HC Deb 25 January 1978 vol 942 cc1358-60
2. Sir David Renton

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he is aware that Anatoly Shcharansky, a Russian Jew, has been imprisoned in Moscow without trial since March 1977, that he has been forbidden legal representation unless he pleads guilty to a pending charge of treason which carries the death penalty, and that he is no longer allowed visitors or to receive or send letters; and what steps will be taken by Her Majesty's Government to draw the attention of the Soviet Government and the Belgrade Conference to the denial of human rights in this case.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Dr. David Owen)

I am following this case closely. The Government will continue to ensure that the Soviet authorities are in no doubt about the widespread concern felt in this country over Mr. Shcharansky and other human rights cases, and about the implications of the case for the Belgrade meeting and the whole process of detente.

Sir D. Renton

May I say that I share that concern? Will the right hon. Gentleman explain to the Russian Government that their inhuman and uncivilised treatment of this man damages their reputation? Will the right hon. Gentleman ask that Shcharansky be immediately released, bearing in mind that the Russians have kept him in custody incommunicado for nearly a year while they make up their minds, or, rather, fail to do so?

Dr. Owen

I think that the sentiments of the right hon. and learned Gentleman are shared by many in the House. On a number of occasions, and some quite recently, I have taken the opportunity privately to make clear to the Soviet authorities that there is very strong public feeling in this country. Although we have no direct status in the sense that some of these people do not have direct links with the British people and the British Government, we have our responsibilities as international citizens, which affects our relations with the Soviet Union.

Mr. Thorpe

As the Foreign Secretary's commitment to civil rights is not an issue in the House, does he agree that the fact that Mr. Shcharansky has been held incommunicado for nearly a year, without his mother being able to see him, still less his legal advisers, will make hollow any subsequent agreement at Belgrade on human rights with the Russians unless they show some definite movement in this regard?

Dr. Owen

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is difficult to dissociate the overhang effect of some of these cases from what might be said in Belgrade. Many of us have this anxiety. One might make a forthcoming statement at Belgrade hoping for changes in future years, only to see, a few weeks or months later, those hopes suddenly and cruelly dashed. That would breed cynicism among the public about the whole process of détente. That is a matter that the Soviet authorities should consider.

Mr. Greville Janner

Is my right hon. Friend aware that over 300 Members, including you, Mr. Speaker, together with the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop of Canterbury, have now signed a Bible as a token of the concern of the House about the fate of Anatoly Shcharansky? What protest has he made at the refusal of the Soviet Ambassador in Belgrade to receive this Bible from the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) and myself and, indeed, at the cancellation of an appointment that he made with us at his convenience? Does he not think that the time has come for some very plain speaking on behalf of the House of Commons in this matter?

Dr. Owen

Naturally, I regret that an appointment that had been made was not kept. We must keep these issues in perspective. The process of détente involves more than just human rights. Of course, human rights are an extremely important element in it. I do not want to undermine or dissociate myself from the strong commitment to human rights. There are other issues to be discussed in the process of détente—the whole question of disarmament and the threat to peace of nuclear arms escalating. In forming a judgment on these issues, we have to see the process of détente as a whole.

Mr. John Davies

I fully understand the Foreign Secretary's statement about the broad area covered by détente. Has he made it clear to the Soviet Union that any final communiqué jointly agreed at Belgrade cannot reasonably fail to make some reference to the concern and agony that are felt about this matter unless something is done about Anatoly Shcharansky and his like?

Dr. Owen

I note and share the right hon. Gentleman's view. That is a factor to be borne in mind. We cannot take too rigid a line until we determine the kind of framework in which we shall discuss this matter. Many people feel that those who monitor the process at Helsinki in any of the member States that signed the Final Act should not suffer for their monitoring.