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Jagtar Singh Johal

Volume 824: debated on Thursday 8 September 2022

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 7 September.

“I am grateful to the honourable Member for asking the Urgent Question, and I pay tribute to his tenacious support for his constituent Mr Jagtar Singh Johal since his arrest in India in 2017. I appreciate what a difficult time this must be for Mr Johal’s family and friends. Again, I pay tribute to his Member of Parliament for all that he is doing for his constituent in these challenging circumstances.

Consular assistance to British nationals (overseas) is the primary public service of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and a priority for the Foreign Secretary. Since Mr Johal’s arrest over four years ago, Ministers and officials have consistently raised our concerns about his welfare and treatment directly with the Government of India. With Mr Johal’s consent, this has included raising allegations of torture and mistreatment, and his right to a fair trial. The former Prime Minister, my right honourable friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Boris Johnson, raised Mr Johal’s case with Prime Minister Modi in April. The then Foreign Secretary raised Mr Johal’s case with the Indian Minister of External Affairs, Dr Jaishankar, most recently in Delhi on 31 March. Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Minister of State with responsibility for south Asia and the Commonwealth, is also in regular contact with his counterparts across the Indian Government. Since 2017, Ministers and officials have raised Mr Johal’s detention on almost 100 occasions, and they will continue to do so.

In May, the UN working group on arbitrary detention published its opinion that Mr Johal is arbitrarily detained. We take this seriously, and we are committed to doing what we can to assist Mr Johal. On 9 June, the then Foreign Secretary met the honourable Member for West Dunbartonshire, Martin Docherty-Hughes, and Mr Johal’s brother Gurpreet to discuss this matter.

In February this year, lawyers acting for Mr Johal issued a civil litigation claim against Her Majesty’s Government in the High Court. Last month, they detailed their allegations. We must let the legal process take its course, and I will therefore not comment on this matter, in line with long-established practice, as I am sure all Members will appreciate and as you, Madam Deputy Speaker, outlined before the start of the Urgent Question. I can assure the honourable Member for West Dunbartonshire and the House that we will continue to do all we can to support Mr Johal and his family.”

My Lords, I first acknowledge all the hard work the Minister has taken on this case. In the Commons yesterday, Sarah Champion reminded the Minister there, Rehman Chishti, of the Foreign Office policy to call for the release of arbitrarily detained British nationals, yet the Government have not done this in Jagtar’s case. This is despite the former Prime Minister accepting that Jagtar is arbitrarily detained. The Commons Minister said in response that it was for the new Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister to make such a determination. Will they do so, and when? They should commit now to seek Jagtar’s urgent release and return to the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, and he is correct: I have been working on this since I first took on the portfolio as Minister for South Asia in 2019. One of my first actions was to meet directly with Gurpreet Johal and the wife of Mr Johal because it was important for me to extend that support directly. The noble Lord is also right about the issue of Mr Johal being arbitrarily detained; the UN working group has alluded to this. We have taken it seriously and I am sure that the noble Lord will know from my own dealings with him that I have taken this on board. My understanding of the timeline on the UN side is that there is until 4 November for India to formally respond to what has been suggested. We look at all the details very carefully and I assure him that we are doing everything that we can at the current time in securing the current detention conditions of Mr Johal and access to consular visits, which are regular. I meet the family regularly and ensured that the former Foreign Secretary, now Prime Minister, met them; and I have met the constituency Member of Parliament on a number of occasions. I will continue to update the noble Lord, both within Chamber and outside, with further details on this case.

I commend the Minister on his work in this area. It has been consistent and clear. I am personally pleased that he continues in his post in the Foreign Office—I did not mean that he should not have been promoted; of course that goes without saying but, at the very least, I am pleased he is still in his position. The question is not now just the welfare of Jagtar; it is about whether Ministers are seeking his urgent release. Can the Minister be clear: is that what representations are now being made about to our Indian friends? There is an incongruity in that the UK is currently negotiating with India the human rights chapters of an FTA at the same time at which there is, as the UN has put it, an “egregious human rights challenge”. Are we making it clear to our Indian friends that we will not enter into an FTA until this issue is resolved?

My Lords, I have made representations here with the former Indian high commissioner—there is a change not just in government; the new high commissioner is about to start and I have sought an early meeting. This is a case that the Indian Government are fully aware that the United Kingdom has consistently raised, along with three other cases. They continue to feature part and parcel in the raising of cases and the issues and concerns we have about Mr Johal’s continued detention in India. On the noble Lord’s latter point, I assure him—again, subject to changes which may take place within the FCDO—of my commitment and that we will not pursue trade to the exclusion of human rights. It is a particular area of focus for me, as the Minister for Human Rights, and we regard this as an important part of the deep, candid and constructive relationship we have with India, which allows us to raise these issues. The discussions on various issues have featured those of consular cases.

Could the Minister clarify two simple points? First, is it still the Government’s view that Jagtar Singh was arbitrarily detained? The answer is either yes or no. Secondly, have the Government at any time demanded, and are they still demanding, his release?

My Lords, on my noble friend’s first point, as my honourable friend said in the other place, the former Prime Minister made a statement on the issue of arbitrary detention. We have looked very carefully and continue to look at the issuance of the arbitrary detention opinion of the UN working group, and in this respect we are taking up all the issues that have been raised, including those in my direct engagement and discussions with the family, including Mr Johal’s brother. I have been clear with them in a private capacity about my own views on this. The Government are very clear where we look that there is credible evidence of arbitrary detention. We work both publicly and privately to support and tailor our assistance to the given individual who may be detained in this way. Our primary focus in the case of Mr Johal very much remains, first and foremost, full consular access. I believe there have been 48 occasions over his detention period, every six to eight weeks, on which we have been granted that access and where we look at the primary issues of his welfare and health, and that continues. We continue to work directly with the Indian Government in making representations. I am very cognisant of the situation. This detention has continued for over 1,000 days, and it is important that we seek a resolution to this.

My Lords, Jagtar Singh Johal was a UK blogger who drew attention to India’s continuing abuse of the human rights of minorities. The Indian Home Minister has publicly described Muslims as termites—that is the extent of the abuse of human rights. For his actions, Jagtar Singh Johal has been incarcerated and tortured for years in an Indian jail and is facing the death penalty. We have heard that we have constructive talks with the Indian Government. That has been going on for years— what has actually been achieved? We talk about the importance of freedom of speech, but does the Minister agree that it smacks of hypocrisy when we choose to look the other way while negotiating a trade deal with India?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s final point, I assure him that we do not look the other way. Our relationship with India is strong; it is a relationship between friends and constructive partners. It is very much because we invest in that relationship that we can raise sensitive issues including this particular case and others on both sides, allowing for an exchange. We are making progress, certainly in my view. Of course, I am totally with the family; the continued detention has caused them much anxiety and continues to do so. Again, let me be absolutely clear that the UK Government oppose the death penalty in every respect, and the Indian authorities are fully aware of the UK’s position on this.

My Lords, the Minister has obviously made a great deal of effort on this matter and is to be complimented on doing so. Are the Government satisfied by the quality of legal representation that Mr Johal is subject to at the moment in what is clearly a very tense, and for him unnerving, experience?

My Lords, ultimately, of course, it is for the family to determine their lawyers and legal representation, but we engage regularly both with the family here and with our consular officers in India. The Indian high commission deals directly with both Mr Johal and his legal representatives, but this issue is very much for the family. I do not know if there is a specific issue which has been raised with the noble Lord, but if he wishes to raise one with me outside the Chamber I would certainly be pleased to look at it.

My noble friend Lord Tyrie asked for short and direct answers to his questions, but he got rather long ones. Could we return to the essential point, the second one that my noble friend made: are the Government demanding this man’s release?

My Lords, I am not avoiding the direct answer, but all noble Lords will appreciate the sensitivity of this issue, and indeed this particular case, for a variety of reasons. I have deliberately stated what the government position is, but I assure my noble friend of the absolute commitment that we are very much focused on the welfare of Mr Johal. On the issue of arbitrary detention, I have already outlined the current timeline, and I am sure we will see India’s response to the UN report. I will certainly continue to update your Lordships’ House on this case. As someone who deals with India quite extensively on various issues of consular cases, in my experience I have seen that we see results not where we raise these issues in a very public way but where we seek to unlock them privately and candidly.