HC Deb 07 March 1957 vol 566 cc665-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

9.59 p.m.

Mr. William Warbey (Ashfield)

The matter I wish to raise is concerned with a part of the world in which both the Royal Air Force and the Army have recently been engaged in activities expensive to the taxpayer, as a result of the failure of our policies in the political and diplomatic fields.

In that part of the world are what are known as the three sheikdoms——

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

Mr. Warbey

—which fringe the areas of the Persian Gulf. The one to which I shall refer is Bahrain.

At the moment, three citizens of Bahrain are sitting in a gaol in St. Helena, in a building 200 feet above the sea with a sheer drop down precipitous rocks. They are serving a sentence of fourteen years' imprisonment which, if they are very good, may be commuted to eleven and a half years. There, like Napoleon before them, they will eat out their hearts and eat away their lives in lonely exile, until the time when their sentences expire.

They were taken there in the Royal Naval frigate "Loch Insh", which lifted them up from Bahrain on 28th December last and deposited them at St. Helena on 27th January; so they are now one month and 6.000 miles away from their homeland, their families and their friends.

Why are they there, serving a term of imprisonment in St. Helena? I am sure that the Minister will not be able to say that they have been convicted of any offence against British citizens or British authorities. They have not committed any crimes against the British Government or against the colonial Administration. They have, in fact, been convicted and sentenced by the Ruler of Bahrain. The State of Bahrain is independent and under British protection, but is not a British Colony. How, then, does it come about that these Bahraini citizens are serving a term of fourteen years' imprisonment in a British Colony?

We are told by the Foreign Office that the Ruler of Bahrain requested that they should be sent to St. Helena. In other words, it appears that the British Empire is now offering its services as a kind of general prison warder to rulers who are troubled by inconvenient citizens. I hope that this case does not create a precedent. This extraordinary procedure is very probably illegal. It is certainly immoral and undoubtedly inexpedient. In those three respects it closely resembles the adventure of the British Government in Egypt.

First, as to the legal aspect. What was the legal procedure or, I might almost say, "device"—for that is what it amounts to—by which those three men were sent to St. Helena? On 19th December, two Orders in Council were rushed through the Privy Council on one day. The first of them applied the Colonial Prisoners' (Removal) Act, 1869, a somewhat ancient Act, to the State of Bahrain. The second made it possible for the Ruler of Bahrain to act as though he were a colonial Governor and to communicate with the colonial Governor in St. Helena in order to ask him to receive prisoners convicted in Bahraini courts.

As Bahrain is not a British Colony and as the Ruler of Bahrain is certainly not a colonial Governor it appears to me that this whole procedure is ultra vires. It would be extremely interesting—I hope someone may do this—if someone who has the money and the opportunity served a writ of habeas corpus on the Governor of St. Helena to test the legality of this whole matter. I believe that if that were done the Government would find themselves in very considerable difficulties.

I have not time to go further on this aspect of the matter, except to call attention to the extraordinary document in which the Foreign Secretary communicated to you, Mr. Speaker, the reasons why the normal procedure of laying the Statutory Instrument before Parliament before it was made was not followed in this instance. That document says, in part: It has been necessary to proceed in this way because until the Colonial Prisoners (Removal) Act, 1869, has been applied to Bahrain it is not possible for Her Majesty's Government to make a further Order under that Act to sanction the making of arrangements for the removal of prisoners between Bahrain and St. Helena. Then followed these extraordinary words: The latter Order is urgently required in order that certain persons shortly to be tried in Bahrain may, if sentenced to imprisonment, be removed to St. Helena. I must say that shows remarkable prevision on the part of the Foreign Secretary. These men at this date, 19th December, when this document was sent to you Sir, had not been tried and had not been convicted, yet arrangements were already being made for their removal to St. Helena. No doubt even the frigate "Loch Insh" was waiting with steam up ready for the word "Go". The reason this was done is that the Foreign Secretary knew in advance what the result of the trial was going to be. The whole thing was, in essence, "cooked up" in advance between the Ruler of Bahrain and the Foreign Secretary. The procedure was, in reality, a farce.

That is rather strong language, but there will be some more of it when we deal with the moral aspects of this matter. The Foreign Secretary may try to claim that he has no responsibility for what went on in the courts of Bahrain in regard to these men, but I put to hon. Members very strongly that the Foreign Secretary has no right to accept the responsibility for the execution of this savage sentence of fourteen years' imprisonment and exile in St. Helena without first assuring himself that these men have been fairly tried and properly convicted.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has no right to do it. He cannot ride away from that responsibility by saying that he has no responsibility for what happens in these courts. Already, in answer to a Question I put to him, he has accepted responsibility for saying some- thing about the characters of these men. The Joint Under-Secretary, replying on his behalf, told me in a Parliamentary Answer, on 11th February, that these men were …three foreign-inspired political agitators…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th February, 1957; Vol. 564, c. 120.] He is quite prepared to take responsibility for traducing their characters and throwing prejudice on their activities. If he is able to do that he is able to take responsibility for the way in which they came to be serving a term of fourteen years' imprisonment in St. Helena.

What were the facts about this trial? The trial took place in a court of the Ruler of Bahrain. It took place, not in the capital city of Bahrain, Manama, but in a deserted fishing village, Budaia, many miles away. Neither the public nor the Press were admitted to that trial. The proceedings amounted to summary jurisdiction. I do not know exactly how long the trial lasted; it was probably for no more than a few hours. Perhaps the Joint Under-Secretary will be able to tell us.

The judges were all members of the Ruler's family despite the fact that one of the charges against the men on trial was that they had plotted to assassinate the Ruler and members of his family. Therefore, the judges could hardly be very impartial. Moreover——

Mr. Speaker

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is saying that there is any responsibility on the part of Her Majesty's Ministers for all this. It seems to me really to be a complaint against a local court, without any responsibility on the part of the Government being shown.

Mr. Warbey

I sought, Mr. Speaker, to give the reasons why I claimed that there was a responsibility on the part of Her Majesty's Ministers for this. I was submitting that the Joint Under-Secretary has taken the responsibility for traducing the political characters of these men. Also, in an Answer to me on 28th January, the Joint Under-Secretary said something about the evidence submitted to the court: I understand, however, that among the evidence was a document in the possession of one of the prisoners stating that the Ruler, members of his family and his Adviser were to be assassinated."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th January, 1957; Vol. 563, c. 110–1.] I submit that the Joint Under-Secretary——

Mr. Speaker

Is not that merely reporting what the Minister understood to be the facts? I do not think that that makes the Minister responsible for what happened in the court.

Mr. Warbey

It is true that the Minister reported What he understood, but it appears to me to be an extraordinary state of affairs if the Minister is able to pick and choose what he reports to this House about a trial in another country, and if he is able to choose one fact which may seem to support a point of view which he wishes to uphold while refraining from telling the whole story. It would surely give a much fairer picture of the whole proceedings and, therefore, a much fairer indication of the character of the behaviour of Her Majesty's Government in compelling these men to serve their sentence in a British Colony if the Minister were to give the whole story about how they came to be sentenced in the first place.

It is that part of the story which I was venturing to report to the House, as the Minister has, as you say, Mr. Speaker, reported his understanding of it. My understanding of it, as I should like to report to the House if I may be permitted to do so, is as I have already stated, plus a further point, that the evidence submitted to the court was mainly of a documentary character and so flimsy that it would not have stood up for one moment in any British court.

That is all I want to say about the trial, and I think it is quite enough to show that the trial was, by any modern judicial standards, a disgraceful affair. I do not think that the Joint Under-Secretary will be able to deny that. After all, the Foreign Office is represented in Bahrain by a Political Resident, who happens to have his Residency in Bahrain, by a Political Agent, and by Legal Advisers to both the Residency and the Agent. Therefore, the Foreign Office must be informed about what goes on in the courts of Bahrain and must know what happened to these men before the Foreign Secretary took responsibility for taking them on board the frigate "Loch Insh" and transporting them to Saint Helena. I say that the right hon. and learned Gentleman must share responsibility for what went on before they were removed from Bahrain.

Many disgraceful things, many infringements of civil liberties and of the legal rights of citizens occur in many parts of the world. In many cases, we can do little or nothing about them, but in this case we can do something. In this case, what the Foreign Office has done by accepting responsibility for executing this savage sentence of fourteen years' imprisonment and exile is to condone the uncivilised behaviour of the authorities in Bahrain and become an associate in those activities. In other words, the Foreign Secretary has participated in a crime against the rights of man.

That is immoral, but it is also inexpedient. This is a part of the world in which Great Britain is today very vulnerable. Everything we do in the area of the Persian Gulf is watched very closely by the whole of the Arab world—indeed, by the African and the Asian world as well, but by the Arab world in particular. This is the area from which we normally receive the greater part of the oil supplies upon which our industry depends. They come from places like Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the Trucial Oman. Therefore, any injury to British reputation, any failure of British policy, is likely to be exceedingly damaging to us in the long, if not in the short run.

If Her Majesty's Government ignore the rising aspirations of the Arab peoples, the feelings and desires for civil liberty and political expression of the rising generation of educated Arabs, while, at the same time, supporting the feudal, despotic rulers of those territories in opposing those aspirations of their people, in suppressing civil liberties and withholding modern judicial rights, they are headed for a disaster which, in the long run, may be even greater than that of Suez.

Therefore, I urge the Government, before it is too late, before this pot boils over—as it surely will one day—to do their best to undo the harm they have already done. Bring these men back from St. Helena to Bahrain. Do not make them the Tolpuddle martyrs of Arabia. Bring them back to their homeland. See to it that they get a fair trial in open court, before impartial judges and before the public opinion of their own country and of the world.

10.19 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Ian Harvey)

I am sure that the House will have listened to the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Warbey) with sympathy, because it realises that he has the human rights of citizens at heart; but, if I may say so to him, I think that it is a confusion of mind to believe that a plot to assassinate the leaders of a community and unlawfully and forcefully to overthrow the régime is, in fact, compatible with civil liberties. Those who really sincerely believe in such things would not, even in the way in which the hon. Member has spoken tonight, condone such action. I would emphatically reject the suggestion that these men have any similarity whatever with the Tolpuddle martyrs or with any persons having in their hearts the true cause of liberty.

Mr. Warbey

The hon. Gentleman accepts that there was a plot?

Mr. Harvey

I am given to understand that there was quite considerable evidence.

Mr. Warbey

The hon. Gentleman accepts responsibility for saying that.

Mr. Harvey

I must say that I listened with some surprise to the opening remarks of the hon. Member, who seemed to have deep sympathy for Napoleon, who was incarcerated on St. Helena. I do not think Napoleon had any great regard for civil liberties, so far as I remember; and I rather suspect that if the hon. Gentleman and Napoleon had lived at the same time they would not be on the same side.

I completely and utterly reject the suggestions which he has made about my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary. The first suggestion was that my right hon. and learned Friend knew in advance what sentence was going to be passed and made the necessary arrangements for those convicted to be taken to St. Helena. But in his own speech the hon. Gentleman rejected that argument becaues he said quite clearly "if sentenced." Had they not been sentenced, they would not have been sent to St. Helena. If one knows that a trial of this kind is taking place and knows that the people concerned have in fact been involved in disorders of a considerable nature, which is incontestable, and if one knows that the area of Bahrain is such that to confine them there would create considerable difficulties for the Ruler and the community, it is surely most shortsighted not to make arrangements to ensure that they are taken away, if they are sentenced, to a place where their presence will not cause future disturbance. Really, the suggestion that my right hon. and learned Friend knew in advance is quite without any foundation, and I reject it altogether. My right hon. and learned Friend would, in fact, have been open to censure if he had not been prepared to take the necessary measures to meet the requirement if those men were sentenced.

The hon. Gentleman has complained about the arrangements for the trial. Perhaps I may be permitted to correct one point. He said that the trial was held in an out-of-the-way village, which is true, and that the public were not entitled to be present. I understand from the reports available to me that the public were in fact present. If the hon. Gentleman has information to the contrary, I should be glad to receive it.

I think it is only right that the House should know a little about these three persons who were convicted. They were members of the Committee of National Union, about which I think the hon. Gentleman knows. As a result of the difficulties which were experienced in the Middle East, they were involved in disturbances of a very considerable order. As I have already stated, they were charged with an attempt to assassinate the Ruler and his family and to overthrow the lawful Government of the country.

Her Majesty's Government are concerned with the maintenance of law and order in that community. We do not claim, and we have never claimed, that conditions there are similar to the conditions which exist in this country. The hon. Gentleman has, I think, asked 21 Questions on this subject, and I gather that he has made quite a study of the matter. He knows that we have made considerable efforts to convey to the Ruler some suggestions with regard to the general improvement of affairs in the community.

Mr. Warbey

With any success?

Mr. Harvey

Not with quite the success which one would hope, but we have conveyed them to him. We would prefer the government of the Ruler to the government of the three gentlemen who are now residing in St. Helena.

With regard to the legal arrangements, the hon. Member is quite right in saying that we have no direct concern with the legal functioning of the court of Bahrain. At the same time, the arrangements that were made were made perfectly correctly and legally. The hon. Member quoted the Colonial Prisoners Removal Act, 1869. When a conviction has occurred, it is possible for that Act to be extended to territories such as Bahrain. I am advised on that, but if the hon. Member is still concerned about the matter I shall be glad to follow it further.

There was, therefore, no question about the legality of the action. There was no question, so far as we are concerned, of the guilt of these men. The hon. Member made some play with observations made by my right hon. and learned Friend about the nature of these persons. I gathered from what he said, although I am sure he did not mean to give the impression, that the Foreign Secretary had made those observations before the trial.

Mr. Warbey indicated dissent.

Mr. Harvey

I am glad that the hon. Member corrects that. It would, of course, have been quite improper. The observations of my right hon. and learned Friend were made after the trial, after the evidence was apparent and it was clear to all that they were involved in this conspiracy, and after they had been sentenced by the court in Bahrain.

We therefore—I think, quite rightly—at the request of the Ruler, made provision for the deportation of these men to St. Helena. In the light of the circumstances in Bahrain, I think that that was a reasonable thing to do, because their continued presence there would have remained a cause of embarrassment and would have been liable to inflame the general situation. Our aim is to ensure that such inflammatory influences should not be given scope. We have cooperated, therefore, with the Ruler of Bahrain in that respect.

As I have said, we are hoping that the Ruler will accept the recommendations that we have made to him, which are of a quite considerable nature, and I trust that in the future we may see some improvement in that direction. That in no way, however, affects this particular situation in which men were prepared to take force into their hands and to take illegal and violent action against an accepted régime. The régime, with the legal resources available to it, acted to prevent violence and action which would have caused loss of life and destruction of property, which no one would like to see. When that action had been taken, Her Majesty's Government were prepared to co-operate with the régime to ensure that justice should be carried out under conditions of justice.

Mr. K. Zilliacus (Manchester, Gorton)


Mr. Harvey

We have no reason to believe that there was anything other than justice. When these men were convicted, they could not be confined under conditions which would lead to further disturbance.

Mr. Warbey

The Joint Under-Secretary has been very categorical in saying that these men were justly convicted. If he is prepared to say that, surely he is prepared to publish the evidence on which he says it—in other words, the proceedings of the trial.

Mr. Harvey

As I have clearly explained, the proceedings of the trial are the concern of the Ruler of Bahrain.

Mr. William Yates (The Wrekin)

Have the men a right of appeal?

Mr. Harvey

They did not plead at all.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.