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British Nationals Imprisoned Abroad

Volume 637: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2018

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered British nationals imprisoned abroad.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. In late January, I attended an event organised by the Redress Trust, the international human rights and anti-torture non-governmental organisation, and the all-party parliamentary human rights group to launch Redress’s new report, “Beyond Discretion: The Protection of British Nationals Abroad”. The report uses the NGO’s experience of working with British torture survivors and their families over the past 25 years when trying to get the help of the UK Government.

Under international law, through the Vienna convention on consular relations, to which the UK is a party, all states have a right to intervene on behalf of nationals abroad to ensure that their fundamental rights are respected. It is important to recognise that that is not the same as interfering in cases. Among other protections, the VCCR allows for the freedom of communication between consular officials and a detained person, as well as freedom of access to the detained through consular visits.

Every year, nearly 6,000 British nationals are arrested or detained abroad. Of those, more than 100 tell the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that they have been tortured or ill treated while abroad. In 2016, the latest year for which data is available, the FCO delivered assistance to 118 British nationals who alleged that they had been tortured. The total number who have been tortured is of course likely to be higher, as some might not be able to report such violations, or have the chance to. One such case is that of Jagtar Singh Johal.

In October 2017, Jagtar travelled to India to marry his fiancée. On 4 November, while out shopping, he was seized by plain-clothes officers, hooded and abducted. Following a brief court hearing, he was held incommunicado by Indian police for nine days at an undisclosed location, and he was denied all access to lawyers, British consular staff and family members. On 10 November, Jagtar was secretly presented in court while his lawyer and British consular staff were, outrageously, left outside the courtroom waiting to be called. They were informed along with the media only after he had been presented before the court and had left the courtroom. Subsequently, witnesses reported that Jagtar had great difficulty standing or walking and had to be assisted by the police officers escorting him in and out of the courtroom, supporting Jagtar’s claim of severe torture.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for bringing this short debate to the House. Is not the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting here in London a prime opportunity for the Government to tackle the Indian Government head-on about the claims of torture of my constituent, Jagtar Singh Johal, while he was in early detention in India?

Absolutely. That is a question I shall be posing to the Minister in my speech.

On 14 November, in the courtroom when Jagtar first met his lawyer, briefly, he made allegations of severe torture between 5 and 9 November. That included leg separation and electric shocks to his ears, nipples and genitals. He has told lawyers that police also forced him to sign blank pieces of paper, believed to be for the purpose of forging confessions.

On 16 November, after much lobbying, British consular staff were eventually able to meet Jagtar, some 12 days after his abduction, torture and interrogation, but two senior police officers remained in the interrogation room to prevent a private conversation. The experienced consular officer present assessed Jagtar and concluded that he was prevented from fully opening up about his mistreatment or to show signs of torture, and he was declared vulnerable. To date, unacceptably, the Indian authorities have prevented Jagtar from having private access to British consular staff. Will the Minister please offer some explanation as to why the Indian authorities have done that? What actions has the FCO taken in the past 130 days to address such an unacceptable state of affairs?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration. I have been asked by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) to intervene on behalf of her constituent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been imprisoned in Iran for almost two years. We all know the story, which is clear, and she has been separated from her husband Richard, who lives in West Hampstead, and her daughter Gabriella, who lives with Nazanin’s parents in Tehran. That case should never be forgotten. It is important to renew our efforts to free her and bring her home—and to bring all the other people home as well.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention on behalf of Nazanin, whose case has been in the public arena for some time. Her husband is present in the Public Gallery for this debate. I shall also touch on her case, which is also extremely important.

On 21 November, in response to a parliamentary question by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), the then FCO Minister, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), described Jagtar’s treatment as “unconstitutional” and warned of “extreme action” against the Indian authorities. For a large part of his detention, Jagtar has been in police as opposed to judicial custody. In police custody, apart from the severe-degree torture, he has been abused and mistreated. Sleep deprivation techniques, constant verbal abuse, solitary confinement, use of handcuffs 24 hours a day, and misinformation about his family and the British authorities have been used to exploit and demoralise Jagtar mentally.

In December 2017, Redress called on the UN special rapporteur on torture to intervene in Jagtar’s case, and on the Indian Government to ensure that he is protected from further torture. Redress also called for Jagtar to be provided with an immediate independent medical examination—which he has been denied, despite repeated requests by his lawyer—and for the allegations of torture to be investigated according to international law. The next hearing for such a medical will be held sometime in March, almost four months after the alleged torture took place. Again, will the Minister please update us on the steps taken to secure an independent medical examination and any necessary medical treatment following the allegations of torture?

I think the hon. Lady touched on this briefly, and might be about to do so in more detail, but does she agree with me and with Redress that if the Government provided a higher level of consular assistance, as well as some consistency and clarity about the circumstances in which they will provide it, that would help in the cases not only of those such as Nazanin and Jagtar, but those seriously injured abroad, which is another significant issue? For example, my constituent Robbie Hughes suffered a serious attack while abroad.

We are signed up to the VCCR so, as the right hon. Gentleman was absolutely correct to say, we need to ensure that we use our position in the light of that to raise similar issues for injured individuals.

Jagtar’s case is extremely serious, but it has become farcical and a trial by media. He has been brought to court more than 30 times over the past four months, and he has been taken in and out of judicial and police custody. He is now being held in judicial custody until 3 April. I understand that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has expressed concerns in writing that confidential police investigation videos of Jagtar, taken when he was under duress, have inappropriately been released to Indian TV stations by the Indian authorities. Has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office complained to the Indian authorities about Jagtar facing trial by media, which means that, if charged, he would never get a fair trial?

The British High Commission has never been able to meet Jagtar in private. Requests for private access to him have been repeatedly denied. I will go into more detail about the importance of private visits by consular officials in cases such as Jagtar’s. The VCCR states that nationals should be “free to communicate” and have access to consular officers. In cases of torture, often the authorities will be present in the room or will find other ways of monitoring and controlling interactions between consular officers and the individual. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which conducts prison visits throughout the world to ensure humane treatment, recognises that private interviews are the only way to make it possible to hear an individual’s point of view. In addition, the United Nations Committee Against Torture has called on states to

“insist on unrestricted consular access to its nationals who are in detention abroad, with facility for unmonitored meetings and, if required…appropriate medical expertise”.

In short, private visits are essential to ensure the safety of victims of torture.

Consular assistance is an important humanitarian safeguard and provides a crucial link with the outside world. Sometimes it is the only link. The UK has said that it is a priority to meet Jagtar in private, but it is unacceptable that after 130 days it has not been able to do so. As I conclude my remarks about Jagtar, I ask the Minister whether the Foreign Secretary will meet Jagtar’s family, who are concerned about the priority being given to this case.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask that the Foreign Secretary meet the family. I have had many constituents contact me about this case. They are deeply concerned, because many of them visit India and they want to make sure that the proper protections are available. It would be appropriate for the Government to give higher priority to this case.

As my hon. Friend suggests, lots of individuals have approached many Members, from all parts of the House, stating that they are very concerned about visiting India, given what has happened in Jagtar Singh Johal’s case. I therefore ask the Minister whether the Prime Minister will raise Jagtar’s case with Narendra Modi when she meets him next month in London, given that she spoke to the BBC and showed interest in Jagtar’s case within days of his abduction and torture.

On a broader level, I would like the Minister to give an update on the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Once again, Nazanin has had no access to consular services. She was placed in solitary confinement for eight and a half months in a cell measuring just 1.5 by 2 square metres and has been subjected to maximum psychological pressure, with the intention of demoralising her and putting her in a completely powerless situation. She has faced prosecution for the charges levelled against her in a secret and unfair trial. Her treatment has had a severe impact on her mental and physical health. As hopes for her release were dashed over Christmas, what action are the UK Government taking to ensure that she is protected from any further torture and ill treatment, and that she is released as soon as possible?

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. On the point about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, does she agree that we need to review the support given to dual nationals to ensure that we offer them protection when travelling to hostile states?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point about dual nationals and making sure that they have the rights they are entitled to. In Nazanin’s case, she should have had access to British consular services.

Finally, I would like to raise the case of Andy Tsege, a British national who has been arbitrarily detained in Ethiopia since 2014, when he was kidnapped and rendered to Ethiopia on the command of the Ethiopian Government, as part of a brutal crackdown on political opponents and civil rights activists. After being kidnapped, Andy was held in secret detention in solitary confinement for more than a year. He has been paraded on Ethiopian TV looking ill and gaunt. Andy is held under a sentence of death that was handed down in absentia while he was living in London, in a trial that was lacking basic elements of due process. He has no contact with his family in London, despite promises from the Foreign Secretary over a year ago to facilitate a family visit, and he is not receiving appropriate medical care.

These three individuals represent just a fraction of the number of British nationals imprisoned abroad. Although I do not call for the Government of this country to interfere in the internal affairs of another sovereign state, or proclaim that due process should not be followed, we cannot sit idly by while British citizens are deprived of some of the most basic rights that we hold dear. An integral part of being a responsible member of the global community is to conduct oneself in accordance with international rules and norms, none more so than the 1948 universal declaration of human rights, which states that human rights should be protected by the rule of law. The Government are obliged to ensure that all British citizens are subject to this protection, and I call on them to use every legitimate means to ensure that no British citizen should have to suffer such unlawful and inhumane treatment.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) for securing this very important debate.

According to data released by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, more than 5,000 British nationals were detained overseas in 2016. However, keeping in mind the time constraints, I will be unable to talk about cases such as the very high-profile case of Mrs Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I note that Mr Ratcliffe and his mother are present in the Public Gallery as part of their long-standing fight for justice. Instead, I will focus on the case of Mr Jagtar Singh Johal, a British resident of Dunbartonshire who was arrested in November 2017 while on holiday in the Punjab in India, and who has been imprisoned since then without any charge. As we have heard today, Mr Johal has undergone experiences that gravely concern many colleagues in this House; that is proved by the number of Members of Parliament from all parties who are in attendance.

The hon. Gentleman speaks of the concerns that we all have about Jagtar Singh Johal; I have had 68 emails from constituents—I have three gurdwaras in my constituency—and there is wider concern among people who wish to travel to India about how they will be treated when they go.

Precisely; like the hon. Lady, I have had various—to put it mildly—contacts from constituents and further afield. It is incumbent on us all to stand for the human rights of all British citizens. That is why we are taking part in this debate.

Order. If a Member wishes to speak in a half-hour debate, it is the convention of the House that they must have the permission of the Minister who is responding. I am advised that that permission has not been given. There may have been some confusion in this process. I encourage the Member to shorten his remarks, because I am aware that the Minister has a detailed reply to give to the House.

I thank you, Mr Hollobone, for your clarification. However, I would like to point out that I contacted the relevant individuals of the House authorities to make sure that I had permission to speak. I thank the Minister for allowing me to speak.

It is important that the British Parliament should defend the rights of all our fellow citizens, wherever they are in the world, to have the benefit of due process under law, whatever they might be suspected or accused of. This is particularly true where allegations of torture have been made by the detainee.

Mr Johal’s legal representative called for an independent medical report to ascertain his client’s claims of torture, but that request has been denied. Although consular services have been provided to Mr Johal by the British Deputy High Commissioner in Chandigarh, allegedly all visits have been supervised by the Indian prison authorities and none has been held in private. That example highlights the continued failures by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in handling Mr Johal’s case and raising the important issues of his welfare with the relevant authorities. The UK Government’s failure to condemn the series of abuses has left all British citizens travelling abroad vulnerable. I implore the Minister to act now and press for further access to Mr Johal so he can receive the necessary support that he is entitled to as a British citizen.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) on securing this important debate, ably supported by the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi). The Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), had hoped to take part in this debate as she is the Minister with departmental responsibility for this area, but at this very moment she is appearing before the Foreign Affairs Committee. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government.

I will set out some general consular policy before moving on to the detention policy and the individual cases raised. I also undertake to write to hon. Members with more details where that is appropriate. The Government are proud to uphold a long tradition of offering British nationals a comprehensive, responsive consular service. Consular assistance is central to our work at the FCO. This support is not a right, I hasten to add, nor is it an obligation. Contrary to a common misconception, the Government do not have a legal duty of care to British nationals abroad. When things go wrong, our consular staff endeavour to give advice and practical support to British nationals overseas and their families in the UK, 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. We aim to provide support and guidance tailored to the specific context of each case. As would be expected, our staff provide professional, non-judgmental, polite and helpful support where possible.

The volume, variety and complexity of the cases we deal with is staggering. In the last financial year alone our staff overseas dealt with approximately 5,000 detentions, 3,600 deaths and nearly 3,500 hospital cases. Naturally, our support is not without certain reasonable limitations. Rightly, the FCO expects and advises individuals to take sensible steps before they travel.

I will not, because I have very little time to make the speech I want to make.

UK nationals travelling abroad should ensure that they have sufficient travel insurance and read the FCO’s travel advice so that they can make informed decisions about the obvious risks in certain parts of the world. We offer help appropriate to the circumstances of each case. Our overseas staff assess individuals’ vulnerability and needs based on who they are, where they are and the situation they face. Dual nationality was mentioned; I will endeavour to ensure that there is a review of precisely what impact that has and revert to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston.

We work particularly hard to support those who are most in need of our help, and we intervene on behalf of families if British nationals are not treated in line with internationally accepted standards or there are unreasonable delays in procedures compared with the way nationals of the country concerned are treated. We are not, however, in a position to take decisions on people’s behalf, nor are we able to do everything that might be asked of us. As a matter of policy, we do not pay outstanding bills, including legal fees, as we are not funded to provide such financial assistance, nor does the FCO seek preferential treatment for British nationals. That means we do not and must not interfere in civil or criminal court proceedings, as was pointed out. It is right that we respect the legal systems of other countries, just as we expect foreign nationals to respect our laws and legal processes when they are here in the UK.

We have a clear policy that dictates how we engage in detention cases. We typically become aware of such cases when the British national involved agrees that the host Government may notify us of their detention. We then make contact or visit, where possible, within 24 hours. That did happen in the Johal case: as was alluded to, there was simply a delay in British authorities’ being made aware of his detention.

There are some 2,000 Britons in detention at any one time, the greatest number—approximately 400—in the United States of America. Our priority is always the welfare of UK nationals: to ensure that they receive food, water and medical treatment as required, and that they have access to legal advice. I know personally from dealing with the notorious cases of the Chennai Six and the group that was recently detained in Cambodia just how important that is.

The number of consular visits depends on the context of a particular case. Some have described those visits as a lifeline, and they may be the only visits a British national in detention abroad receives. Our assistance does not stop there. If a British national tells us they have been mistreated or tortured, our consular staff will, with their permission, do their best to raise concerns with the authorities and seek an investigation. To strengthen our support, we often work with partner organisations, of which the charity Prisoners Abroad is one example. Prisoners Abroad supports detainees and their families and helps to facilitate contact. If there is no family, it can help find detainees a pen-pal or send them books to read or study. It can also help with prisoners’ resettlement in the UK after release.

The death penalty exacerbates the anxiety for all those involved in consular cases where a British national is at risk of receiving or is in receipt of a capital sentence. Working to abolish the death penalty remains a key priority of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is an important part of our day-to-day work and that of all our diplomatic missions in countries that still carry out the death penalty. Our message to them is clear: we believe the death penalty to be unjust, outdated and ineffective, and it risks fuelling extremism. There are currently 15 British nationals on death row around the world. Irrespective of the reason for their conviction, we do all we can to ensure that the death penalty is commuted and is not carried out. As with all countries that retain the death penalty, we hope that the Government of India establish a moratorium on executions, in line with the global trend towards the abolition of capital punishment.

Let me turn to some of the specifics of Mr Johal’s case. Only this morning, his tenacious and hard- working constituency MP, the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), who is here, was able to speak to our high commissioner in India, Sir Dominic Asquith. I was asked directly why consular officials have not been given private consular access. That is a matter of great frustration. We frequently requested private consular access when Mr Johal was first detained, but as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston will know, he has since been moved to the Nabha prison—a maximum security jail where, for security reasons, private visits are not permitted. I will write to Members who raised the issue of CHOGM, particularly the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire.

Our understanding is that the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, will come to that conference. Will the Prime Minister raise this issue directly with him, and will the Foreign Secretary raise it with his counterpart from India?

I will try to ensure that that is done. The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware that these things rightly often have to be done on a private basis rather than through megaphone diplomacy.

Mr Johal’s case is well known to me and to senior colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Our staff have been working hard to provide assistance to Mr Johal and his family in the UK ever since his arrest in India in November 2017. I have met Mr Johal’s brother twice in the past six months, along with the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire. Since Mr Johal’s arrest, consular staff have visited him fortnightly. The Foreign Secretary spoke to his Indian counterpart about his case in November, and I raised it with the Indian Minister of State for Home Affairs on 11 January. Furthermore, various officials in our high commission have continued to raise concerns at the highest level. As Members pointed out, there are major concerns. Our high commissioner spoke to the Indian Foreign Secretary as recently as 7 March, and the basis of that conversation was relayed to the hon. Gentleman this morning.

I assure the House that we shall continue to raise this case at senior levels with the Indian authorities until the serious allegations raised by Mr Johal have been properly investigated. I recognise that this is a desperately difficult and distressing time for Mr Johal, his family and many in the UK Sikh community. I assure all hon. Members that his case remains a priority for me personally, and we shall continue to raise it with the Indian authorities as necessary.

Let me touch briefly on the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I recognise that her husband is here today. We shall continue to approach that case in the way that we judge is most likely to secure the outcome that we all want—in other words, her release. I hope the House will understand that I am not in a position to provide a running commentary on each and every development in Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case, save that I believe there needs to be a review of what happens in relation to dual nationals. I am not convinced that anything untoward necessarily happened here, but we need to try to review that issue.

I am unaware of the facts of the case of Mr Tsege, the British national in an Ethiopian jail to whom the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston referred, so I hope she will forgive me if I say I will write to her with full details of the issues she raised.

Understandably, much of this debate has related to Mr Johal. It is important to put on the record that India, as a partner in the Commonwealth and in many other ways, has a strong democratic framework that is designed to guarantee human rights. However, it also faces numerous challenges relating to its size and development, and when it comes to enforcing fundamental rights enshrined in its constitution and wider law, not least given the power of its states. Members are absolutely right to raise concerns about human rights in India in this forum and, as I said, I am happy for them to do so via correspondence. Because we share those real concerns, the UK Government are working alongside the Indian Government to build capacity and share expertise on the promotion and protection of human rights. I hope Members will understand that that is sometimes best done quietly and privately rather than through public pronouncements.

In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston once again for her contribution.


I take this opportunity to thank the families and friends of British nationals detained overseas for working with us to support their loved ones through the most distressing situations. I also thank our consular officers, who at times work under great stress, for the support they provide British nationals during their most difficult times. The support by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for British nationals in difficulty abroad is and will continue to be an absolute priority.

Question put and agreed to.

Would those who are not staying for the next debate, which is an important debate about the contribution to society of social workers, please be kind enough to leave the Chamber quickly, quietly and without conversation?