HC Deb 12 July 1976 vol 915 cc44-9
The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Edward Rowlands)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement on the outcome of the trial of mercenaries in Angola.

The House will recall my statement on 29th June in which I referred to the appeal for clemency which the Prime Minister addressed to President Neto immediately after the judgment and sentences. Her Majesty The Queen sent a message on 4th July. To neither of these has there been a reply nor, as far as we know, have the Angolan Government replied to numerous other appeals.

As the House will know, last Friday, 9th July, President Neto issued a statement confirming the sentences of death. The four men were shot on Saturday afternoon, 10th July, by a firing squad.

I am confident that I speak for hon. Members on both sides of the House when I express our shock and dismay that the Angolan Government disregarded so many appeals for clemency and have taken the extreme and irreversible step of carrying out the four death sentences. The House will know that we have already expressed our sympathy to the families in their distress. My officials have throughout been keeping in close touch with them.

As regards the trial itself, although certain rights were accorded to the defence by the court, our conclusion is that the trial was not a fair trial in the sense in which we would understand that term. We have noted the absence of any presumption of innocence and the prejudicial nature of much of the process and evidence. Although all the defendants were accused and found guilty of the crime of being a mercenary, we do not accept that it has been established that being a mercenary is a crime having a basis in international law.

It was alleged in the trial that there had been complicity by the British Government in the recruitment of the mercenaries and arrangements for their departure. I need hardly say that this is completely untrue. We consistently expressed our opposition to all external intervention in Angola and ourselves abstained from any intervention. As to specific allegations about departure arrangements, no special facilities were given or special arrangements made by the Government. No authority in Britain has the power to prevent an individual from leaving the country with or without a passport unless he is wanted for a criminal offence.

We shall leave the Angolan authorities in no doubt of our opinion of the trial and of its procedures. We shall also consider the position of those men sentenced to long terms of imprisonment and action that we may be able to take on their behalf.

Finally, the House will recall the setting up of the committee under Lord Diplock to inquire into the law on the subject of mercenaries and to make recommendations. I understand that Lord Diplock will be presenting his report in the near future.

Mr. Maudling

Is it not clear from the Minister's statement that what we are faced with is judicial murder—not justice, but political reprisal masquerading as justice? Can the Minister confirm that of the four men executed one was mentally disturbed, another was crippled and the other two were convicted of no known crime? What of the eight men still in gaol? Is it not a fact that these men, British citizens, have been convicted of no crime known to national or international law? It is wholly intolerable that they should rot in gaol for no crime at all. Will the Minister recognise that this is an intolerable situation for any British Government, and will he act upon it?

Mr. Rowlands

In my statement I made clear our position about the trial and our assessment of it, as I did of our first assessment of the indictment and the other facts that we have obtained. I am still awaiting the return of Mr. Byatt, who remained in Luanda to help with certain detailed arrangements involving the bodies of the mercenaries. We have made it clear —as I did in my statement—what we feel about the nature of the trial and its proceedings.

Mr. Powell

Why did the Government not learn from the case of Hills in Uganda the unwisdom of advising the Sovereign to be involved in appeals for clemency in this kind of case? Will the Government refrain in future from bringing about the humiliation of the CI own by that type of advice?

Mr. Rowlands

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong. I think it right that we should have done everything that was humanly possible to make the appeals of clemency to the Angolan Government. I think that we were right to make such an effort and to make the representations that we made. They were made at many levels by many Governments and organisations as well as our own Head of State, the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury. We do not apologise for taking such steps, and we shall judge each case on its merits in the future.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Although I am opposed to capital punishment, many people on this side of the House and outside as well as myself will have a strong feeling that the Government's and Opposition's reaction to the sentences being carried out is grossly exaggerated and hypocritical. Some of the epithets about barbarism would be better applied to those who condoned the mercenaries' behaviour and those who connived with their going to Angola. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about the Cubans?"] Should we not express some sympathy for the Angolans and for other British subjects who suffered at the hands of the mercenaries?

Mr. Rowlands

I know that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members on this side of the House conveyed pleas of clemency to the Angolan Government. Therefore, I am surprised at his comments that people do not feel strongly about the deaths of the mercenaries, given the situation which prevails. I cannot comment any further except to say that I read in the papers today about Mr. Banks complaining that the British Government had let the mercenaries down. I am surprised that he should say that when he is the one who peddles in other people's lives.

Mr. Amery

Would the Minister of State agree that Angola, in spite of our recognition of it, is not really a sovereign power but is a Soviet-Cuban colony? Would he agree that the trial, sentences and executions were master-minded in Moscow and Havana? Would he also agree that it is not the puppet régime of President Neto which is accountable but Mr. Brezhnev and Mr. Castro?

Mr. Rowlands

The right hon. Member is wrong in law, for sure. The Angolan Government is a sovereign Government in that country and the trial was effected in the name of that Government.

Mr. Newens

Many of us who deplore the actions of the mercenaries none the less sent appeals for clemency to President Neto and we deeply regret the fact that the executions were carried out. Nevertheless, does the Minister of State recognise that there is now a need for action to be taken to prevent the recruitment of mercenaries in this country by freelance individuals? Action should be taken to prevent such people leaving the country in their own interests.

Hon. Members

Like Russia?

Mr. Rowlands

On the recruitment of mercenaries, we must await the report of the Diplock Committee. Many hon. Members on all sides of the House have grave qualms about the way in which the mercenaries were recruited and about the people behind that recruiting.

Mr. Richard Wainwright

The Minister of State said the Government are considering what they can do about the very long terms of imprisonment being served by the other mercenaries. Will the Government approach this in the context of the Angolan civil war being virtually at an end, or will they approach it believing that that country is still in a state of active civil war?

Mr. Rowlands

We must deal with the situation as it exists. We have recognised the Angolan Government as the true national Government of Angola.

Mr. Charles Morrison

Tribute should be paid to the families of the mercenaries, who have suffered an appalling ordeal in the last few weeks. Credit should also be given to the legal representatives of the mercenaries, who volunteered their services free of charge and free of expenses. As the mercenaries were executed without any justification in international law and subjected to political assassination, should not exceptional financial assistance be given to the families if they wish to bring the bodies home?

It is rumoured that there was some source of Government assistance some weeks ago to bring home mercenaries who escaped harm at the end of the engagement in Angola. If that is not true, does the Minister of State know how these mercenaries were financed in getting home and would he tap that source now?

Mr. Rowlands

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but there is no provision in public funds for the repatriation of bodies. As he may know, about 1,500 British citizens die abroad each year, many of them in tragic circumstances. Many grieving parents ask for assistance in getting the bodies home, and they would be equally grieved if we made an exception in this case. We are doing all we can to facilitate the arrangements, and we are in close contact with the families of the executed mercenaries.

I do not know the details of the case to which the hon. Member has drawn attention, and I know of no precedent of the Government paying for the repatriation of bodies.

Mr. Fitt

While associating myself with expressions of sympathy to the relatives of those executed, does the Minister of State not believe that the Government and the Opposition are in danger of being charged with just a little hypocrisy? Will they recognise that in 1916 the British Government laid down the pattern for this type of execution when they took James Connolly out to be executed in a wheelchair? In this situation the best action which the British Government can take is to ensure that in no circumstances will a British subject engage in mercenary activities in the future.

Mr. Rowlands

I am pleased that I was not responsible for the events in 1916 in Ireland. Nevertheless, I appreciate the force of the hon. Member's remarks. I cannot fully agree with the comparison of the two events or comment about the Opposition's hypocrisy.

Mr. Crowder

Will the Minister of State publish the terms of the appeal made by the Queen on behalf of the Government, and of the reply she received, if any? In view of the events of last week, will the Government break off diplomatic relations with this savage Communist régime?

Mr. Rowlands

It is difficult to break off diplomatic relations with a Government with whom we have no diplomatic relations. I cannot promise to publish the appeal made by the Queen without her permission, or any other appeal.