HC Deb 09 June 1992 vol 209 cc282-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Boswell.]

12.23 am
Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Rachel, a 9-year-old girl, was murdered by strangulation in a car on the Algarve in Portugal in November 1990. Michael Cook, a friend of Rachel's family, was convicted of the murder in February this year and sentenced to 19 years' imprisonment. He was tried by three local judges without a jury. The House will hear that the conviction is unsafe.

I must start with every possible word of sympathy for Rachel and her family. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) is here because of his concern for his constituent, the victim's mother.

There can be no greater evil than such a crime. I would not defend in any way a child murderer, but I will defend my constituent's right to a fair trial. My responsibility and my job tonight is to highlight the possibility that my constituent may be the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice. Some say that Cook is innocent; some say that the police investigation was inadequate. Some say that the trial verdict was so lacking supporting evidence as to be incredible. Some say that Cook has been tortured and mistreated. Those are not questions which the House can or should decide. In truth, I do not know whether Cook is innocent or guilty. What I do know is that many questions are raised by the case which have the most serious implications, not only for Michael Cook, but for all British subjects travelling abroad.

Let us review some of the evidence. There was, understandably, immense local pressure to clear up this horrible crime. An unsolved child murder would frighten away tourists. An elderly Portuguese gardener said that he saw the murderer and the murder car. He said that the car was red with foreign plates. Cook had such a car. It was alleged that Cook's car tyre marks were found where the body was discovered, and on that prime tyre mark evidence Cook was arrested. It was claimed by the police that Cook had a child-molesting record and that he had confessed to the crime: they had their man. The public furore and the subsequent relief at Cook's arrest were surpassed only by the total outrage against him.

Let us examine the initial key facts. After nine months in gaol, Cook got two good lawyers and it was quickly discovered that the prime—indeed the only—hard evidence linking Cook to the murder was bogus. The tyre marks were of an entirely different type from those of Cook's car. It is also claimed that Cook's car does not have the ground clearance needed for the area where Rachel was found.

Similarly, no confession was ever presented at the trial. It had been claimed by police that two officers heard the confession. One remembered it clearly; the second denied all recollection of it. One would not expect to forget such a thing easily.

Cook appeared in court, with black eyes and a missing tooth, and he was deeply bruised. It is claimed that Cook was hung from an upstairs window by his feet, that his feet were beaten until he could not stand, that he was tied to a chair and beaten, that he was deprived of sleep, and that a revolver was forced into his mouth and the trigger pulled in a mock execution. Cook's lawyers were said to be pushing for the release of a television video report which allegedly showed police beating Cook. Those lawyers were involved in a tragic accident involving a front tyre blow-out which, incidentally, it is claimed has never been properly investigated by the police. In that untimely accident, Dr. da Silva was killed and Dr. Coelho was severely injured.

What of the final piece of the early evidence—Cook's record as a child molester? It too is quite bogus. At the trial, the police tried to rescue some credibility on the point. An officer said that Cook had been seen abusing a child a few weeks before Rachel's murder. One might wonder why that was not mentioned at the time. Nevertheless, the judge asked the officer how he knew that. The officer replied that someone, unnamed, had told him. The judge accepted that so-called "evidence" as clear and unequivocal. I must inform the House that I know of no evidence that Cook has ever posed any threat to children.

I do know of evidence suggesting that Cook is safe and trustworthy with children. I am not aware of any conspiracy and I make no allegations. However, it must be said that Cook was a good target to be "fitted up". He has a minor criminal record and he was working unregistered on the Algarve in the motor trade. Indeed, he may have hung himself as his initial account to the police of his movements could have been inconsistent because he thought that he was being questioned about a petty crime.

Let me return to the old gardener—there is always an old gardener in such tales. He changed his story at least twice; his memory, it seems, was greatly assisted by the police. The car was indeed red and foreign, he said; but so was Rachel's stepfather's car, and many others in the area. He also saw Cook talking to Rachel. Cook was, he said, wearing sunglasses, although it would have been almost dark at the time.

The gardener had no difficulty, however, in picking out Cook from an identification parade—at least, not after the police had specifically pointed Cook out to him, asking, "Is that the man?" Not that that was necessary; Cook was a white, 5-ft-tall, slightly built Englishman, while the rest of the parade consisted of burly, dark, Portuguese policemen who were obviously of Mediterranean origin.

Hon. Members may be horrified to learn that, much earlier than that parade—indeed, the day after the body was found—Cook was shown to the gardener by the local police, and the gardener said that Cook was not the man whom he had seen on the fateful day in question. He changed his story. Clearly, the police case needed boosting, so the most incredible thing happened: a reconstruction of the crime was forced on Cook.

The police said that, in the reconstruction, Cook had shown them the exact positions in which they had found Rachel's school bag and shoes. They said that those items had been thrown by Cook from a fast-moving car over many kilometres on a country road down which he can seldom have been before, some weeks after the alleged event. Even the police blushed when they told that one in court.

Let me now review the harrowing scene of the crime. Again, I sincerely apologise to the victim's family, but this has to be done. A pathologist stated that Rachel struggled furiously for her life in the front passenger seat of a car; it took four to eight minutes to kill her by strangulation. Rachel naturally fought hard, and had the blood of her murderer under her fingernails.

No sophisticated DNA or type matching of the samples was ever presented to court. No evidence was ever presented even to show the simple blood group of the murderer. Such basic blood-group evidence could not have proved that Cook was the murderer, but it could most assuredly have proved his innocence. Hon. Members may feel very uncomfortable about the fact that that evidence was lost, and we should ask why it was lost—or, worse, why it was not used.

What, then, of the other forensic evidence? We can all imagine the horrific struggle—that frantic four or eight minutes. Surely the car would exhibit many clues; law experts feel that that must be so. Incredibly, however, not a single link was found between Cook's car and Rachel, or her clothes. The Sunday Times stated: Not a single hair, fibre, bloodstain or sign of damage was found in Cook's car. And Police did not find it unusual that Cook had not cleaned the entire car in an effort to erase prints … When the body was found, no forensic search was made of the area and no tests were carried out on a bloodstain seen under a fingernail. The body was cremated within days and without extensive forensic examination. Therefore, the defence was denied the possibility of conducting the necessary independent tests. Is not that beyond belief?

Let me now turn to the pathologist's evidence, starting with the astonishing point that the report was tampered with. It has lost—for ever, it seems—its important front page, which gave, among other information, the time of death. The pathologist, apparently, is now unavailable.

The Sunday Times reported: Such post mortem work that was done was minimal". However, a pathologist hired by the defence who examined Rachel's organs said that she might have been killed 24 or 30 hours before her body was discovered, which apparently indicates that she may have been held alive by her murderer for up to two days. She was discovered four days after she disappeared. Cook was first in police hands the day after she disappeared.

That brings us to the alibi evidence and suggests that Cook had the best possible alibi—he was in very close contact with or in the custody of the police, but the judges dismissed that, the pathologist's evidence. Moreover, there was the condition of Rachel and her clothes when found. They were clean and dry. That is consistent with the defence pathologist's findings. The weather had been dry the day Rachel was found, but the previous days had been wet, thus suggesting that Rachel had been dumped only the day she was found.

That evidence was also disallowed by the judges. They chose, as they can under Portuguese law, to refuse to hear some evidence. In a trivial case, that may have been justified, but, in the circumstances, hon. Members may feel that that was an extraordinary piece of selectivity. What is even more remarkable, though, is that the person who found Rachel's body was never called to give evidence, and therefore his evidence was denied to the defence.

Additional alibi evidence comes from Cook's workmates, who saw him a maximum of 10 minutes after he was said to be seen by the man on the horse at the place of the body. The times were precise and checked, but the distance of the two sightings put them a minimum of 12 minutes apart, with no allowance for any other activity at all. That would have been impossible to achieve. That evidence was also rejected.

According to the pathologist, Rachel was strangled with a nylon rope. A nylon rope, a jumper matching the one Rachel was wearing and a blanket which was covered with pine needles, as was Rachel's body, were all seen in a car, but not Cook's car. They were seen in Rachel's stepfather's red foreign car. The police did not investigate or use that evidence.

The stepfather certainly had a violent nature at times. Rachel's mother was said by a neighbour sometimes to flee to her home for sanctuary with the neigbour and to stay there with her overnight out of fear of her stepfather's violence. Several people say that they saw scratch marks on the side of the stepfather's face and his arm the day after Rachel disappeared. Some have pointed a finger at the stepfather, but the House cannot and must not assume anything—that would be quite wrong. In a further twist, the stepfather died tragically precisely one year to the day after Rachel was killed, the third death in this story. Therefore, his confession cannot be tested. I raise those points not to incriminate in any way Rachel's stepfather but only to illustrate, as is my clear duty, the late evening shadow of doubt which is cast over the conviction of my constituent.

I now refer briefly to the trial and verdict. We have seen that there was no jury and that the three judges were local. They were inexperienced in trying such an unusual case. In Portugal, judges arc able to dictate entirely what evidence they will admit and what they will refuse even to hear. With so much evidence lost, destroyed or refused by the judges, Cook's trial was fatally flawed.

The basis of the judges' verdict was made clear in their summing-up. There was a total lack of hard forensic evidence, but sadly there was no lack of hearsay. For instance, members of the Portuguese Institute of Fingerprints told the court the judges said "with conviction", that Cook's way of life and his friendship with Rachel's family indicated that he was the murderer. Sadly, those fingerprints experts produced no fingerprint evidence.

The judges implied that no motive whatsoever was found, and Cook was not accused of any particular motive. There was no sexual interference of any kind with Rachel. In Portuguese law, first-degree murder requires a motive and premeditation, I understand. They seemed curiously absent. The judges said nothing of substance that I can find in the translation of their summary, except that, as Cook knew the family, he must be the murderer. I turn, briefly, to the appeal. The hearing may not take place until June 1993. That delay, would be intolerable. The appeal cannot question the evidence produced at the trial. That evidence, such as it is, with all its flaws, is considered to be irrefutable. For instance, the police evidence that Cook was a child molester cannot be questioned. Yet we know that it should be.

In the appeal lawyers may question only the admissibility of the evidence under Portuguese law. That raises yet a further grave misgiving because incredibly Cook and his lawyers are not allowed to attend the appeal. Those in the House who believe that justice should be seen to be done may be staggered by that revelation. As my predecessor Sir Bernard Braine wrote: There is little likelihood that even by the Appeal justice will be done". Presumably the matter can be argued in the European Court later. Meanwhile, I have three objectives for the debate. First, I wish to bring pressure on the Portuguese authorities about the possible miscarriage of justice and to allow the earliest possible appeal consistent with a fair and safe hearing. Secondly, I wish to prevent any torture or mistreatment of Cook and to signal to all nations that human rights must be upheld. Thirdly, I wish to thank the Foreign Office for its help and advice so far, which has been professional and appropriate—no blame can lie with it—and I ask the Minister to provide a monthly written report from the British consular staff on Cook's physical and mental condition. In addition to those three things, I seek a general review of the help which consular staff give to British citizens arrested abroad.

In summary, there are substantial grounds to believe that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred. First, the conduct of the police investigation is in question. Secondly, the conduct of the trial and the basis of the verdict are in question. Thirdly, I place full trust in the Portuguese justice system to ensure that the appeal is fair. Fourthly, there are grounds to question the physical and mental treatment of Cook. Fifthly, the European Court and the European human rights body may eventually need to intervene if the appeal cannot answer the many questions raised. But I trust that that will not be necessary.

I understand that Cook is considering starting a hunger strike. That would hamper my efforts and I most strongly urge him not to do so, particularly in his poor physical condition. We are told that he is prematurely grey. His bodyweight is down to seven stones. He is skeletal. He has three ulcers. His remaining teeth are rotted. He is withdrawn and paranoid. As a child murderer he has suffered many attacks in prison. He bears two knife scars and many burns scars to prove it. He is alone in a foreign gaol, unable to speak the language. He needs our help. But I stress again that we cannot judge the case from our position here.

I sincerely thank the Minister for his advice and support so far, which is also much appreciated by the family. All British citizens must know that, when their back is against the wall and all seems lost and they feel that the world has deserted them, there is a place—this honourable House—where their basic human rights will be upheld and that there are men and women who will fight for their rights, including their right to a fair trial. My fight does not end here tonight. Here, indeed, it begins.

12.43 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd)

The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) for bringing this important case to its attention. I note the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall), who represents his constituent, the mother of Rachel Charles.

I should like to outline the action taken by Her Majesty's Government on behalf of Michael Cook and his family since his arrest. On 5 December 1990 the British consulate in Portimao was informed that Michael Cook had been arrested the previous day for the murder of Rachel Charles. The consulate was told that he had confessed and would be taken before a judge on 6 December to be formally charged. The Portimao consul visited him on 6 December. On that occasion he said that he was being well treated and had no complaints. A Portuguese police officer was present throughout that meeting.

On 10 December the Portimao consul had a private meeting with Michael Cook. On that occasion Mr. Cook said that he had been beaten twice: once when detained for questioning on 22 November and subsequently after his arrest on 4 December. He said that he had confessed under duress. He claimed to have been beaten on the chest and feet; this, he said, explained why there were no signs of ill treatment.

On the following day, at the consul's insistence, Michael Cook was asked by the prison staff whether he wished to see a doctor so that a formal complaint about his mistreatment could be made. He declined to do so. Also on 11 December the British consul in Lisbon told Mr. Cook's Portuguese lawyer that the embassy would make a formal complaint if Mr. Cook wished. The offer was not taken up either by the lawyer or by Mr. Cook during subsequent visits by the Portimao consul. Thus, no medical examination to substantiate the allegations or otherwise took place.

From 11 December 1990 to 30 January 1992 when his trial began, Michael Cook was visited seven more times by consular officials. He complained once, in February 1991, of having been threatened verbally by other inmates, but said that the threats had ceased. Twice he complained of suffering from mental stress and three times from ulcer problems. The British consul on those occasions sought and received assurances from the prison governor that Mr. Cook would receive the necessary treatment.

The consuls from Lisbon and Portimao attended the first day of Michael Cook's trial, and the Portimao consul attended the last day, 7 February 1992.

On 19 February Michael Cook's brother, Colin Cook, rang the embassy in Lisbon to say that he had heard that Michael Cook had been stabbed in prison in Faro. The embassy immediately made inquiries. It was assured that Michael Cook had not been stabbed, although he had been involved in an argument over cigarettes with another prisoner.

The following day the vice-consul from Lisbon visited Mr. Cook. Although physically all right, he was understandably extremely upset over the trial verdict. The prison governor gave assurances for M r. Cook's safety. On 4 March 1992, Michael Cook was transferred to Coimbra high security prison, about 110 miles north of Lisbon.

During that month, the consul and vice-consul drew the attention of officials at the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the great degree of British ministerial, official and public concern about Michael Cook's case. On 8 March The Sunday Times published an article reporting that Mr. Cook had been ill treated at the hands of other prisoners. The pro-consul in Lisbon looked into those allegations without delay. He contacted the prison governor on 10 March to register the embassy's concern for Michael Cook's safety and welfare. He was assured that there was no evidence of ill-treatment.

Later that day, the vice-consul spoke to Mr. Cook by telephone. Mr. Cook said that one inmate—not a cellmate—had uttered a verbal threat, but that he had not been physically attacked. He mentioned that he was suffering from a stomach ulcer and had dental problems. In response to this, the vice-consul said that the embassy would write to the prison governor about these problems. A letter was sent on 13 March.

On 6 April Coimbra prison confirmed to the embassy that Michael Cook had been given a full-time job in the prison car paint workshop. It also confirmed that he had seen a doctor about his ulcer and had been put on a special diet. He had also seen a dentist.

On 16 April, the consul visited Michael Cook for two hours in a private room. Mr. Cook confirmed that he had gained some weight as a result of his special diet, and did not wish to have any matter raised with the prison authorities.

Michael Cook recently told his parents that he had been taken to see a psychiatrist. He was under the impression that the prison was trying to have him committed to a mental home, which would make it even more difficult for him to prove his innocence. Coimbra prison has told the consul that Michael Cook did not in fact see a psychiatrist. He was taken to see a specialist about his stomach ulcer. Unfortunately, it appears that the prison mistakenly translated "specialist" for "psychiatrist" when talking to Mr. Cook. The consul will visit Mr. Cook again on 19 June.

I have described the full support given by the consuls in Portimao and Lisbon. Prisoners Abroad, an admirable organisation run by our former colleague in the House, Keith Best, has been in regular contact with Michael Cook and is giving him full support.

I know that Michael Cook, his family and others believe that there has been a miscarriage of justice. I can well understand their concern, but, whatever we may think, it would be wrong for me to express an opinion on the conduct of the trial while an appeal is pending. If the lawyers believe that the case has not been dealt with in accordance with Portuguese law, it is their responsibility to take appropriate steps. Portuguese law provides for this and, indeed, the lawyers have submitted an appeal on Michael Cook's behalf. They have told the British embassy that the Portuguese supreme court has accepted the appeal and that, in their view, the appeal process is proceeding satisfactorily.

On 19 February Colin Cook complained to the British consul in Lisbon that the trial violated article 6 of the European convention on the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. On examination, he agreed that the European convention can be brought into play only when all local remedies have been exhausted. We are keeping in close touch with Mr. Cook's lawyers and the Portuguese authorities. We are asking them to do what they can to ensure that Michael Cook's appeal is heard by the supreme court with the minimum delay. Our ambassador in Lisbon wrote to the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 3 June to press this point, and I will be in touch with my hon. Friend as soon as I have a reply.

I fully appreciate my hon. Friend's concern about this case, but I hope that he will understand from what I have said that we cannot intervene until the Portuguese legal process has taken its course. Until then we shall, through our consular officials, continue to visit Mr. Cook regularly and to offer him and his family all the support that we properly can. I shall continue to keep my hon. Friend fully informed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to One o'clock.