HC Deb 30 January 1961 vol 633 cc596-603
The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Edward Heath)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now answer Question Nos. 10, 25, 30 and 37.

In the debate on the Adjournment on 20th December, about the three Bahraini prisoners at present detained on St. Helena, I gave the House an undertaking that these men would not be returned to Bahrain before I had made a further statement to the House after the Christmas Recess. This would give time for their legal advisers to consider the position.

I have now had an opportunity of visiting Bahrain and of discussing the matter fully with the Ruler in the light of the debate. In view of certain statements made during the debate, the wide publicity they received and the effect I found they had had not only in Bahrain, but in other parts of the Gulf, I wish, first, to emphasise two points.

First, the Ruler of Bahrain is an independent ruler who has entered into Treaty relationships with this country governing his international relations. Her Majesty's Government have not sought to interfere with the autonomy of the Government of Bahrain either in the lifetime of this Government, or in that of the Government drawn from Members opposite, nor do they intend to do so now. Her Majesty's Government greatly value the friendship of the Ruler of Bahrain and his people and wish to continue to maintain and strengthen it.

Secondly, I found that the allegations made during the debate as to what would befall these prisoners if they were to be returned to the jurisdiction of the Ruler of Bahrain had caused great offence to a wide cross section of people of varying nationalities in Bahrain. The withdrawal by the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse) on Thursday last, and its unqualified nature, was welcomed by the House. Other accusations of a similar kind were widely recognised in the Gulf as being out of keeping with the traditions of Bahrain, and its Ruler and Her 'Majesty's Government completely reject these allegations.

When my noble Friend reviewed the question of these three men the position was as follows. The trial of the three men in question took place entirely within the jurisdiction of the Ruler of Bahrain. Her Majesty's Government had undertaken custody of these men at the request of the Ruler because of the tension in the Gulf. That tension had been dissipated, and with it the necessity for these men to be detained outside the area. Moreover, the prisoners would be better off in regard to visits from their relatives, the delivery of letters and reading matter without delay, and in living in the climate and on the diet to which they are accustomed if they were back in Bahrain.

My recent visit to Jidda Island where the Ruler had informed Her Majesty's Government that these three men would be placed if returned, confirmed this. It was against this background that the Political Resident was instructed to raise this matter with the Ruler. He informed him that Her Majesty's Government did not wish to continue to detain the prisoners on St. Helena, and that should the Ruler feel unable to exercise clemency, the prisoners should be returned to Bahrain. It was in reply to this initiative from Her Majesty's Government that the Ruler requested that the men should be returned to Bahrain. I informed the House of this request in reply to a Question from the hon. Member for Wednesbury on 19th December.

Many hon. Members asked about the conditions in Bahrain to which these men would be returning. I informed the House on 19th December that Her Majesty's Judge of the Chief Court in the Gulf had been permitted to visit the prison at Jidda Island, and assured me that the conditions there were good. In view of the criticisms made in the House, the Ruler invited me to visit Jidda Island. Having seen the conditions there, and after talking to the two prisoners already there, I can confirm the views of Her Majesty's Judge of the Chief Court. Any humane person looking at detention in any prison must find the boredom and waste odious. That apart, these two men are living in reasonable conditions, with a considerable degree of freedom on the island.

On 29th October the prisoners' solicitors in this country asked for certain information concerning the removal of these men from Bahrain in 1956. The information requested was given in full to the solicitors in a letter dated 9th January. The solicitors informed us in a letter dated 12th January that, in their view, their clients are now in a position to commence fresh habeas corpusproceedings forthwith. At the same time, the solicitors requested our views about the method of conducting such proceedings.

On 18th January, 1961, these were passed to them. We are now awaiting the decision of the prisoners' solicitors on this matter. Meanwhile, the three men will remain on St. Helena until a decision is reached, provided this is done in a reasonable time, or, in the event of fresh proceedings being brought, until all stages of the proceedings are concluded.

I explained this to the Ruler during my visit and I will keep the House informed of any further developments in this matter.

Mr. Warbey

First, has the right hon. Gentleman seen the letter in The Timesof 12th January by Major Little, a former senior police official in Bahrain, who gives a very different view, both of prison conditions and the administration of justice in Bahrain, from that which the right hon. Gentleman has gained from a rather brief visit?

Secondly, does he appreciate that, whatever may be the outcome of the negotiations with the solicitors of these three men, the view expressed by this side of the House was that Her Majesty's Government, by acting as a common gaoler for these men, had accepted a moral co-responsibility for a flagrant miscarriage of justice and that, therefore, it is the duty of the Government to see that this matter is set right by bringing about the quashing of the sentences and the releasing of these men to go where they will?

Mr. Heath

I have observed the letter in The Times.In fact, I discussed it when I was in Bahrain and, for particular reasons, I do not accept many of the criticisms which that gentleman made.

The point of the last part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question was dealt with before the Privy Council as far as past proceedings are concerned. As I have stated, there may be further proceedings in the future.

Mr. Wyatt

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Colonial Office has admitted to the solicitors of the men on St. Helena that they were taken into custody by the British before the Order in Council was promulgated in Bahrain making such detention by the British legal and that, therefore, they were kidnapped by the British authorities? Should not the right hon. Gentleman now release them instead of allowing this long-drawn proceeding to start all over again? Will he assure us that he will not try to pass retrospective legislation to cover what was initially an illegality by the British authorities in Bahrain?

Mr. Heath

As the point to which the hon. Gentleman refers is contained in the information given to the solicitors, as a result of which they have informed us that their clients are in a position to bring proceedings forthwith, he will not expect me to comment on it.

Mr. Stonehouse

The fact that the two prisoners whom the right hon. Gentleman interviewed on the Island of Jidda are given such special facilities and that the other criminals on the island are still kept in chains will indicate to public opinion that these five men were not in any way guilty of the very serious charges brought against them in 1956 and that they are political prisoners. Therefore, would we he justified in returning these men to the jurisdiction of the Ruler of Bahrain?

Furthermore, is the Minister aware that the solicitors have been advised by their clients on St. Helena that they do not wish to take habeas corpusproceedings in view of the tremendous expense which they would involve, particularly as the Crown has advised the solicitors that it would wish to contest these proceedings at every stage with counsel? As I say, proceedings would involve them in great expense which they are unable to afford, in view of the four years they have been in prison. In view of all these facts, will not the right hon. Gentleman show clemency and release these men?

Mr. Heath

No such deduction can be drawn from the first point that the hon. Member has made. The solicitors to the three men have not informed Her Majesty's Government of that fact. At least, they had not up to 1 o'clock today, when I left the Foreign Office. I think that the House will agree that it is right that in a case of such evident complexity the Crown should be represented by counsel when it is heard in the courts.

Mr. E. Fletcher

In view of the very doubtful validity of the proceedings on the part of the Ruler of Bahrain and Her Majesty's Government in all the steps that have been taken with regard to these three unfortunate men, can the right hon. Gentleman say whether he has made representations to the Ruler that the right thing now would be to exercise a full degree of clemency and release them? Did the right hon. Gentleman make these representations and, if so, what was the result?

Mr. Heath

As to the validity of the proceedings, they were fully dealt with as placed before the Privy Council in the judgment of the Privy Council. As I have told the House, if there are further doubts the solicitors to the three men are considering bringing further action about them. I discussed the whole matter with the Ruler and any question of clemency for these men must be one entirely for the Ruler of Bahrain.

Mr. Costain

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are some hon. Members who have lived and worked in Bahrain who would agree with his findings?

Mr. Paget

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that an application for habeas corpusmade by these men was rejected upon the basis of certain information given by the Foreign Office to the Privy Council, and that that information would appear to be quite inconsistent with what the right hon. Gentleman has now told us about the sovereignty and autonomy of Bahrain? Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when I raised this matter I never mentioned at all any question of ill-treatment in Bahrain?

The whole point, as I see it, is that for the first time in our history we are being asked to send people out of our jurisdiction to punishment within a jurisdiction where the Queen's writ does not run and without any extradition proceedings and without any proceedings whereby the men can be heard as to the injustice with which they are being treated. This is something absolutely novel and wrong within our constitutional procedure and certainly ought not to happen without the House having an opportunity to discuss it.

Mr. Heath

As for the statement made to the Privy Council by the then Foreign Secretary, which was concerned with jurisdiction, the hon. and learned Member knows that it was on a very limited point and that the Ruler of Bahrain and rulers of other States and, indeed, Governments of other countries have conceded jurisdiction of various kinds to other States for particular limited purposes. That is what he did in this case.

The hon. and learned Member has reverted for the first time since he asked for the Adjournment on 20th December on this subject to his original point about the transfer of jurisdiction without further proceedings. He will know that the Colonial Prisoners Removal Act allows for their being returned to the original jurisdiction without further proceedings.

Mr. Grimond

In view of the great anxiety on both sides of the House about the circumstances of the original trial and conviction of these men, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman represented to the Sheikh quite clearly that in the view of Her Majesty's Government it might be as well if he remitted their sentence? If these men do not now bring further proceedings, have the Government made a decision that they are to be sent back to Bahrain?

Mr. Heath

As soon as a decision is reached in this matter one way or the other I will inform the House of the decision.

Mr. Wall

Will my right hon. Friend make clear that in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government the original trial was carried out justly in accordance with the law of Bahrain?

Mr. Heath

That matter was placed before the Privy Council, which declared that they were valid judicial proceedings.

Mr. Healey

In view of the fact that Her Majesty's Government have publicly said that in their opinion these men should be afforded clemency and that they are under Her Majesty's Government's jurisdiction and, if returned to Bahrain, will pass outside that jurisdiction, a situation which would not have arisen under the Colonial Prisoners Removal Act, can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he will not return these men unless he is satisfied that they will be accorded clemency in Bahrain?

Mr. Heath

The conversations I had with the Ruler of Bahrain were confidential and must remain confidential. Great thought has been given to this matter and I am advised that Her Majesty cannot herself lawfully pardon these prisoners, nor can she lawfully authorise the Governor of St. Helena to do so. Her Majesty has no power to remit their sentences, nor has she any legal right to set the prisoners at liberty without their having been pardoned or their sentences having been remitted.

Several Hon. Members rose

Sir G. Nicholson

On a point of order. Most of the questions have been asked from the other side of the House. Would it not be fair, Mr. Speaker, to have some from this side?

Mr. Speaker

The process would become almost interminable if I tried to be so fair.