§ Mr. David Amess (Basildon)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave) on his promotion to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He deployed considerable skills when he was responsible for housing matters in the Department of the Environment and I have no doubt that he will bring his many fine qualities to his new post. I am also pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) is to join us shortly. I hope that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope) and the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, later in the debate.
Last week I took part in a joint Anglo-American delegation to the Soviet Union, with the express purpose of trying to persuade the Government and officials to release religious prisoners of conscience. The trip was organised by that most excellent organisation, Christian Solidarity International, under the United Kingdom chairmanship of Mr. Mervyn Thomas and the American chairmanship of Mr. Stephen Snyder. The American delegation was superbly led by Congressman Frank Wolf and his wife. We were joined by Robert Pittenger, Michael Farris and Scott Flipsy.
I had never visted the Soviety Union, and Moscow came as a great culture shock to me. That feeling was heightened when I learned from what I believe to be a reliable source that the Soviets spend on average 70 billion hours a year queueing and that—again on average—every woman in the Soviet Union has three abortions.
One of the longest queues was for Lenin's mausoleum, a queue that I joined. I shall always remember seeing the never-ending queue of people waiting to see the wax figure of a man who died in 1924. Many brides and bridegrooms found time during their wedding day to take flowers to his tomb. That picture was often in my mind during our many meetings with Soviet Ministers and officials, since I believe that life for the average citizen in the Soviet Union is very tough. It struck me as extraordinary that people could so easily be pleased. Also, I did not forget that during the last war the Russian nation lost about 20 million people, a most terrible price to pay.
I shall give the House some details of the various meetings that we had during our week in Moscow and what we asked the Soviet authorities to do—and what I shall now ask my hon. Friend the Minister to do. We were given great assistance by both the American and British embassies. Unfortunately, our ambassador was in London that week, but his staff were extremely helpful to us during our stay. The American ambassador, Mr. Matlock, who I believe speaks better Russian than the Russians themselves, gave a dinner party for Soviet Ministers and officials, at which a number of very important, hard-hitting speeches were made. However, I felt at the end of the evening that the thoughts of all three parties had drawn much closer together.
At our meeting I stressed that we had absolutely no right to interfere in the internal affairs of the Soviet Union. However, we had come on a special mission to express the concern of Christians about the plight of fellow Christians who are being held in prison. I argued that Christianity transcends international boundaries. I believe that that 822 point was accepted. A number of attacks were made on the Americans' record in that area. From the British point of view, I was quick to point out that we long to solve the problems in Ireland and that the British Government would welcome any sensible, practical suggestions that might help us to solve that difficult problem.
Our delegation was invited to the Soviet Union by Mr. Burlatsky. He is the vice-president of the Soviet Political Sciences Association and chairman of the Commission on Humanitarian Co-operation and Human Rights. He is one of the key figures in the glasnost process. Our meeting with him was one of the highlights of our week in Moscow. We wanted to obtain information about certain prisoners of conscience and we presented him with a list of approximately 200 prisoners of conscience whom we believe are being detained in the Soviet Union. We also wanted to obtain information about new laws that are being introduced by the Soviet Government for the protection of individual human rights. We wanted information, too, about the functioning and the property of churches and religious associations.
On 15 June, Mr. Burlatsky made an important speech in which he said that, 70 years after the revolution, there is a need to establish a stable constitutional order. He said that there was a need to reconstruct the political system so as to set up reliable guarantees against the revival ofan authoritarian regime of personal power and the mass reprisals which would follow it.Mr. Burlatsky went on to say that to make the state an efficient instrument of accelerated development is to overcome what Lenin called the bureaucratic distortion of Soviet power. He said that it was important to guarantee not only socio-economic but human and political rights and freedoms. Mr. Burlatsky sympathised with many of the points that we made about prisoners of conscience and suggested that we should take up our points with the Ministers whom we were to meet during our week in Moscow.
Our list of prisoners was disputed at practically every meeting that we attended. The point was made that many prisoners had already been released and that a number of those who remained in prison were there for charges unconnected with their religious beliefs. I made a commitment that I would publicly apologise if, after consultation with Keston college, the Soviets verified that the prisoners in the list that we gave them were not being detained in prison as a result of their religious beliefs.
However, there was one prisoner about whom there was no controversy—I refer to Deacon Vladimir Rusak, who graduated from the Moscow Theological Academy and became a deacon in the Russian Orthodox Church. He worked for many years in the editorial office of the Journal of the Patriarchate of Moscow, the official journal of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union. In 1982, Rusak was removed from the clergy list by the Council for Religious Affairs for preaching a sermon analysing the Russian Orthodox Church before and after the revolution, mentioning the heavy losses that the Church sustained in the 1920s and 1930s. Deacon Rusak had already been removed from his place of work when it was discovered that he was writing a three-volume history of the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union.
In 1983, Rusak entered Western consciousness with an open letter to the assembly of the World Council of Churches, which was meeting in Vancouver. On 22 April 1986, Vladimir Rusak was arrested. He was tried on 27 823 September and sentenced to seven years' strict regime camp followed by five years of internal exile, the maximum sentence possible under article 70 of the criminal code of the Russian republic, for allegedly distributing anti-Soviet religious literature in the Belorussian town of Gomel. Rusak was sent to a Labour camp for political prisoners in the Perm region of the Ural mountains. He is frequently put under intense pressure to renounce his Christian faith. In 1987, when partial amnesty was announced for those sentenced under article 70, Rusak was pressurised by the authorities to sign a statement of recantation to secure his release. He refused.
We raised Father Rusak's case at subsequent discussions with Konstantin Kharchev, the chairman of the Soviet Council for Religious Affairs, with Boris Kravtsov, the Soviet Minister of Justice and with Alexander Vlasov, the Soviet Minister of the Interior. We were led to believe by all those to whom we spoke that shortly we could look forward to a positive outcome concerning Father Rusak.
I was especially pleased to meet Alexander Ogorodnikov because I and other hon. Members had an Adjournment debate on his imprisonment only last year and we had adopted him as a prisoner of faith. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar), responded to the debate. Many Christians throughout the country prayed for his release. In late 1987 I visited someone who had been fasting in a London church for Alexander's release.
Alexander became a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was arrested in 1978 because he participated in the publication of a religious journal and in organising a religious philosophical seminar. He was re-arrested in 1979. He was sentenced to six years in a Labour camp and to five years in exile. He was re-arrested in 1985 and became a prisoner in the notorious camp 36. Alexander, who, when I met him, did not look in the best of health, described terrible conditions in camp 36. It is a great wonder that any of those prisoners survive the severe climatic conditions in the winter.
We all celebrated Alexander's release in February 1987. Hon. Members can imagine my slight amusement when I sat with Alexander in a KGB car which was doubling up as a taxi to earn a little bit of money on the side.
We also had the pleasure of meeting Father Gleb Yakunin, a Russian Orthodox priest, who was suspended in 1966. In 1975, he appealed to EEC delegates in Nairobi, giving details of the situation faced by the Russian Orthodox Church and the believers. In 1976 he founded the unofficial Christian Committee for the Defence of Believers' Rights in the Soviet Union. He was arrested in 1979 and sentenced in 1980 to five years in labour camps and five years in exile. I am delighted to say that he was released in 1987, reinstated and given a parish in a Moscow region in August 1987. Father Yakunin was absolutely overjoyed when we met him in a tiny apartment and he was presented with a Bible. It is a miracle that he survived his time in camp and I am delighted to say that his spirit has certainly not been destroyed.
The case which I particularly want to bring to the attention of the House is that of Vasili and Galina Barats. I had adopted them as prisoners of faith and with my constituents celebrated their release. The House can 824 imagine my horror when I arrived in Moscow and found I had been given inaccurate information. Vasili had been sent into exile and Galina was being held under house arrest. I have photographic proof that on 4 July, pentecostal emigration activist Vasili Barats was removed from a train bound for Moscow and detained for several hours. Barats who was forcibly taken from Moscow to the western Ukrainian Trans-Carpathian region on 8 May, was attempting to rejoin his wife in Moscow. Although she was also ordered to leave Moscow, she has refused to leave the flat there she is staying with friends and so far the militia has not attempted to remove her by force, although the flat is under constant surveillance. The ticket to Moscow was confiscated from Vasili and the KGB told him that he would be prevented from leaving, although there was no legal ground for his enforced exile in the western Ukraine. He is now under 24-hour surveillance by the militia and the KGB and he is unable to make even the shortest telephone call to his wife.
Barats has appealed to Mikhail Gorbachev to allow him to return to his wife in Moscow and for both to emigrate. In the late 1970s, Vasili and Galina were prevented from emigrating, on the grounds that they had no close relatives in the West. Now it is said that Vasili is party to military secrets which he acquired in the early 1970s when he was an army officer. Vasili denies that he has any knowledge that would be of any use whatever to a foreign power as all the equipment he used is now obsolete. Vasili was invited to petition for release from his labour camp sentence early in 1987 and he specifically stated that he was asking to be released to emigrate and Galina signed a similar statement, but all their attempts to emigrate have been frustrated and they have remained in an extremely precarious position ever since.
On 27 May, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Richard Shifter, was able to visit Galina, who handed him a statement for President Reagan containing the list of 4,000 pentecostals who wish to emigrate from the Soviet Union. When Congressman Frank Wolf visited Galina, the KGB scattered from outside her flat. I visited her separately and found her in a highly emotional state. She has not been out of her flat, which is on the 25th floor of a depressing tower block, for two and a half months.
Galina is under virtual house arrest. Crazy as it seems, on many occasions food has to be raised in a bucket up to the 25th floor of the tower block. She is staying with a young couple whose 10-month-old child died last year. They have one remaining child, a five-year-old daughter named Lisa, who has a heart complaint, and the operation to rectify that can be carried out only in the West.
At every meeting we attended, we put the Barats's case. The American delegation wanted to take Galina home with them when we left last Friday. Unfortunately, we were not given entirely satisfactory answers to the questions that we posed about the plight of the Barats family. The other members of the delegation and I are determined to obtain the release of the couple and ensure that they should be allowed to emigrate. We had a meeting with several pentecostals who—except for one person— are all emigrating to America. That one person needs all our help and support in the West.
During our first visit, we were taken to the Danolov monastery, where President Reagan gave his now-famous address. We were warmly welcomed by the clergy, but I 825 must tell the House that I left with the feeling that the monks were overdependent on the state and that the monastery had somehow been compromised.
Most prisoners are detained under article 70, which concerns anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda, or article 190. Soviet law states that sentences are not only imposed as chastisement for the crime but are a time for correction and re-education in which the state will try to alter the moral outlook of the prisoner and his or her attitude to society and to work.
We are told that glasnost has resulted in a reduction in the number of religious prisoners from 380 in January 1987 to 177 today. However, it is suspected that many of the prisoners are re-arrested on various civilian charges. The number of new arrests on religious grounds has, I am pleased to say, been reduced to five this year. According to Soviet law, all religious groups must be registered with the state. The only type of actitivity that is officially allowed is the holding of services of worship in a building that must be registered officially for that purpose. Other activities are generally forbidden, such as Sunday schools, bible classes and evangelical events. It is hardly surprising that many Christians feel unable to abide by such restrictive practices.
At meetings with Ministers and officials, we emphasised the Helsinki accord and said that they should comply with it. We asked for bibles to be made freely available, and the Americans have offered to send 1 million bibles. We also asked that religious education be given to young people because there is a marked absence of children in the churches that we visited.
Keston college has done excellent work in supplying information about prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union. We are also indebted to Hans Stuckelberger the president of Christian Solidarity International, who was, unfortunately, refused a visa to join us on the delegation. I also pay a warm tribute to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has worked so very hard for human rights in the past few years.
It was clear to me that the Prime Minister's stand on these matters has produced positive results and is widely respected in the Soviet Union. I met Mr. Gorbachev when he visited the United Kingdom three years ago. I was impressed by him; to echo the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, he is someone with whom we feel we could do business.
I want finally to quote the words of four people whom we met during that week. Father Gleb Yakunin said:This improved situation for believers in the Soviet Union is due to continuous prayers and protests of Western Christians over the last 10 years.Alexander Ogorodnikov said:please keep the pressure up it is definitely working.Mrs. Barats said:Yes there is glasnost, yes there is perestroika, yes there is democratisation, but only for a few.Perhaps the most telling remark of all was made by Mr. Bulabsky, who said:we are continually looking in the mirror of our conscience, and that mirror is the West.I hope that the Soviets will read and act upon the remarks that I and other colleagues make.
§ 12.5 pm
§ Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) on raising this matter in the House and on his very moving speech. I hope that what he has said will be heard and acted upon. I know that the families whom he has mentioned will find out that he has done so, and what he has said will perhaps help to assure and reassure them, which is our common purpose.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising during his visit to Moscow the Soviet authorities' refusal to allow me and other hon. Members on both sides of the House to enter the Soviet Union. I am a frequent refusenik—they will not let me in because they say that I interfere in their affairs, so glasnost and perestroika have not reached me I regret that, but at least last week I achieved the next best thing to getting to Moscow. After 18 years in the House, I actually received a letter from the Soviet ambassador. Unfortunately, it contained an implied refusal to see me for a private chat, but perhaps even that attitude may melt in due course. Meanwhile, as a founder member of the Commission for Human Rights in the USSR I associate myself with the campaign for freedom of people of all religions and for the rights of the dissidents.
I begin by quoting from a marvellous book called "Fear No Evil" by Natan Sharansky, in the front of which I have written a dedication to the Minister, expressing my congratulations to him and the wish that he should read the book during the recess as it will interest him. It is gripping and it will do him good, as it did me.
In the preface, the recently released Mr. Sharansky says:During the long months of interrogation and isolation before my trial and for all the years that followed, my captors were determined to break me—to make me confess to crimes I had never committed and then to parade me before the world. They wanted to use me to destroy the two groups I worked for—Jews who hoped to leave for Israel and dissidents who spoke out on behalf of human rights.I, too, work for both groups. The campaigns are separate because the Jews who wish to leave are not trying to change the regime in the Soviet Union but simply to get out. Sharansky, however, provides a magnificent bridge both in his work and now in his book, which I hope many hon. Members will read. Speaking of his time in prison, he says that there are many people of all religions m prison today for having said yesterday what Mikhail Gorbachev is saying today. All of them should be released—and they should be released now.
The all-party parliamentary committee for the release of Soviet Jewry was established some 17 years ago and I pay tribute to Members of all parties and to all Governments since then for the kindly, humanitarian help and co-operation that they have given us, not least on behalf of the three categories of people with whom we are concerned today—first, those still in prison; secondly, those who have been released but are still being harassed and persecuted; thirdly, those who dwell on the dangerous edge of imprisonment in the Soviet Union.
Sharansky refers in his book to a man called Leonid Lubman, who has been seeking to leave the Soviet Union for many years but who in August 1977 was sentenced to 13 years' imprisonment, just as Sharansky was, for writings critical of the Soviet Union. In his book, Mr. Sharansky describes him as 827another imprisoned Jew who was picked on at every opportunity and literally never left the punishment cell along with his neighbours Vazif Meilanov and others.So he, Leonid Lubman, is still in prison as a Jewish prisoner of conscience.
There are other ex-prisoners, prisoners who have not been allowed out of the Soviet Union. For example, Rowald Zelichenok has been waiting to leave for about 20 years. Like the man referred to by the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess), he is accused of having secrets. That is a travesty and a poor excuse. He was told only three or four days ago not to re-apply for a visa until 1999. There is Yeugeny Lein, Lein Kislik and Chernobilski. There is Kosharowsky, who has been enduring great perils. He has been refused leave to apply for a visa until 1992, again on the spurious ground of secrecy. He left his job 20 years ago. There are split families such as the Luries. There are those who are being kept from leaving because of spurious financial dependencies. All this in a country where it is alleged that freedom has re-emerged.
In June 1979,4,350 Jewish people were allowed to leave the Soviet Union. In June of this year, 1,493 left that country—in other words, far fewer than half of those who left in June 1979. In 1979, 51,300 Jews were allowed to leave. So far this year, only 6,188 have left the country.
From this House, we appeal to the Soviet Union to release prisoners and to allow those who wish to leave, to join their families, and to do so in accordance with their own constitution, with the universal declaration of human rights and with the Helsinki declaration.
Finally, I mention with appreciation a statement made only yesterday by the Prime Minister concerning Raoul Wallenberg, the most noble prisoner of all time. He was a non-Jewish diplomat who single-handed, saved over 100,000 Jewish lives in Hungary, and to whom, I pay my tribute. He disappeared after going to the Soviet authorities after the liberation, to explain what had happened in Hungary and to seek the help of Soviet officials. The Soviets say that he was not in the Soviet Union, but left and was sighted. His family have been pleading and campaigning for true information, and for his release, if he lived. The statement by the Soviets that they had held him in their hands and that he had died of a heart attack in prison was patently untrue.
We appeal for Wallenberg and for all those referred to by the hon. Member for Basildon. We appeal for all those who have been campaigned for by hon. Members on both sides of the House and who are currently suffering in the Soviet Union. These are prisoners, ex-prisoners and those who wish to be free but are not permitted their freedom.
§ Mr. Atkinson
I have, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) for offering me this opportunity to participate in an important debate. I am pleased to congratulate him on initiating it. It must be right for the House to remind itself as we depart for a period of 828 relaxation that, despite glasnost, there remain in the gulag hundreds of prisoners of conscience who deserve our attention for as long as they remain there.
I was extremely interested in the visit of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon to Moscow last week, which was organised by Christian Solidarity International. As he knows, I have the honour to be the president of the CSI in the United Kingdom. I had hoped to join my hon. Friend's group, but I was unable to go.
I was especially interested to learn of my hon. Friend's meeting with Father Gleb Yakunin. I met him when I was in Moscow in 1979 researching for a report on freedom of religion for the Council of Europe. I shall never forget meeting with him and his colleagues on the Committee for Defence of Believers' Rights.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon has reported, Father Gleb Yakunin was released last year. He was one of the three former dissidents who addressed President Reagan at the American embassy in Moscow on 30 May. He used that opportunity in front of the world's press to remind us, as my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) has done, that there remain many prisoners of conscience. In particular he referred, like my hon. Friend, to Deacon Vladimir Rusak. Those people are still languishing in prison, labour camps, in exile and in psychiatric hospitals because of their religious activities. They have been convicted under the infamous article 70 of the Soviet criminal code, which is Orwellian.
As Father Gleb has testified the reason why he was released and the reason why Georgie Vins, the Siberian seven, Shcharansky, Orlov, Ratushinskaya, Senderov, Ognorodnikov—whom my hon. Friend met— Yevdokimov, Anna Chertkova, and, most recently, Vasili Shipilov, have all been released is that we in the West made them household names as a result of our campaigns on their behalf. We demonstrated outside Soviet embassies, we held vigils and encouraged mountains of mail urging their release. As a result, they became a continual embarrassment to the Kremlin. Thus they were released as an indicator of Soviet foreign policy like the number of visas issued to Jewish refuseniks—a measure for detente.
What a callous way of using people in response to the efforts and perseverance of the thousands of campaigners all over the world. However, there remains no alternative for us while hundreds more remain in prison. I draw the attention of the House to early-day motions 1415 and 1416, which list the names of 175 Soviet Christians who remain in prison for religious reasons.
What we all want in this House is a time in the Soviet Union when to be an active Christian, Jew or Moslem does not risk intimidation, bureaucratic harassment, discrimination or persecution, which has happened many times in post-revolutionary Russia.
We must be encouraged by what my hon. Friend learned from those he met in Moscow—that the reform movement is leading to greater openness, tolerance and respect for human rights, including freedom of religion. Such changes must not be cosmetic changes merely to encourage a reduction in arms or more western trade, technology and credits to improve the Soviet economy and to support perestroika. That would mean that we have learned nothing from the lessons of detente of the 1970s, when we gave much but received so little in return.
I urge upon my hon. Friend the Minister, whose responsibilities include the conference on security and co-operation in Europe, those recommendations for which 829 I am seeking support from the Council of Europe in October as the result of my report on Freedom of Religion in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, of which he has a copy and which is to be debated by the parliamentary assembly in October.
§ Mr. Timothy Kirkhope (Leeds, North-East)
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) on raising this important matter. I have not had the advantage of visiting the Soviet Union, although since I came to the House last year I have been involved, in common with many other hon. Members, in the causes of a number of families who wish to obtain visas and who wish to leave the Soviet Union.
What has impressed me most is the new cosmetic approach adopted by the Soviet Authorities towards such activities. Nearly a year ago, I wrote to the Soviet ambassador, Mr. Zamyatin, about one particular family. The letter that I received in reply was starchy and in some respects offensive, as it sought to remind me of the human rights record of my country. One had to assume from that that the Soviets were talking about Ireland, Scotland or Wales or even the entire north of England. It was a curt and unhelpful letter. Since that time, however, glasnost and perestroika have developed.
Only recently I took up the cause of the Chernobilsky family in Moscow. About two weeks ago I led a small delegation to the Soviet embassy. This time we had an appointment at the embassy and we did not have to poke a letter through the box at the gates. This time, we were invited in and given half an hour of the first secretary's time. We were treated with great courtesy and sympathy. That is not enough, but it is a suggestion of the public image that the Soviet Union is now trying to put across.
We do not want the respective Foreign Offices to exchange lists; what we want is action. We want to see many people, not just the names that we select, and important though they may be, obtain the visas that they wish. The Chernobilskys and all the other Jewish families who want the freedom to practise their religion in Israel should be afforded that right. Those who are in prison because of religious beliefs, or in mental institutions because their beliefs do not comply precisely with the state's, should be released and given freedom.
The public face that I and other colleagues are now experiencing—the friendly, courteous and even generous attitude—must be changed into the reality of the release of people and the increase of freedom in the Soviet Union. Mr. Zamyatin and his colleagues know that. They know that we are watching carefully the development of glasnost and perestroika and that we want to see those results. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon for raising the issue. He has given us an invaluable opportunity to discuss a matter which is of great importance to everyone.
§ The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. William Waldegrave)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) for giving me an opportunity, very early in my responsibility, to put some words on record about the third of the three great 830 areas of which my portfolio consists. I have had the privilege today of answering a debate on each of those issues.
I was very interested to hear about my hon. Friend's visit to the Soviet Union, and I shall pass on his kind remarks to our embassy staff there. Many of the words spoken across the Chamber have a ritual quality. In other debates we know that we have to play our parts, but in debates such as this, in the activities represented in this House and by voluntary organisations outside such as PEN and Amnesty International, it is more than words. We know that the concentration on particular families and the publicity that they receive has a particular effect in the real world and can be a powerful weapon for protection. Therefore, occasions such as today are important.
However optimistic we are about the changes which are affecting the Soviet Union, had it not been for the efforts of people such as my hon. Friend and the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West: (Mr. Janner) during the years when the atmosphere was not so favourable, it would not now be so near the top of the list of priorities that progress should be made on these issues. We must be vigilant, because we are aware that there are elements of public relations in some of the things being said at the moment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope) said, we are seeking the actuality and not the words.
I have not long to speak and I cannot refer to all the cases which hon. Members have raised. I welcome the way in which the debate has extended beyond prisoners of conscience in a narrow sense to wider human rights issues in the Soviet Union. I shall say just one word about a figure in a very different category—Wallenberg, members of whose family I know. I can say to the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West that many unresolved questions remain about that case, and we hope that the spirit of glasnost will reach into that tragic story, which is a major one in the history of the 20th century.
I have a particular family reason for welcoming my hon. Friend's introduction of the subject. He may not be aware that a very major figure in the carrying of evangelical Christianity to the Soviet Union in the 19th century was a member of my family, Lord Radstock. Occasionally, I receive letters from the descendants of those whom he introduced to his particular strand of Christianity in the Soviet Union. Investigations would show that some of those whom my hon. Friend met would be able to trace their roots back to the missions that he established in the 1850s and 1860s.
The horror with which we in the western world regard any attempt to limit religious freedom has been expressed on all sides of the House today, and it is intolerable that those pressures and persecution should still exist.
The Soviet Union, like the United Kingdom, is a signatory of the United Nations covenant on civil and political rights, and of the Helsinki Final Act. In signing those documents, it accepted certain responsibilities concerning the attitude of a state to its citizens. Among them is a pledge to respecthuman rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.Yet experience has shown that the Soviet authorities have failed lamentably to observe this pledge in practice.
We have every right to be concerned about that. The Final Act was agreed by states working together as equals, and it has equal significance for each of them; there is no 831 escaping this fact. When we deal with the Soviet Union as an equal, we expect it to honour commitments freely entered into, as we do.
The Soviet Union has no grounds for special pleading. It cannot claim that the commitment to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms somehow applies less to it than to others. Article 52 of the Soviet constitution guarantees freedom of conscience to Soviet citizens. If the Soviet Union wants to be taken seriously as a responsible interlocutor in the community of nations, it must be prepared to behave like one, and to face criticism if it does not.
All the names mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West are on the list of cases that we are pressing. Several of my hon. Friends mentioned Vladimir Rusak, who has been imprisoned since 1986. He had the temerity to write a book on Church history since the revolution—a subject which is now being openly discussed in the Soviet press. He was sentenced for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. How depressingly familiar that meaningless phrase must be to students of Soviet human rights abuse. Deacon Rusak has displayed courage and fortitude throughout his ordeal. The House expects the Soviet Union to bring that ordeal to a speedy conclusion.
Another prisoner of conscience is not, however, imprisoned for religious reasons. Mykola Horbal, who is a Ukrainian, dared to join a group of Soviet citizens monitoring the Soviet Union's adherence to its commitments under the Helsinki Final Act. For this, and his samizdat writings, he was arrested in 1979 and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. Without being released, he was charged again at the expiry of this period and sentenced further to eight years' imprisonment and three years' exile for, to use that phrase again, "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda". He, too, is in poor health. There is no justification for failing to restore Mykola Horbal's freedom. His crime was to seek to monitor the commitments into which his Government had freely entered.
Vladimir Korfidov is a victim of the most chilling of human rights abuses—the detention of a sane person in a psychiatric hospital. Mr. Korfidov was a factory worker and was arrested in 1979 after trying to cross the border 832 into Finland without permission. He was sentenced to be detained indefinitely. We understand that his case may have been reviewed recently, but we have no firm news of his present circumstances. The abuse of psychiatric hospitals has improved, which is welcome, and I shall press his case further.
The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West mentioned a further category of prisoner—those for whom the Soviet Union itself is a prison, such as Jewish refuseniks, Germans, Armenians and others. We shall strongly press the cases of those people.
The Government are aware of the case of the Barats family, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon mentioned so eloquently. I understand that the Netherlands and Canada have offered them entry visas. We very much hope that they will be allowed to emigrate, and we shall add their case to the list of those on which we shall press.
I recently received details of the harrowing case of the Vais family of Leningrad. Semian and Sara, 21-year-old son Dima and grandmother Galina have been trying to emigrate to Israel since 1978. Permission has been consistently refused, for the catch-all reason that it would be prejudicial to state interests. Both parents have lost their jobs and Mrs. Vais supports the family by working in a boiler house. Mr. Vais has had a series of strokes and is very ill. His most recent stroke was on 23 June, he having again been refused exit permission on 29 May. The authorities have called up Dima for military service, but his mother and grandmother badly need his support. That is perhaps not a typical catalogue of the distress that can be involved. We recognise that Mr. Gorbachev seems to be making changes but we focus still on those for whom the changes are not coming speedily enough.
As I have said, it is the deeds and not merely the words that we want. We lose no opportunity to bring individual names and the principles behind what I am saying to the attention of those at the highest level. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have pressed the cases of many of those I have mentioned. Within the context of the CSCE and elsewhere, we miss no opportunity to press towards the release of many from the remains of the gulag and many who wish to rejoin their families or simply to exercise their basic human right of free exit from one country to live in another country of their choice.