this matter.

Since the arrest of British national Jagtar Singh Johal in November 2017, I have raised his detention on numerous occasions with Ministers in the Chamber. I hope the Government will take note of our collective concerns and take some steps to address this situation. I am extremely disappointed that we are here once again raising Mr Johal’s detention with the Government. Despite the serious allegations of torture and mistreatment, and the fact that he potentially faces the death penalty, the UK Government have done very little to support Mr Johal’s family and find a solution to this difficult situation. In fact, the Foreign Secretary is yet to meet his family, even though it has been over three and a half years since his arrest.

This matter is of huge importance not only to those directly affected but to the wider Sikh community. Indeed, many of my Slough constituents have contacted me to express their anger and dismay at the Conservative Government’s inaction over Jagtar and his family. I share their concerns. Reports that Mr Johal has been subject to torture are deeply worrying, and must be treated with the utmost seriousness. We must be clear that there is no place for the use of torture or mistreatment anywhere in the world, yet this Government do not seem to want to raise that with the Indian authorities or seek to verify the claims. Mr Johal must be able to meet privately with the British consular staff so that he can raise concerns about his treatment. What have the Government done to facilitate that? Hopefully the Minister will answer that.

Those worrying reports, alongside delays to legal proceedings and the need for a fair trial for Mr Johal, should be conveyed by the UK authorities to the Indian authorities, yet I fear that that has not happened. I hope the Minister will assuage our concerns today. The UK Government must set an example to the world when dealing with such situations, and reassure hon. Members of this House and British citizens everywhere that their Government will not abandon them as soon as they set foot outside the UK.

I am cognisant of the well rehearsed and acknowledged stance that we cannot intervene in another nation’s judicial process, but time and again this Government have claimed to represent the views and voices of all Brits, while in practice many are voiceless within the international arena, as the Government fail to ensure that their basic human rights are respected. The Foreign Secretary must meet Mr Johal’s family and listen to and act on their serious concerns, rather than continually failing them.

I am here because of my personal concern about Mr Johal, but also because of the scale of representation that I have received from my constituents. The Government need to recognise the truly immense worry in our own country about this case. People are concerned because they have witnessed how Mr Johal can be picked up in this way, detained and deprived of his liberty. They feel that if it can happen to him, it can happen to any one of them, especially those who have raised real fears, concerns and criticisms about the current Indian Government’s human rights practices.

Those of us with family connections to India have immense affection for the country and its people. It pains me to see the reputational damage that has been caused to India by the actions of its Government in relation to Mr Johal’s case. I just want to ask a few basic questions about where our Government go from here.

First, in the light of the failure of their representations on Mr Johal’s case so far, can the Minister explain to us the strategy the Government will now pursue for effective representations from our Government directly to the Indian Government? Secondly, can the Minister explain their strategy to co-ordinate the representations from other countries and international bodies in order to create a climate of opinion that will, hopefully, force the Indian Government to act? What is the strategy to co-ordinate the work of human rights bodies to investigate and report on the adherence or non-adherence to basic human rights standards by the Indian authorities in relation to this case? Finally, if there are continued delays, what sanctions are the Government now prepared to take—politically, diplomatically, and if necessary economically—to either secure the release of Mr Johal or at least ensure that justice is done in this case?

There is a sense of frustration now within our own communities at the failure of the Government to act decisively. That is undermining confidence that our Government will actually protect their citizens when they travel abroad. I urge the Government strongly to listen to the representations that have been made so eloquently today, which I fully agree with, and to act. For goodness’ sake, we need speedy action on this appalling case.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) on bringing it forward. When he had an Adjournment debate on this case some time ago, I was there to support him, and I am here today to do the same thing.

I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. The Sikhs are one of our stakeholders, and I want to put that on the record. I have come here to support them.

It is tragic that yet again we are debating the violation of an individual’s human rights. The fact that Jagtar Singh Johal was detained—kidnapped, basically—from the street by balaclava-covered men, thrown in a van, taken to a prison cell, tortured and forced to sign a confession is absolutely unbelievable. I am my party’s spokesperson on human rights as well, so I am here to register my support for the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire and his constituent.

We live in an age in which most of the major human rights treaties—there are nine core treaties—have been ratified by the vast majority of countries, but it seems that yet again the human rights agenda has fallen short. This case involves a British national—one of ours—and his family, for whom we must stand up and speak out. Why have the Minister and the FCDO refused to meet with Jagtar Singh Johal’s family?

Mr Johal has been detained without evidence of any wrongdoing. India is the world’s largest democracy and is rarely considered to be among the major human rights-violating nations, yet Mr Johal has been subjected to torture and forced to sign false confessions while being held in a prison that is now suffering an outbreak of coronavirus. The Indian Government must be held to account. What actions has the Minister’s Department taken to protect Mr Johal, given his pre-existing health conditions, following the outbreak of coronavirus in Tihar prison? Do they include an independent medical examination and psychological evaluation? It is really important that we give the same treatment to all our citizens wherever they are in the world.

The prohibition of extrajudicial torture and killings is fundamental to human rights law. I acknowledge that the appalling treatment has been done not as a matter of official policy, but as a matter of practice, which is even worse. It is unacceptable that the Indian authorities are ignoring international legal obligations regarding torture and detention despite a lack of evidence. Is the Minister aware the Mr Johal is under the threat of the death penalty? What actions has his Department taken since learning of this situation?

India has a judicial system in which the process must be that if suspected criminals are formally charged, they appear in court. Courts might be slow and underfunded and police might be under pressure to convict, but that is no excuse to employ inhumane and degrading treatment of those in custody. That must not be accepted or tolerated.

We are sending that message to the Indian Government from this House today. I hope the Minister will do the same. India is clearly in breach of article 9 of the universal declaration of human rights. We must be told what actions have been taken by the Government at the United Nations to raise g the case of Mr Jagtar Singh Johal. I thank the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire again. We speak today for someone who is one of ours, who has been mistreated and is under threat of the death penalty.

It is truly a pleasure to sum up this incredibly important debate on an issue that is very close to my heart. I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on deaths abroad, consular services and assistance.

First, I offer my deep and profound sympathies, as well as my solidarity, to the family of Jagtar. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) on securing the debate and on all the work he has done to fight for Jagtar and his family. He has been utterly tireless.

Members have rightly spoken passionately in this debate about the rights of British citizens abroad, and what happens to them when they find themselves, through no fault of their own, killed, injured, incarcerated or—as in Jagtar’s case, although we have heard from many Members that the UK Government, shamelessly, will not recognise this—arbitrarily detained without trial, often by oppressive regimes that routinely breach or abuse human rights.

We should be absolutely clear about what the detention of Jagtar is. As my hon. Friend said, it is a flagrant breach of his human rights by the Indian authorities and Government, and they should be ashamed. It is vital that that message has gone out from all Members who have spoken in the debate today.

Jagtar has spent four years without a trial—four years away from his family in, as we know, appalling conditions, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) highlighted. Seeing this through the prism of covid and the experiences that Jagtar has had in prison make the case all the more distressing and appalling. He is one of so many who are apart and isolated from their family and friends, and ultimately without the support they need from the UK Government. As the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, this is an issue that should concern us all. If it can happen to Jagtar, it could happen to anybody.

Jagtar’s experience is, sadly, very familiar. As chair of the APPG, I took evidence from more than 60 families who had lost loved ones abroad or whose loved ones were incarcerated. We heard from a number of organisations, including Redress, who I know have given significant support to Jagtar’s family. The message was very clear, and there was a common theme. All the families we took evidence from felt terribly let down by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. They felt helpless and abandoned. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) alighted on a key point that we heard from a number of families whose loved ones were incarcerated. This Conservative UK Government are putting trade deals before human rights and that should shame us all.

I worked in a consulate myself—I worked for the US Department of State in the consulate in Edinburgh—and I have seen at first hand how hard consular staff work. There may be many things that we can criticise the United States for, but one thing I learned from my experience was that they look after their own, without fear or favour. This Government could learn a lot from that.

I have also met consular staff and ambassadors who work for the FCDO. I know how hard they work and how difficult and challenging their job is. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire also said, I know how hard they have worked for Jagtar and his family, but they are being cut to the bone and their resources are being drained by this Conservative Government.

In 2019, a report by the British Foreign Policy Group, which was backed by many prominent diplomats and former Foreign Secretaries, proved that funding of the diplomatic service was at its lowest in 20 years. In the last 30 years, staff have been cut by 1,000. That is hardly the advert for global Britain that the Conservative Government seem to punt left, right and centre. The reality is that the Government leave British citizens high and dry, because they do not give their staff or missions the funding and resource that they need. Not only are they abandoning British citizens; they are abandoning their own staff. The issue of consular assistance is a grey area. That is why I and others have called for a legal right to consular assistance, which would strengthen the rights of our citizens and make the Government have a legal responsibility to look after our citizens abroad.

The Government have to answer for their lack of action. As Members have said, they have to answer for the fact that the Prime Minister has met the Prime Minister of India and not raised the case of Jagtar. A Government’s first duty should be to look after their citizens in their time of need. Otherwise, what use or value does being a British citizen hold? Will the Government accept that Jagtar has been arbitrarily detained, according to the very clear international definition of arbitrary detention, and explain why they have failed to implement their own policy to seek the release of arbitrarily detained British citizens, as in Jagtar’s case?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As the shadow Minister who has been lobbying the Government on this issue, I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for securing this vital debate about his constituent Mr Jagtar Singh Johal. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) and for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for their important contributions.

The Labour party is deeply concerned about the Indian police’s incarceration of British citizen Jagtar Singh Johal, who has been held without trial for more than three and a half years. Although the Labour party does not involve itself in the internal matters of other countries, we will always stand up for human rights, democracy and international law everywhere, and we will always stand up for British citizens wherever we feel that their rights and freedoms are being violated. We value our country’s long-standing relationship with India, which we see as an important partner in the decades ahead on trade, security, climate change and, critically, the joint promotion of democracy, human rights and upholding international law. However, a strong relationship is worth having only if it means that each Government are able to engage frankly with the other and to challenge each other and take robust positions wherever necessary.

That brings me to the issue we are discussing, which is the deeply troubling case of a UK citizen incarcerated for more than 1,300 days without trial, and with the threat of the death penalty looming over him. Jagtar’s story is heartbreaking, as has been the experience of his wife and wider family, not least his brother, whom I have had the privilege of meeting on a number of occasions over the past year. We have all heard the facts of the case, and they are deeply disturbing for all manner of reasons. It is also worth noting that the United Nations shares our concern. On 29 January 2018, the UN working group on arbitrary detention, the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and the special rapporteur on torture sent an urgent representation to the Indian Government. It expressed concerns over the lack of detail on the factual and legal basis for Mr Johal’s arrest and detention, and it questioned the measures that are being taken by the Indian authorities to safeguard him from torture. On 9 November 2019, the United Nations working group and special rapporteurs sent an urgent representation to the Indian Government, insisting that there had been over two years of delay through an unfair legal process, and that the Indian Government must provide the right to due process, a fair trial and independent medical examination, yet there has still been no movement towards either a fair trial or Jagtar’s release.

Given the facts of the case and those UN interventions, I find it astonishing that the Foreign Secretary has refused to meet the family and that the Government Minister responsible in the other place has refused on two occasions to answer my questions on whether the case amounts to arbitrary detention—first, in a letter that I sent to him last autumn, and then in a letter in January of this year, which took the Government three months to reply to. I therefore ask the Minister today whether the Government recognise Jagtar’s incarceration as a clear case of arbitrary detention. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has made it clear that in death penalty cases where the detainee is detained on spurious grounds as a political statement, or in circumstances of clear human rights violations, the detainee’s country should make representations to the detaining state that the detainee should not be in detention or facing charges at all. Are the UK Government acting on that guidance? Do the UK Government intend to implement their own policy?

Three and a half years is more than enough time to gather evidence and bring a case to trial. Jagtar’s continued incarceration is a clear and obvious breach of international human rights law. He is clearly a victim of arbitrary detention and as such should be released immediately. The UK Government must also remind the Indian authorities that international human rights law prohibits the reliance on evidence that has been gathered under torture. Jagtar and his family have been through far too much already. Today is the moment for the UK Government to demonstrate that they are genuinely committed to standing up for a British citizen whose human rights are being violated.

I would be most grateful if the Minister could conclude his remarks no later than 5.47 pm, so that the Member in charge has time to sum up the debate.

As ever, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in this very important debate, and the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for securing it. I pay tribute to him for his tenacious support for his constituent Mr Johal since his arrest in India. I am also grateful for the contributions of all right hon. and hon. Members who have been in contact with the Foreign Office, either in writing or through formats such as this, and I will try to respond to the points raised in my remarks.

Before coming to Mr Johal’s specific case, I will set out our consular policy in general terms. Clearly, consular assistance is central to our work at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year our staff endeavour to give advice and practical support to all British nationals overseas and their families here in the UK. We aim to treat every consular case with equal importance and tailor our help to the individual circumstances of each person who is in need of our support, in normal times and in times of crisis. For example, from March to July 2020, the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office ran a repatriation operation unprecedented in the post-war era. We were proud to be able to return 38,000 people on 186 charter flights from 57 countries and territories back to the UK, as well as enabling 1.3 million British nationals to return via commercial routes.

The Government do not have, and have never had, a legal duty of care to British nationals abroad, because our ability to provide consular assistance is always dependent on other states adhering to the Vienna convention on consular relations and the laws of that host country. Consequently, a right to consular assistance in English law would not help those caught up in complex consular cases. In a similar vein, the FCDO does not seek preferential treatment for British nationals. We do not and, as we have heard from several hon. Members, must not interfere in civil and criminal court proceedings. It is absolutely right that we respect the legal systems of other countries, just as we expect foreign nationals to respect our laws when they are in the United Kingdom.

Our policy in respect of how to engage on complex detention cases, such as that of Mr Johal, is clear: the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office makes no judgment on the innocence or guilt of any British national who is detained overseas. Our priority is always the welfare of the UK national concerned. We look to ensure that they are receiving food, water and medical treatment, and that they have access to legal advice. With their permission, we can raise concerns about mistreatment or torture with the prison authorities, and request an independent investigation into any such allegations.

We will always consider making representations to the local authorities if detainees are not treated in line with internationally accepted standards, including if trials are unreasonably delayed compared with local cases, and as the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire will know, we have provided Mr Johal and his family with extensive consular support since his arrest in 2017. We will continue to do so until this case has been resolved. That resolution must include an independent investigation into Mr Johal’s allegations of torture and mistreatment, and the transparent progress of judicial proceedings against him.

Has the specific allegation that was raised by one of our colleagues, the pouring of petrol in Mr Johal’s cell, been specifically raised with the Indian authorities by anyone in the Foreign Office?

What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that we have consistently raised the need for an independent and impartial investigation into those torture allegations. The Foreign Secretary himself most recently highlighted this to Indian Minister of External Affairs Jaishankar on 6 May, and we have made many representations in this case. Officials or Ministers have raised Mr Johal’s case on almost 70 occasions.

I appreciate, however, that there are calls for the British Government to do more in Mr Johal’s case. I would therefore like to reassure the House that ever since his arrest in India in 2017, our staff have worked hard to provide effective assistance to Mr Johal and his family in the UK. We take these allegations about torture and mistreatment incredibly seriously. The allegations go back to 2017 and were made again in January this year. There are causes for concern in Mr Johal’s case, and we also share right hon. and hon. Members’ deep concern about the continued delays in the legal proceedings against Mr Johal.

I accept everything that the Minister has said about interventions with regard to the Indian criminal justice system. That is why the point about arbitrary detention is so important, because as the spokesperson for the official Opposition, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), and the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) have both said, in the event that that is the view of the Government, they have a duty to intervene. Is that the view of the Government, and if it is, why have they not intervened? If it is not, what points of distinction would they make?

The Government take all allegations of human rights violations extremely seriously, and we raise concerns with the authorities on the ground where appropriate. The assistance we provide is assessed on a case-by-case basis, and it entirely depends on the circumstances of the case. It is for this reason that we have persistently advocated for Mr Johal’s welfare. We have raised his case regularly at the highest levels and with the Indian Government.

I will take one more intervention. I am just conscious that I am supposed to finish in three minutes’ time, but I think there is no chance of that now.

I am very grateful to the Minister for taking my intervention. May I go back to the point that has just been made? He was asked whether the UK Government accept that this is an arbitrary detention. If not, what is it about the situation that they do not agree with? That is what we need to hear from the Minister.

As I said, the action we take in a consular case in relation to allegations of arbitrary detention is tailored to individual circumstances and situations, and what we judge to be the most effective in each case. Although the FCDO cannot investigate allegations of human rights abuses overseas, we have carefully considered all available information on the arbitrary detention allegations, including the Reprieve determination. We will continue to raise concerns regarding human rights directly with the Indian authority as we judge them to be effective and appropriate in Mr Johal’s case.

If I may, in the couple of minutes that I have left, I will move on. We have persistently advocated for Mr Johal’s welfare. We have raised his torture allegations and his right to a fair trial with the Government of India on more than 70 occasions since his arrest. Most recently, the Foreign Secretary raised the case with the Indian Minister of External Affairs on 6 May, and Lord Ahmad, the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, with the high commissioner on 8 June. The previous Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the International Trade Secretary have all raised Mr Johal’s case at appropriate opportunities during his detention. I further assure right hon. and hon. Members that we have thoroughly considered concerns regarding arbitrary detention and the death penalty in this case.

The Government take all allegations of violations of human rights seriously. We raise them with the local authorities where appropriate. We also cover welfare issues. In Mr Johal’s case, in-person visits to prisons in India, which hon. Members referred to, are restricted due to the pandemic, but we have replaced them with phone calls. We most recently spoke to Mr Johal on 11 May. We will continue to pursue regular welfare visits with the authorities for as long as he remains in prison. We appreciate that his family have suffered considerable distress throughout his detention. The high commissioner to India most recently met Mr Johal’s brother Gurpreet on 30 April.

A question was raised about trade and human rights. It is clear that the relationship with India is important and is based on trust and collaboration. It is important that human rights and complex consular cases form part of our dialogue. As such, the 2030 road map for India-UK future relations, agreed in April by our two Prime Ministers, includes a commitment to promote closer co-operation in consular matters and to resolve long-running or complex consular cases.

I recognise that this remains an extremely difficult time for Mr Johal and his family. I assure the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire, to whom I will now give the Floor, and Mr Johal’s family that we will continue to do all that we can to support Mr Johal and to ensure that he is treated in accordance with Indian and international law. His case remains a priority for the UK Government, and it must be resolved in line with due process and without unreasonable delay.

I am very grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members who have participated, and to the Front Benchers, my good and hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) and the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). As a member of the Defence Committee, I am very much aware of the importance of the relationship with India, but it has to be a frank and upfront one. The Minister mentioned consular support, which I also mentioned in my speech, but it seems that arbitrary detention is clearly different when someone is held by Iran or China. He also mentioned the Government’s issues in relation to English law. Clearly, it is a pity that my constituent is not being assisted by Scots law.

With all due respect, the Minister for Asia, whose portfolio does not cover my constituent—it is covered by that of the Minister for South Asia—has failed to answer the intrinsic question: is this deemed arbitrary detention? The Government have failed to answer that question time and again. Time is up. We have had three Prime Ministers, four Foreign Secretaries, and so many Under-Secretaries that I have lost count. What will it take for the UK Government to answer the question: is this, or is this not, arbitrary detention?

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the detention of Jagtar Singh Johal.

Sitting adjourned.