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Mr Jagtar Singh Johal

Volume 832: debated on Tuesday 12 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether the Prime Minister raised the case of Mr Jagtar Singh Johal, currently imprisoned in India, with the government of India during his recent visit to that country.

My Lords, I can confirm that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister raised Mr Johal’s case with Prime Minister Modi on 9 September in Delhi, on the margins of the G20 summit. We will continue raising Mr Johal’s case and any related concerns directly with the Government of India, including his allegations of torture and his right to a fair trial. I regularly raise Mr Johal’s case directly, including with External Affairs Minister Jaishankar on 29 May.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but neither it nor the Prime Minister’s response to Questions in the Commons yesterday showed any sense of the outrage expressed by more than 100 Members of the Lords and Commons over India’s abduction and six-year arbitrary detention and torture of Jagtar Singh Johal, a British citizen. Does the Minister agree that it does nothing for Britain’s standing in the world when a British Prime Minister, looking for a favourable trade deal, expresses admiration for a man who was barred from entry into the United States and the UK for atrocities against Muslims in Gujarat, whose Home Minister refers to Muslims as “termites” and whose party is committed to turning India into a Hindu state, to the detriment of minorities?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we raised Mr Johal’s case. We have a wide-ranging relationship with India, and in that regard we have a very constructive dialogue, including, as I have raised directly on a number of occasions, on a wide range of human rights issues. I am sorry, but I do not subscribe to the noble Lord’s description of either India or the Prime Minister of India. I declare an interest as someone who has Indian heritage and is Muslim by faith.

My Lords, did the Prime Minister, and indeed the noble Lord the Minister, ask for Mr Jagtar Singh Johal’s release? What actions did they ask the Indian Prime Minister to take?

As I said in my Answer, we raised the specifics of the allegations that Mr Johal’s family have raised with us directly. We engage with Mr Johal directly through our consular support. We do not believe that publicly asking for his release would be productive or constructive. There is a natural process and a legal process to be followed in India. However, we are raising allegations of mistreatment when they are made. We are also working on ensuring that the family can directly access Mr Johal. Indeed, I visited Scotland only last month, where I met directly with Mr Johal’s father, his wife and his brother.

My Lords, following on from that point, we have been here before with the cases in Iran and the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Commons emphasising that the Government needed to have a zero-tolerance approach to the arbitrary detention of British citizens. Do the Government agree and acknowledge that Mr Johal is arbitrarily detained? I think that previous Prime Ministers did. Is that still the case, as not just Mr Johal’s family but the UN working group has declared him to be? How can Mr Johal expect a fair trial, as the noble Lord has sort of indicated, after a confession was extracted from him by torture?

My Lords, I did not sort of indicate; I was quite specific: a fair trial is required. It is protected by the constitution of India and the independence of its judicial system. The noble Baroness is quite right that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has issued a specific opinion about Mr Johal. We take that very seriously and have consistently raised those direct concerns about Mr Johal’s treatment with the Indian authorities. However, as the noble Baroness will know from her own experience, it is now for India to reply formally to that particular opinion.

My Lords, after the Prime Minister raised the issue of Mr Johal with the Indian Prime Minister, have the Government given any feedback to Mr Johal’s family in Scotland? Secondly, do the Government think that Mr Johal is a political prisoner?

My Lords, I am not going to speculate on or respond to the noble Lord’s second question. This is not about politicising; it is a matter for the Indian authorities. They will be following a due process. As I have said before, I have directly raised the issues and concerns raised by the Johal family. It is not just me; my right honourable friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have done so. As I said in my Answer, the important thing is to ensure that there is a fair trial. Where allegations are made of mistreatment, we will raise them directly. We have a constructive engagement with the Government of India, which allows us to raise these key points and messages directly and candidly.

My Lords, the fact is that until now there has not been due process and there are clear accusations regarding the way Mr Johal has been treated. In the Minister’s letter to Mr Johal’s MP, he said there are risks and benefits to calling for his release. Can he outline what the risks are? That is critical in our relationship with India and its Prime Minister.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord is well versed in this. There are risks in any issues or challenges we face with any country. They are based on an assessment of what that balance will be and how it will impact the relationship, but equally on non-interference in its legal process. If a judicial process were under way here in the UK, we would not expect countries publicly to call for the release of an individual or to interfere in the legal process; nor do we seek to do that where a due process is being followed. If there are concerns—I fully accept that there have been delays to various hearings—I assure the noble Lord that I have raised them, because to our mind the various delays are causing further grief to the detainee as well as to the family. It is important that this process be completed as soon as possible.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that it is widely believed that intelligence sharing with the Indian authorities contributed to Mr Johal’s detention and torture. Will the Government now acknowledge and apologise for any role that the UK played in his detention and take responsibility for securing his release?

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness, in asking the question, is aware that Mr Johal has an active civil litigation case against His Majesty’s Government on this matter and that this is an issue before the court. We must let that process take its course. I am sure the noble Baroness will appreciate that I cannot comment further on the case because of that material fact.

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned the trade deal which has been going through with India. Can he reassure the House that the human rights dialogue continues and is unaffected? Can he give other examples of cases we have taken up?

My Lords, I can give that direct assurance. As well as being Minister for our relationship with India I am also, as the noble Earl knows, Minister for Human Rights. We have a very structured engagement on human rights. I am not going to go into specific cases, in order to protect some of those individuals, but we have a very productive exchange. We raise a number of cases as well as broader human rights issues, including the key aspects often raised in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, I rise to raise again the issue of arbitrary detention. I know it is rather difficult for us because we are now facing huge delays in our own criminal justice system, but six years is a long time to wait for due process. We keep being told this by the Indian authorities—when the issue was raised by Boris Johnson some years back, he was given the same reassurance that there was going to be a trial very soon. Here we are, six years on and there has not been a trial, so not surprisingly the family have very little confidence in those kinds of reassurance. The international community has confirmed that Mr Johal has been detained in conditions which suggest that he has been seriously tortured. It really is coming to a point where one is expecting something more than polite conversations with the Indian Government. Were we having more than polite conversations?

I assure the noble Baroness that whatever the nature or substance of a conversation, I would regard any engagement we have as polite, but politeness does not mean that we cannot be straight and candid in those exchanges. The engagement we have with the Government of India is a constructive friendship; it is a partnership. As I have already said from the Dispatch Box, I fully accept that Mr Johal’s case has continued over a number of years, and I have been engaged directly on this. That is why it is important that we keep it very much on the front burner, and that is exactly why in the bilateral engagement my right honourable friend had with the Prime Minister of India, he raised this.