HC Deb 29 June 1976 vol 914 cc205-10
The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Edward Rowlands)

I will, with permission, make a statement on mercenaries in Angola.

As the House will have read in today's Press, three of the 10 British subjects tried by the Angolan People's Revolutionary Tribunal in Luanda have been sentenced to death. They are Costas Georgiou, Andrew MacKenzie and John Barker.

Two of the other British subjects on trial have been sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment, three others to 24 years and two to 16 years.

The sentences were relayed immediately to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in Puerto Rico. He promptly sent a personal message to Dr. Neto, President of the People's Republic of Angola, seeking clemency on behalf of the British subjects who have been sentenced to death.

Our immediate concern is for the three men facing sentence of death. This does not, of course, preclude subsequent representations on behalf of those sentenced to imprisonment.

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that while the lives of British subjects are at stake, it would not be helpful for me to say more.

Mr. Maudling

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his statement. Is he aware that the Prime Minister should not merely be seeking clemency for these British subjects, but demanding justice? Is the Minister satisfied that the three men sentenced to death had a fair trial? In regard to the others who appear to have been sentenced not for specific crimes but solely for being mercenaries, which is not and never has been a crime in national and international law, does the Minister agree that many British subjects have taken part in civil wars, such as the Spanish Civil War? Does he agree that we are faced not with justice but with political reprisal masquerading as justice? Does he think that if the other faction had won, 15,000 Cubans would have been sentenced to 30 years in gaol?

Mr. Rowlands

If the Government made the statement that the right hon. Gentleman has just made, it would be counter-productive and not conducive to helping the representations we are making on behalf of British subjects facing the death sentence. I do not intend to follow the right hon. Gentleman. I accept that in international law it is not a crime to be a mercenary. Nor is it a crime in British law, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in the House on 16th June, but we are not sure of the position in Angolan law.

Mr. Grocott

While the position of hon. Members on this side of the House, who have consistently opposed capital punishment as an abhorrent method of punishment and fervently hope that these men will receive the clemency that is their due, is absolutely consistent, is not a rather strange position adopted by some hon. Members opposite, who apparently believe that killing people in Britain is properly punishable by execution but that those who kill people in Angola should receive clemency?

Mr. Rowlands

Our immediate task is to make representations to obtain clemency for those sentenced to death. No comment that I might make in reply to my hon. Friend would be helpful at this stage.

Mr. Amery

In his efforts to protect the lives and liberties of British subjects, would the Minister of State consider making representations to the Organisation of African Unity? Is he aware that I understand that the Organisation's Foreign Ministers are now meeting in Mauritius, whose Prime Minister, the President-elect of the OAU, is a distinguished Commonwealth statesman? Would he also make strong representations to Havana and Moscow and gently remind those two Governments that some of their citizens might have been in the dock on similar charges if the fortunes of war had gone the other way?

Mr. Rowlands

We have considered many ways of making representations but concluded that by far the most appropriate was direct representation at the highest level by the Prime Minister to the President of Angola, who has power to grant clemency in these cases.

Mr. Dalyell

Was not the analogy between the Spanish Civil War and the Angolan Civil War which was drawn by the right lion. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Maudling) in a BBC radio broadcast this morning rather inappropriate, not least because, on this occasion, the British Government begged the mercenaries not to go to Angola?

Mr. Rowlands

We certainly begged them not to go. Our position was made very clear. Once they decided to go, we had no right to stop them. They had the right to leave the country. The analogy with other occasions in history, such as the Spanish Civil War, may not be appropriate in this case.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Can the Minister of State say whether the report of the official observer and his studies of the trial confirm the generally-held impression that in regard to a number of the accused, including my constituent, Mr. Wiseman, there is no evidence of participation in any atrocities, which all would deplore? This being so, would the Minister not confine his representations to the issue of the death penalty but also make representations that no sentences should be put into operation if people have been gaoled solely for being mercenaries—which is not, and never has been, regarded as an offence in international law?

Mr. Rowlands

We have not had the opportunity to study in detail the verdict, which runs to many pages, and have not yet received the final report from our observer at the trial. I do not think that I should pursue the questions raised by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. The representations we have made in an effort to save people's lives do not preclude us from making representations on the imprisonment of the other mercenaries.

Mr. Ginsburg

I associate myself with the plea for mercy by the Prime Minister and my hon. Friend to the Angolan Government, but is my hon. Friend aware that although everyone is relieved that my constituent, Mr. Colin Evans, is not to be executed, a sentence of 24 years' imprisonment for no offence in international law, and no involvement in atrocities, is morally outrageous and abhorrent to the House? Secondly, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, will my hon. Friend repudiate any question of the Government's involvement in mercenary activities, as was outlined by the prosecution in the Luanda trial?

Mr. Rowlands

I confirm that we were involved in no complicity of any kind with the mercenaries who went to Angola. We have made that clear on so many occasions. I hope all hon. Members will also take an opportunity to do so. I do not think I should comment on the first part of my hon. Friend's question.

Sir Frederic Bennett

The Minister has rightly stated that there is no offence as such, in either British law or international law, in being a mercenary, but he ended his statement in a rather peculiar way by saying that he was not sure of Angolan law. Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that neither is the House sure of Angolan law? Will he clarify whether any documentation exists and when the law came into effect, bearing in mind that at the time in question there was no Angolan Government to have a law made on the subject?

Mr. Rowlands

I think that the hon. Gentleman has pointed his finger at the problem associated with making a statement on the position of Angolan law. As a result of the confusion and difficulties that have arisen, and the way in which the Angolan Government came to power, we have had to work on the basis of the indictments at the trial. We now, subsequently, want to investigate the indictments in greater detail and the nature of the verdicts. I do not think I should forecast or anticipate what we might decide.

Mr. Lee

Whatever may be the case as regards the rest of the pathetic human detritus, does my hon. Friend accept that some of us would not welcome the reprieve of Costas Georgiou? However, if he is reprieved, may we have an assurance from the Government that he will be extradited for trial for the murder of some of his contemporaries, bearing in mind that a British citizen who commits a murder abroad is justiciable by English law?

Mr. Rowlands

The Prime Minister's plea for clemency is on behalf of all those who have been sentenced to death.

Mr. Charles Morrison

Whatever the rights or wrongs of Angolan law, does the Minister agree that the first priority is to obtain a delay so as to allow time for an appeal to take place, as would be normal in any civilised country?

Secondly, I emphasise the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) in relation to representations to the Governments in Havana and Moscow? Thirdly, is the hon. Gentleman aware that the family of Andrew McKenzie live in my constituency? I am sure that he will be aware of all the agonies of his family, and other families, in the same position? Will the Government give those families such assistance as is possible and, as they desire, enable them to communicate with the mercenaries under sentence?

Mr. Rowlands

As I understand it, the People's Revolutionary Tribunal is a supreme court and there is no provision for appeal. However, no death sentence can be carried out unless confirmed by the President. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made direct representations and a plea for clemency to the President. That is why we felt that there was no reason for our going through other parties in this case.

As regards the assisting of families, I have been dealing with this matter for a number of weeks and I appreciate, as does the hon. Gentleman, the problems and agonies for parents and families associated with a number of the mercenaries who have been on trial. We have had telephone contact today with the families of seven of the men. In most cases we have been able to offer to send a short message to the mercenary.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I shall allow two more questions.

Mr. Bidwell

I agree with the Government's decision to appeal for clemency on behalf of all the convicted mercenaries, but will Her Majesty's Government point out to the Angolan Government that their standing in the eyes of the world will be that much better if they respond to international pressure, as will be the future of their society, about which we are all concerned?

Is my hon. Friend aware that some of the mercenaries had some convictions hanging about in this country? That begs the question how they got out through our ports in the first place. What do the Government intend to do in future about preventing the enrolment of mercenaries in this country in the face of the widespread African revolution which is taking place?

Mr. Rowlands

As regards my hon. Friend's first point, I am sure that that is one of the factors that the Angolan Government should consider when making their decision. As regards his second point, the difficulties and complexities that arose from the exodus of the mercenaries led to the setting up of the Diplock Commission, and we are awaiting its report.

Mr. Goodhew

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the British people are becoming increasingly angry about double standards in international affairs? Does he not appreciate how wrong it seems to the British people that British subjects should be tried for being mercenaries by a minority Government imposed by mercenary armies?

Mr. Rowlands

I do not understand the hon. Gentleman's reference to double standards. We have acted promptly to assist those who have behaved in a foolish and stupid way.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must get on.