HC Deb 05 November 1948 vol 457 cc1230-40

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Solley (Thurrock)

I rise to call the attention of the House to the death sentence passed in Athens on 10 trade unionists, to point out that the House and the Government are morally and politically responsible for this travesty of justice which has taken place, and further to point out that it is up to them to save the lives of these men.

I am sorry that there is not present a representative of the Foreign Office. I gave notice at two o'clock this afternoon that I wished to raise the subject and it appeared probable that an opportunity would arise for this Debate. Since this is a matter of life and death, I make no excuse whatever for raising the subject, whatever the traditions of this House may be. I deemed it my duty to bring this matter to the attention of the Government and the House and, through this House, to the public at large. These trade unionists have been sentenced by courts martial which were set up in June, 1946, under special security decrees. Let it be noted that those decrees came into operation before there was any suspicion whatever of a guerrilla movement, so-called, in Greece. Further, let it be noted that these security measures were precisely the Metaxas Fascist pre-war security measures, if anything made more severe in the eyes of the democratic and ordinary people of Greece.

The crime which these leading trade union democrats of Greece are supposed to have committed is alleged subversive activities. Since the judge described the French anti-Communist leader, Mr. Leon Jouhaux, as a Communist in the guise of a trade unionist, we know full well what so-called subversive activity means on the lips of a Fascist judge. Let it be known—and I speak from personal experience, having visited Greece, and being a practising lawyer—that whenever a political issue is involved in Greek courts today it is impossible for any democrat to obtain justice.

Here is an illustration. In 1946 I was present at the State trial at Patras of a Resistance fighter. Three judges admitted to me and to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Tiffany) that each and every one of them had been functioning as judges throughout the occupation and had received salary from their Nazi overlords. Those are the judges of Greece. The trial in this case was a disgrace to any conception of justice. The dossier was extraordinarily complicated and lengthy. The précis of it occupied 57 pages. Yet such lawyers as were available for the defence were allowed only to study the details for a few hours five days before the trial, and for two hours on following days. We in this country believe that justice should not only be done but appear to be done. In Greece they have a different conception, under the new Fascist regime. The presiding judge was within a few days of the case a prosecutor at the trial of a former editor of a Communist newspaper. It needs little imagination to realise what sort of partiality one can expect of a prosecuting counsel of that sort, who suddenly finds himself occupying the judicial seat.

Another indication of the absurdity of this legal process is this. Four days of the trial were occupied by four prosecution witnesses, each of them a stooge of the Fascist Government, whereas the defence witnesses, of whom there were 20, were given only three hours in which to present their case. I have received information from an authoritative source that one of the witnesses, a woman aged 28, the mother of three children, collapsed in court on 27th October, moaning, "Do not beat me. I know nothing." That is the sort of justice which we are asked to applaud these days. There were other beatings. One defendant was suffering from tuberculosis. He stated that he had suffered three hemorrhages as a result of the beatings he had had.

It is, therefore, interesting to note that this trial has taken place without any of the usual safeguards of justice as we know it, and the convicted men have no right of appeal whatever. Unless something is done over this week-end it is most likely that these brave, democratic heroes and—yes, and comrades of the Labour Movement; let hon. Members on this side of the House remember that—our comrades in the Labour Movement will be butchered by judicial process. Hon. Members who have so much regard to the Manius and Petkovs and who talk about judicial murder every time a Fascist meets his well deserved fate, allow these honourable, democratic men to go to their death without raising any objection—except those few hon. Members who are here now who are straightforward and honourable enough to come to these men's defence.

I know what the objections of the Government will be—such objections as, "We cannot interfere with Greek justice." What hypocrisy. What utter nonsense. What a fatuous statement to make to anyone who knows that Greece has been an occupied country for year, occupied since the so-called liberation, first by us, and now jointly by us and America. If we cannot interfere at this stage, goodness knows why we are spending so much money on British troops and military missions and the like in Greece. Then, It will be said, probably, "This is a trial." I have told the House what sort of trial it is. That is the sort of answer we should have expected of the Nazis in 1939 when we pointed out that Germans were butchering Communists and Jews. The Nazi reply would have been, "Ah, it is according to such and such a law of the Nazi regime." So be it, that is the Fascist law; and we do not deserve that sort of answer from a Labour Foreign Secretary.

I will conclude because I hope that some other hon. Members will say a word on this subject. The blood of these men will not be on the executioners in Greece but on those responsible in this country for having put into power the Greek Government. It is within our hands to save these brave Greeks. Let us make representation to the Greek Government. I am confident that such representation would be valuable, and that these great Greek democrats could be saved to continue the work and progress of Socialism in the future.

4.12 p.m.

Mr. Piratin (Mile End)

I support the argument presented by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Solley). A number of hon. Members have tried in this House today to get the Foreign Office to take some action in this matter. I myself, as early as it was possible this morning, telephoned the Foreign Secretary and also spoke to the Under-Secretary. Both refused to take any action in this matter. I made perfectly clear to them on the telephone that this was a matter of life and death, which they acknowledged, and that these men would be killed in Greece by Monday unless some action was taken. The Foreign Secretary and the Under-Secretary, I regret to say, both refused to take any action. Some hon. Members and I tried on a point of Order to raise this matter today. Mr. Speaker ruled it out of Order, and, therefore, I think that the hon. Member for Thurrock is to be commended by those who feel that such action should be aired in the House on having been able to catch Mr. Speaker's eye in order to raise this matter on the Adjournment.

The House has heard the statement which the hon. Member for Thurrock has made with regard to the legal aspects of the trial which has recently ended in Greece. On Wednesday of this week, an hon. Member asked the Foreign Secretary whether he had an observer at the trial in Greece. As hon. Members will recall, the Foreign Secretary was a bit evasive on the matter as to whether we had or had not an observer. He mentioned that he was expecting a report from the Ambassador. In my conversation this morning—and perhaps the Under-Secretary will not mind my repeating that conversation about which there was no secret—he made it perfectly clear that we did not have an observer at the trial. He said that the Ambassador in Greece would let us have a report through the usual channels. When I asked why we did not have an observer there, he said that there were the usual channels of observation and reporting. I pointed out that in that case we did not need to have the Ambassador's report, because we had already had Press reports which would be very similar to the Ambassador's report, but that we should not have a private observer's report.

The Foreign Secretary has been asked by the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) whether he is aware of the fact that an English lawyer who asked the Greek Government for a visa to go to Greece to observe the trial was refused it. This lawyer, Mr. Simmonds, was asked to represent the Haldane Society. Every Member of this House is aware, I believe of what is the Haldane Society. The Law Officers of the Crown are eminent members of that Society. It is a Socialist organisation of lawyers——

Mr. Solley

Including the Lord Chancellor.

Mr. Piratin

This gentleman was not allowed to act as an observer. The Greek Government refused him a visa, and I suggest that one can only reach certain conclusions—that they did not want to have a jurist present who would understand the procedure and be able to report independently upon it. When the Foreign Secretary was informed of this, he took no action, and in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for West Fife he said—I quote from a letter which he sent yesterday, and which was delivered today: As regards the Greek Government's refusal to grant a visa to Mr. Simmonds, you may know that the Greek Embassy here have made public the reason for this refusal. It is that they have good reason to believe that his visit, although nominally sponsored by the Haldane Society, was in fact planned at the instigation of the League for Democracy for Greece… How the Foreign Secretary can know that is to me a matter of amazement. All that the Foreign Secretary knows is that the Haldane Society appointed this lawyer, and I imagine sponsored him and was prepared to pay his expenses, to go there. Yet, without any evidence—

Mr. Solley

And contrary to the facts.

Mr. Piratin

—the Foreign Secretary makes this statement in order that it can be used as an alibi for the absence of an observer in Greece.

I wish to ask this House, and particularly the Members on these benches, to think seriously about the conduct of a Foreign Secretary who makes no effort whatever either to have an observer present from our Embassy in Greece, or even to intervene with the Greek Government to allow a visa to be given to an independent lawyer to go as an observer, and can then come along and say "We cannot intervene. It is a matter concerning their internal affairs."

With regard to the conduct of the trial, I have nothing to add to what my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock said. I wish, however, to make one remark in passing. Every Member in this House knows my politics and views. All of us have come to regard with a great degree of respect the attitude taken in reportage by "The Times" newspaper. I was disgusted this morning to read in "The Times," in its report of this trial, a reference to the two leaders of the Greek Seamen's Union, both of whom lived in this country for some years, who served their country and this country in time of war, and who hold respectively the position of chairman and secretary of their union, as the ringleaders of the Union. No one has ever heard Mr. Deakin referred to—not even the Tories would dare to—as ringleader of the Transport and General Workers' Union. Not even Mr. Arthur Horner has been called the ringleader of the National Union of Mineworkers. These Greek leaders have been ordered to be done to death, but "The Times," kicking them when they are down, now calls them the ringleaders of the union.

I am not making any appeal to the benches opposite—that would be rather a waste of time—but I appeal to Members on the benches on this side of the House. Can we tolerate this line up of a Labour Foreign Minister and "The Times" report in a case of the kind as has been outlined today? I submit that we in this country, and our Government, have a great and moral responsibility in that we have supported and maintained the present Government in Greece. We sent our troops there in December, 1944. We have a responsibility in that we have spent, in the past three years, £150 million in maintaining our Forces there and in assisting Greece in various ways. We retain a military mission and a police mission in that country.

We have a responsibility within the terms of the United Nations Charter to see that justice is done in other countries. We on these benches have the responsibility of taking into consideration the views of the working class, as expressed by the Trades Union Congress at Margate this year, where a resolution was moved to the effect that the restoration of democratic rights in Greece was urged. Here a blow is being struck against democracy and the democratic rights of the individual. Yes, we have a responsibility but so far the Foreign Secretary and the Under-Secretary have refused to act.

I hope that as a result of what has been said the Foreign Office, even at this late hour, can be made to intervene. I hope the public will be made aware of what is going on, for on Monday, if these lives are taken, the responsibility will rest on our shoulders as much as on anyone else. Not only have we tolerated this policy all these years, but we are condoning this action now. I hope that what has been said will have its effect, and that the lives of these men will be saved.

4.21 p.m.

Mr. Zilliacus (Gateshead)

One of the 10 men condemned to death is married to an English girl. Her father came to plead with me a few days ago, to see if there was anything I could do to save his son-in-law's life. He is a good Yorkshireman, and as Yorkshiremen do not believe in showing emotion he was a bit gruff and off-hand, and did not say much. But I knew what he felt like, because I know what I felt like when my daughter's husband was killed in the war. He, at least, was killed for something, for a good cause. But why is this young man to be done to death? His case is no better than that of the others, because he is married to an English girl, but perhaps that fact will help to stir the sympathy and imagination of the Foreign Secretary and hon. Members of this House. After all, the Greeks are just as human as Englishmen: their feelings are the same.

The reason why these men are to be done to death is a political reason. It has nothing to do with justice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Solley) pointed out, those law courts, those judges, were the tools and creatures of Greek Fascism. The present Greek Government is largely composed of those who served the Metaxas Fascist dictatorship and Hitler before we put them back into the positions from which they were driven by the resistance movement. It is that resistance movement—Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, Socialists, Communists and trade unionists—which fought on our side during the war. They are now being terrorised and done to death because the Greek Government are fighting the growing disaffection among the unhappy Greek people, who have been exploited, harried, butchered and vivisected for years, until they can no longer bear it.

It would suffice for one little word to be said by our Foreign Secretary. All he has to do is to raise his little finger, and these men would be amnestied and freed tomorrow. If we chose we could admit them to this country, and let them work for their keep. They are good workers and good trade unionists, and could earn their keep and a bit more. If we do not do it the brand of Cain will be stamped on the Foreign Secretary, and his plea to be recognised as a good trade unionist, who supports the cause of trade unionism, will fall to the ground and be revealed as a hollow mockery. We can withdraw our Police and Military Missions and troops if the Greek Government do not do what we want them to do. If that is not enough we can turn to President Truman, who has just won a magnificent victory on a plea for peace and social justice, to which the American people responded. The present Greek Government was made in the American Embassy. It lives on American subsidies and intervention. If one word would be sufficient from our Foreign Secretary, one whisper would be sufficient from Washington to stop this bloody murder.

I know the political reason for not interceding, the political reason why the Foreign Secretary has not seen fit to send anyone here to represent the Government. It is because they wish to support the Fascists in their campaign of terror as part of the glorious fight for democracy against Communism on which the Foreign Secretary has set his heart. But that fight is in any case already lost in Greece, as it has already been lost in China. The offensive has been a failure. It broke down, among other reasons—as our Military Mission in Greece well knows and has reported—because many units of the Greek army simply refused to fight. When a Government reaches that stage, it is just about ready to disappear from the scene of action.

If these men are done to death, the cause of this Fascist Government is not going to survive, even by the use of that ignoble and bloody means; it is already a lost cause, and these men will have died for nothing. I beg the Government, which will hear of this Debate—I am glad to see that the Foreign Secretary's Parliamentary Private Secretary is present and that he can give some report of what has happened—to take one little step, to send some instructions to our Ambassador in Athens. If it will send one little word to President Truman to join in that démarche, these men's lives will be saved, and we shall have done something to remove the bitterness and fear of the Greek people, who used to look upon the Labour Government as one which stood for the workers and the common people, but have since learned to their bitter sorrow that however fine a job we are doing at home, and we are doing a fine job, we stand abroad with the Tories and the oppressors of the common people.

What is the sense of pretending hypocritically that we have no responsibility in this matter? When the power is ours, the responsibility is inescapably ours. There is no doubt on earth that we have the power to stop these men being killed, and that if the Government do not choose to use that power, they make themselves as much responsible as their puppets and protégés in Athens for doing to death 10 trade unionists who fought gallantly on our side when the men slaughtering them were actively on the side of Hitler.

4.27 p.m.

Mr. Lester Hutchinson (Manchester, Rusholme)

I do not wish to add to the arguments already put forward by my hon. Friends, but I should like to be on record as also protesting against these death sentences. I am not concerned with the legality of the case; I have not read the trial, and I do not know the details. But one thing is perfectly clear, and must be clear to everybody—it is a political persecution. That being so, we in this country, and particularly in this House, have, in the past, had a record for protesting; we have always led the world in demanding individual justice and common decency. It now appears that we are only concerned in protecting people who are condemned in revolutionary countries. When they are condemned in Fascist and reactionary countries, we are apt to take it for granted, and even to support it.

To my mind, it is an utter disgrace that, when 10 men's lives are in the balance because of their views and their trade union activities, the benches opposite should be completely empty except for the normal representative. Yet they are very concerned about the state of justice in Bulgaria, Roumania and Yugoslavia. I am also surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) is also absent, because he was very concerned about the execution of the late Mr. Petkov and made a great deal of fuss about it. But where is he today, when 10 trade unionists are being done to death? Where, in fact, are all the trade union members of our party today? It is scandalous that there is no representative of the Foreign Office to listen to our protests. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Mr. Zilliacus) that if our Government made representations to the Greek Government, for which we have a moral responsibility, because we forced the election which elected that Government——

The Question having been proposed after Four o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Four o'Clock.