HC Deb 27 April 1998 vol 311 cc121-6

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

10.12 pm
Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin)

I am conscious of the long and close relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Venezuela. If, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, in the long, troubled history of Latin American dictatorship, Venezuela' s relative freedom, democratic rights and respect for the rule of law suggest that that country is not some grim prison state or jack boot-ruled banana republic. That makes it all the more disturbing that I must bring before the House this evening the shocking case of two of my constituents, Vanessa Cross and Andrew McLachlan, who suffered a horror at machine gun point at the hands of members of the military of Venezuela that could have been a particularly gruesome scene from an Oliver Stone film or a Graham Greene novel.

On 31 March 1995, my constituents, lured by the glossy Venezuelan holiday brochures, were camping in an organised group at Playa Arapito. The camp was quiet, most of the tourists had gone to bed, and my constituents were asleep in their tent. They were awoken by the barrels of two machine guns pointing through the entrance of their tent. Two crop-haired, camouflage-uniformed Venezuelan soldiers started a nightmare which, for Vanessa and Andrew, continues to this day.

Andrew was beaten and pistol whipped, and held at gun point, while Vanessa was taken outside and raped by both men. When I saw her last Saturday at my surgery, it was clear that the incident had marked and disfigured the life of that young woman in the same way as a hideous scar across her face might have done. She told me that she thinks about it every day and that her relationship with Andrew, her fiancé, has suffered greatly. She lives in fear—fear of travelling, fear of being alone and fear of men. Andrew is severely traumatised, too, not just living with the memory of looking down the barrel of an automatic weapon, but plagued by massive pangs of guilt that he was unable to come to the defence of his fiancée.

This case has been in front of the Foreign Office and the Venezuelan authorities since March 1995—more than three years ago. It was first raised by the noble Lord Watson, formerly the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central and the couple's Member of Parliament at the time. Lord Watson doggedly pursued justice, writing letters, having meetings and all the time seeking to encourage the Venezuelan authorities to bring the criminals before the courts in order to secure some kind of apology and compensation for the couple. He pressed, too, for our man in Caracas to be more proactive in bringing the matter to a proper conclusion. Alas, all his efforts failed—as have all of my own. That is why I am forced to bring the matter to the Floor of the House this evening.

This rape in Arapito was not just a grave crime in itself; it was followed by calamitous incompetence or, worse, wilful negligence on the part of the Venezuelan authorities, which raises important political questions. Immediately after the assault, my constituents alerted their tour leader, who drove them and the rest of the touring party to the municipal police in Puerta La Cruz. Vanessa was advised by the police there to take a shower in a nearby hotel and reassured that any forensic evidence would be present for up to 14 days following the attack. Alas, she now knows that that was not true.

Vanessa spoke to the police, describing the uniforms and the guns of the perpetrators. The police told her that the attackers sounded like military men from a nearby base, but no formal statement was taken. No one returned to the scene of the crime and no one pursued her attackers. One policeman told her tour leader, Alison Beck, a fluent Spanish speaker, that nothing would be done and no investigation would be carried out. He advised her that the best thing she could do would be to try to get the story into the local newspaper, El Tiempo.

Vanessa was seen on the morning of 1 April by the PTJ, the special branch police. She gave three statements to three different people, one of whom also expressed the view that he was certain that the attackers were soldiers from the nearby military base and that he felt that no action would be taken. She was given an appointment card to see a forensic doctor in the afternoon. He refused to see her because his nurse was not present—even though Andrew and the tour leader, Alison, had accompanied her. When she persisted and explained that she was leaving the next day for Caracas, the doctor shouted at her and threw her out of the clinic. Vanessa was shocked and appalled: a guest in Venezuela, her life threatened, brutally raped by two men and then treated like this by a doctor.

Vanessa eventually saw a forensic doctor on 3 April—three days after the attack. Almost unbelievably, while she was being examined by the doctor, he invited a group of medical students to witness the examination. As she said at the time, "Did not these people realise how violated and humiliated I already felt?"

It should not have been difficult—if there had been a willingness to do so—to track down two military men who were outside their base at 1 am armed with machine guns. In fact, no one really tried. All the evidence seems to suggest that no one really tried because of the fear among civilian and even police authorities of the all-powerful military, which menaces democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela.

Vanessa told me on Saturday, "I continue to have terrifying flashbacks of the attack and not a day has gone by without me having to relive the experience. This is something that I have learnt will never go away."

The performance of our embassy in Caracas in this affair has not satisfied either Lord Watson or me, or Andrew McLachlan, a British citizen. For a time, I had the horrible feeling that the apparent lack of concern and urgency on the part of our embassy might be because Vanessa is a New Zealand national. However, Vanessa has British patriality, her grandfather having been British. She lives and works in Britain with a British citizen, Andrew McLachlan. The New Zealand authorities have no embassy in Venezuela, their interests being looked after by the embassy of Great Britain.

I have a letter dated 24 April 1995 written by our consul in Caracas, which pointedly warns Vanessa that she should be aware that

should she wish to proceed with the case"— it is an extraordinary proposition that she might not wish to proceed with it—

she should be aware that she will be required to appear in person, together with Andrew, to recount the evidence. The consul adds,

I have been advised that Venezuela will not accept a proxy. Vanessa and Andrew have made it clear to me that the embassy clearly conveyed to them that if they wished to proceed, they would be doing so very much on their own. To stick around in Venezuela indefinitely and expensively—a country where the police and the justice system had already been found to be severely wanting—was an unappealing prospect and the couple returned home.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

The House will have been shocked to hear of the events in Venezuela concerning two of my hon. Friend's constituents. He will be aware that two of my constituents, Paul Loseby and James Miles, have been in Venezuela over the past year. They were convicted of a criminal offence without having attended their own trial or knowing when the trial was taking place. Does not my hon. Friend's case show that the system of justice and of investigation of offences in Venezuela is deplorably flawed?

Mr. Galloway

My hon. Friend makes the very fair point that Venezuela is not what it is cracked up to be. It is not as it likes to portray itself and not as the world generally thinks of it. Both these cases raise serious questions.

The couple returned home, hoping against hope that the embassy that we maintain in Caracas would look after their interests. That hope has been dashed. Both Lord Watson and I held meetings in London with his excellency the ambassador of Venezuela, who sincerely told us that herculean efforts were being made in Venezuela to find the culprits. He told us that all manner of special task forces and committees had been drafted in to crack this case. By this time, I have no confidence in those efforts or arrangements.

I ask the Government to press for an apology to Vanessa Cross and Andrew McLachlan, not only for the horror of the experience, but for the appalling police and forensic medical work that followed it. I want the Government to energise our diplomatic staff in Venezuela to harry the authorities there until the culprits are found. I want the British Government to raise with the Venezuelan Government the possibility of compensation for my constituents for the horrifying and on-going nightmare that they have had to endure now for more than three long years.

10.23 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Derek Fatchett)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. I extend to his constituents all our sympathy for the events that have taken place. I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to take up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz). Having done so, I shall return to the case of Vanessa Cross.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East referred to his constituents, James Miles and Paul Loseby. The House will recall that he raised the matter last year and that he expressed particular concern about the Venezuelan legal system. The Government shared my hon. Friend's concerns, especially that relating to the possibility that people could be tried and sentenced in their absence. As he pointed out on that occasion, there is no agreement on the transfer of prisoners between the United Kingdom and Venezuela, and it might be useful if I take this opportunity to update my hon. Friend on the current situation.

As my hon. Friend knows, we are keen to negotiate an agreement, and we first approached the Venezuelan authorities in 1994. The Prison Service here, which has overall responsibility for prison transfer matters, was unhappy with the draft text proposed by the Venezuelans, and talks on the subject were suspended at that stage.

On 17 February, we asked the Venezuelans for their views on accession to the Council of Europe convention on the transfer of sentenced prisoners. Our embassy in Caracas has been informed that the Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs has sent a recommendation to the Venezuelan Congress to accede to the convention. My hon. Friend will be pleased by that news, as he will also be pleased to know that a member of the Foreign Office's consular division met a Venezuelan Opposition Member of Parliament who has been involved in the case to which my hon. Friend referred. That was an opportunity to discuss the convention. He undertook to do what he could to raise the profile of the convention among parliamentarians. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), also raised the subject when the Venezuelan Minister with responsibility for drugs visited the United Kingdom in November last year. From that information, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East will appreciate that we are active on this issue, and we hope that we may well persuade the Venezuelans to accede to the European convention on the transfer of sentenced prisoners.

I deal now with the sad case that my hon. Friend the Member for Kelvin has brought before the House. I am grateful that he has taken the time to bring the matter to our attention and that he has dealt with it in such a sensitive and delicate manner. I emphasise at the outset that the protection of the rights of British nationals overseas is something which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office takes very seriously. More than 10 million Britons live and work around the world. Others travel as tourists, making more than 40 million trips abroad each year. The protection of our citizens overseas is a front-line responsibility of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 24 hours a day and world wide. Our job is to do everything in our power to safeguard the interests of all those British citizens.

My hon. Friend set out the case of Vanessa Cross and Mr. McLachlan, and there is no reason for me to repeat the facts that my hon. Friend presented to us as they are without question. He may be interested to know that our embassy in Caracas was first notified of the attack a couple of weeks after it took place. The embassy immediately made every effort to contact Ms Cross and Mr. McLachlan who, by that time, had moved on with the group to Colombia.

Messages were left at the hotel, offering any help that might be needed at that stage. Ms Cross and Mr. McLachlan did not get in touch, and we understand the reasons explained by my hon. Friend. The Foreign Office then contacted the tour operator, directly asking it to pass on our assurances that we were available and ready to offer any assistance that might be needed.

As my hon. Friend said, on returning to the United Kingdom, Ms Cross contacted Lord Watson, who was then the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central. His inquiries about the case in June 1996 were followed up promptly by the Foreign Office's consular division. Let me put on record my thanks for the way in which the noble Lord Watson pursued the case. It was typical of the way in which he carried out his responsibilities as a Member of Parliament and it is a great honour for the other place to have him as a member.

Since then, as my hon. Friend knows, our embassy has sent a number of written notes to the Venezuelan Ministry for Foreign Affairs, requesting information about the progress of the investigation. Last August, we were informed that, although the case had not reached a conclusion, investigations would continue. We made further inquiries in February this year, but, at that stage, they yielded no further information.

My hon. Friend mentioned the relationship between the United Kingdom and New Zealand in respect of the case and the way in which our responsibilities have been carried out. We have worked closely with the New Zealand Government and particularly with New Zealand house in London. There is a close relationship and a joint interest, and we shall continue to pursue the matter jointly. With respect to my hon. Friend, the fact that there is a question whether Vanessa Cross has New Zealand nationality or whether, through patriality, she is a United Kingdom citizen is irrelevant in terms of the way in which the matter has been pursued. We shall continue to keep in touch with New Zealand house and the New Zealand authorities.

I hope that, briefly, I have been able to set out what we have done and our aims in respect of the case that my hon. Friend has raised, and I am delighted to tell him that there are substantial signs of progress according to information that we have received only this evening. The embassy in Caracas has been in contact with the newly appointed Executive Secretary of the Human Rights Commission in Venezuela. He has pursued the case actively and we have just been informed that the local police now have suspects. We understand that the next step is for Vanessa Cross to identify them in person. Our embassy in Caracas is following that up with the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry to establish exactly what is required.

I do not need to say much more to my hon. Friend except to make two final points. First, we are all delighted by the news. I cannot flesh it out in any greater detail in terms of whether charges have been laid or the extent of the success of the investigations. Secondly, we shall be making contact with Vanessa Cross. We shall do what we can to assist in the case and, as we have tried to do throughout, we shall handle the case sensitively.

I do not want to reach a premature judgment, but it seems from the information that we have received as late as this evening that dramatic progress has been made. We hope that what we have heard this evening turns out to be a real breakthrough in the case. If it is, it will be good news for my hon. Friend's constituents. I certainly promise to keep in touch with my hon. Friend and both his constituents and, hopefully, we shall bring the matter to a successful conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.