HC Deb 09 April 1973 vol 854 cc934-40
Mr. Harold Wilson

(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister what action he proposes to take in respect of the secret trial of and sentence imposed on Mr. Peter Niesewand, a British citizen and correspondent in Rhodesia of British Press and broadcasting organisations.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Edward Heath)

Mr. Peter Niesewand, the correspondent of the BBC and The Guardian newspaper in Rhodesia, was detained by the Rhodesian authorities on 20th February. My right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary immediately sent a message to Mr. Smith about this matter on 21st February, requesting information about the background, and asking whether it was the intention of the Rhodesian authorities that Mr. Niesewand should be tried. Mr. Smith replied that the detention was for security reasons and would be considered by the Judicial Review Tribunal.

Mr. Niesewand was subsequently charged under a section of the Rhodesian Official Secrets Act which refers to possession or communication of information likely to be of value to an enemy. No details of the charges have been published, nor do we know them. Mr Niesewand was tried in camera on 19th and 20th March. On 6th April he was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour, one year to be suspended. I understand that it is his intention to appeal.

On 6th April my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary sent a further message to Mr. Smith emphasising, in forthright terms, the great concern which is felt by everyone in this country at the secrecy surrounding Mr. Niesewand's trial and the charges brought against him, and also at his continued detention without trial under the Rhodesian Emergency Powers Act. My right hon. Friend emphasised the concern felt in this country on humanitarian grounds about the position of Mrs. Niese-wand and their family. He urged the Rhodesian authorities to lift the detention order on Mr. Niesewand and allow him to leave the country.

We have not yet received a reply to that message. Her Majesty's Government deplore the fact that the Rhodesian authorities have held their entire proceedings in camera and have allowed no details of the charges to be known.

I know that the whole House will support me in taking this further opportunity of urging upon the authorities in Rhodesia the essential need for dealing with this case in the way Her Majesty's Government have proposed.

Mr. Wilson

On the facts so far available in this country, does it not appear that the charges, of which no public information is being given, relate to information concerning operations on the border which was already known to those whom Rhodesia considers to be enemies? Is it not further a fact that Mr. Smith said in respect of that information that it was untrue, and that, if untrue, it could hardly be an official secret?

Is it not further a fact not only that the Rhodesian soi-disant Government is an illegal Government but that the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council has ruled that the Rhodesian courts have no jurisdiction in Rhodesia? Does not the right hon. Gentleman feel that all the evidence points to a decision having been taken by the Rhodesian authorities and their courts that action of this kind is best designed to intimidate any journalists who want to get out the facts about Rhodesia?

While we would all maintain that there is no difference between action of this kind against white citizens and action already taken against African citizens, is it not a fact that this case has brought home to Smith's friends in this country, including the Press, that we on this side of the House—and, I believe, Her Majesty's Government—have been right to insist on full human rights in any settlement there may be, and that last week's events again more strongly underline the need for safeguards in such a settlement?

The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned the question of an appeal, but this appeal will, of course, if it is granted, be to an illegal court and an unconstitutional court, some of whose rulings are not in accordance with British conceptions of justice, and under the laws of this House we are responsible for Rhodesia. But even if, as both sides in the House have had to admit, our views have not been enforceable, would the right hon. Gentleman consider the proposal made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) that the Attorney-General should be sent to Rhodesia or, if not the Attorney-General, one of the Prime Minister's negotiators who prepared the way for the plan that was turned down by the people of Rhodesia last year, to represent the strong views held by parties in the House and by all sections of the community here?

If there were no response to that action, would the Prime Minister take note of the proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. John D. Grant) that the world Press, outraged as is the British Press by this decision—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."]—the sentence imposed is too long; that is why I am being too long— that the world Press, outraged as is the British Press, could play its part now in all the countries which are sanction-breaking, producing the evidence of sanction-breaking and bring this home to Mr. Smith in perhaps the only way he will recognise?

The Prime Minister

As I said in my statement, we have no knowledge of the charges or the information which may have been produced in the court, so I do not think that I am able to comment on the opening part of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks.

As for the second part of his remarks, my right hon. Friend told the House on 21st March that we have in addition on previous occasions made protests to Mr. Smith about the detention of members of the ANC.

As for the last part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, suggesting that the Attorney-General or another representative of Her Majesty's Government should visit Salisbury, I have noted the proposal made by his right hon. Friend and by others. We would naturally wish to be in the position to make the strongest possible representation to Mr. Smith, but at the same time we have to be realistic, as the right hon. Gentleman was realistic, and to recognise that we could not do this unless there were cooperation by the authorities in Rhodesia. I think the House will feel that what is required is that the nature of the charges should be made public, and not just conveyed to Her Majesty's Government privately, with Her Majesty's Government's hands being tied and our not being able to tell the House.

Mr. Nigel Fisher

In view of the very severe sentence and the great secrecy that surrounds it, will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will proceed with the utmost caution in any future negotiations with Mr. Smith? Also, can he tell the House that in his own mind the validity of the proposition that there will be no such settlement without the consent of the people of Rhodesia as a whole still applies to Government policy?

The Prime Minister

We have always proceeded with great caution in the matter of negotiations, and my hon. Friend will probably agree that the great length of time which has been taken over them is proof of that. As to the last part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question, that still remains the position.

Mr. Grimond

I must first declare an interest, as I am a trustee and director of The Guardian and the Manchester Evening News. Is the Prime Minister aware that I therefore wholly support the protests being made, and hope that they will be pressed to the utmost?

Is the Prime Minister also aware that while this case has attracted a great deal of attention because it is about a journalist, there are many African people who are detained or in prison? I have only to mention Mr. Nkomo, and Mr. Garfield Todd who is still under restraint. It would be wholly wrong and damaging to the country if it should appear that all our attention was focused on this journalist when there are black Africans who have been in prison and detention for years. Will he add these to his protests?

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree with the purport of the right hon. Gentleman's question. That is why I mentioned in reply to the Leader of the Opposition that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has on previous occasions protested to the authorities in Rhodesia about the detention of Africans and others.

Mr. Hastings

While nothing can ex-cuse secret trials and charges and sentences, will my right hon. Friend recognise that those of us who have known Rhodesia for a long time and have sought to defend her interests in this country, and who regard much of the criticism in this country as both hypocritical and prejudiced, will be deeply disappointed and dismayed by this trial, particularly at the present time? Nevertheless, will my right hon. Friend not agree with me that the best insurance against the continuance of practices of this kind is to press on with every attempt to reach a settlement as soon as possible?

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for what he said. It bears out the last part of my statement urging upon Mr. Smith the need to settle the matter in the way that this House has suggested.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Will the Prime Minister consider issuing Bishop Muzorewa and Mr. and Mrs. Chinamano with Press cards rather than with British passports, because they seem to be much more effective?

The Prime Minister

I have always respected the hon. Gentleman's integrity, but I think that that is a little unfair. I have said already that, although no great publicity may have been given to it, this Government have consistently made representations to Mr. Smith about the detention of members of the ANC, especially the more recent cases.

Mr. Haselhurst

Does not the Smith régime's handling of this case make it clear that if there is to be a settlement of the Rhodesian question the terms will have to be made more severe than anything that we have contemplated hitherto, and should not this point be made clear now to the Smith régime?

The Prime Minister

This case and the others which have taken place recently damage the possibilities of getting a settlement of the Rhodesian question. Whereas some of us had hoped and thought that we saw indications of possibilities of talks between the ANC and the authorities in Rhodesia, instances of this kind make this infinitely more difficult. On the other hand, I think that my hon. Friend will recall that the last proposals contained provisions for safeguarding human rights. It is essential that these be maintained.

Mr. Paget

Can the right hon. Gentleman answer these questions? Has this gentleman been sentenced by a pre-UDI judge appointed by Her Majesty under the law existing before UDI, and under a procedure including trial in camera existing under the Official Secrets Act both in Rhodesia and in this country? If that is so, is it a very good example for the Press thesis that correspondents are a priestly caste above the law to raise this agitation about this case when the charge against Mr. Smith is that he has failed politically to intervene in judicial proceedings subject to appeal?

The Prime Minister

We do not have the information which would allow me to answer the first part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's question. On the second part of his question, I hope that any Government of this country would regard themselves as obliged in every respect to safeguard the interests of those subjects for whom they are responsible. Mr. Niesewand is a Rhodesian citizen— he is not a British citizen—but this House and this Government have responsibilities for Rhodesian citizens.

Mr. Crouch

As one who has supported my right hon. Friend through thick and thin in respect of the six principles for possible solution in Rhodesia, may I suggest that perhaps we should now introduce a seventh principle which will protect those who legally are British citizens against the repressions of an illegal police State?

Mr. Faulds

Is this incident not a clear revelation of the real nature of the Rhodesian régime, even to some of the Prime Minister's hon. Friends on the back benches opposite—though apparently not to the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Hastings)- and should we not impose a stricter régimen of sanctions?

The Prime Minister

This country is carrying out all of its obligations on sanctions in a way that no other country is.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Lest words uttered here today should go out from here as representing the views of this House, especially of this side of the House—[Interruption.] I hope that we are all in this together, apart from one or two mavericks on each side of the House, and each side must take responsibility for its mavericks. What is important is the message which goes to Rhodesia and not the twisting of our words as we have seen so often in Rhodesia. Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that certain powers taken by the legal Government of Rhodesia two days before UDI, condemned at the time, indeed, by Sir Hugh Beadle when he was in this country, were taken as a result of a trick with the Governor? Secondly, does he agree that the courts in Rhodesia in seeking to rule on past cases affecting the freedom of the individual have been robustly reversed by decisions of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council? We in this House are responsible for Rhodesian citizens because to that extent they are British citizens, and we do not accept decisions taken by an illegal Government or its equally illegal and unconstitutional courts.

The Prime Minister

Those are some of the legal considerations involved in the situation which, the right hon. Gentleman himself agreed, are complicated. What concerns this Government is that the authorities in Rhodesia should take action on the lines put to them specifically, first in private and now in public, in the interests of Mr. Niesewand and his family and of being able at some future time to get a settlement between themselves and those representing the Africans in Rhodesia, and thus with Her Majesty's Government.