HC Deb 16 February 1999 vol 325 cc834-44

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

9.52 pm
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. I shall be grateful if hon. Members leave the Chamber quickly and quietly, so that we can proceed with the Adjournment debate.

Mr. Vaz

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the situation in Yemen that has developed over the past two months. The issue is of relevance, not only to the families and friends of those who have been taken hostage or detained in Yemen, but to all those with an interest in the middle east as a whole, and to the British Asian community.

At the start, I should declare my interest: I am the chairman of the all-party group on Yemen. My parents went to Aden from Bombay as economic migrants; they were part of the immigrant Indian community living in British-occupied south Yemen in the 1950s, and I was born in Aden in 1956. I spent the first nine years of my life there, before leaving with my family to escape the escalating conflict. I was educated at St. Joseph's Convent school in Aden and have wonderful memories of my early childhood in Yemen. They were some of the happiest days of my life—eating sardine sandwiches on the beach in Aden, watching the great ships preparing for the Suez canal. In my wildest dreams, I never envisaged one day speaking on this subject in the British Parliament.

I returned to Yemen for the first time last year, when I led a delegation of representatives from the travel industry to promote relations between our two countries. In Sana'a, I met President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Ministers of Health, Culture and Justice and the Speaker of the Yemeni Assembly. I also spent a day in Aden and returned to Sana'a by car, without incident.

Returning to Yemen brought home to me just what investment opportunities the country holds for Britain and the immense good will that exists towards Britain. Much has changed, but Yemen remains a beautiful and special country. It is no wonder that so many people want to visit it and return there even after being taken hostage.

Yemen is an extremely difficult nation to comprehend, although it is very familiar to British people. I have already mentioned the under-populated south, which was ruled by the British until 1967, and many young men in the 1950s completed their national service at the station there, including, I am told, the father of our Prime Minister. After the British left, south Yemen was taken over by Marxists, while the much more heavily populated north never came under colonial rule.

The country was united in 1990, but unity was initially not solid, and a civil war broke out in 1994. What is more, in the rugged and mountainous north, the Government's authority is weak, and independent tribesmen seek to control vast areas of the country. That is ideal terrain for hostage-taking, and 132 hostages have been taken in Yemen since 1992.

The foundation of the recent crisis can be seen in those historical and geographical problems. Before moving on to the crisis, however, I should like to pay tribute to the role played by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, since he came to power in 1978, in maintaining a stable Government in spite of those enormous difficulties and steering the course of reunification. In the past year, he has been aided by Prime Minister Iryani and the democratically elected Assembly.

The recent crisis, like the country's history, is riddled with complexities. Three sets of hostages have been taken; two groups of people have been arrested and detained; there have been problems concerning people with dual nationality, and there is a melting pot of value systems, ranging from traditional tribal beliefs to rising Islamic awareness

The crisis began on 28 December, when 16 western hostages were taken. I am sure that I express the sentiments of the whole House when I offer my condolences to the families of Ruth Williamson, Margaret Whitehouse and Peter Rowe, who were killed the following day. Clearly, a number of questions need to be answered about exactly what happened on 29 December and why the rescue attempt went so tragically wrong. I understand that teams from Scotland Yard have been in Yemen since then. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister shed some light on the work that they have been doing, the level of co-operation that they have received from the Yemeni authorities and what, if any, discoveries they have made? How many officers from Scotland Yard are in Yemen and what have they been doing there?

Just as we offer our condolences to the families of the dead, our thoughts go to the nine British survivors of the rescue attempt, as well as John Brooke and Eddie and Mary Rosser, who were taken hostage in January and later released. No one can imagine what an ordeal it has been for them to have been taken as hostages.

At the heart of the current crisis is the case of the British men who have been detained in Aden. Confusion seems to have surrounded the case of Gulam Hussain, Sarmad Ahmed, Shahid Butt, Mohssin Ghailan and Malek Nasser since they were first detained on 24 December. What were they doing in Yemen? Why did it take until 7 January for final confirmation to be received that those five men had been detained? Why did it take until 14 January until they were charged and why did not the trial begin until 27 January? What truth is there in the allegations by the five men of torture and sexual abuse?

In the conversations that I have had with Yemeni Ministers, they have made it clear that allegations of torture are untrue and that they have complied with every reasonable request. However, I should be glad to hear from my right hon. Friend what issues are still outstanding.

I have also spoken to Gareth Pierce, the lawyer acting for those detained. She has stressed the importance of allowing the detainees access to an independent doctor. What progress can my right hon. Friend report on that issue?

I should also stress that although the detainees were charged quickly, the trial is proceeding extremely rapidly, perhaps much too rapidly, and, as the House knows, has restarted today. It is important that sufficient time is given for the defendants to prepare their case.

On 14 January, I met the families of the five men. I do not wish to pre-judge the case of the five men, but the families struck me as honest, decent, ordinary citizens, shocked by what had happened to their loved ones, in search of sympathy—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Vaz

The families struck me as shocked by what had happened to their loved ones and in search of sympathy, understanding and answers to their questions about what had happened. They were obviously bewildered by events. They deserve our sympathy. Some of the families are now in Yemen. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister confirm that the consular officials are doing everything that they can to help the families?

Since then, three further British citizens have been detained. Shazad Nabi, Ayad Hussein and Mohammed Mustafa Kamal have now been transferred to Aden. That has added further complexity to the case, especially as Mohammed Kamal is only 17 and is the son of Abu Hamza al-Masry, the London Muslim leader, who has made some extraordinary statements. It seems that what happens to them will affect the trial of the other five men. Perhaps the Minister will shed light on what the Foreign Office has been doing in those latest three cases.

It is highly unusual for a consular case such as this to be imported into British domestic community politics. According to a written answer supplied to me by my right hon. Friend the Minister on 28 January 1999, Official Report, column 392, there are currently 2,266 British nationals imprisoned overseas—including two of my constituents, who are in gaol in Venezuela. What is different about this case is the fact that the British Muslim community has taken the issue to heart, believing that the Foreign Office and the British Government are less committed to the case of those five men than to other consular cases because the men in question are of Asian origin.

I commend my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on the way in which he has handled this crisis, and the sensitivity that he has shown to the Yemeni authorities and the British Asian community. In my view, the Foreign Secretary deserves particular praise for the way in which he came to the House on the first day after the Christmas recess to make a statement on the crisis, and for his initiative in speaking to the Yemeni Prime Minister three times in the early stages of the crisis, to impress on him the importance of the British detainees being given full access to doctors and lawyers. I thank my noble friend Baroness Symons for having agreed to meet me four times to brief me on developments, and for meeting the families of the detained men and their lawyers.

On the allegation of the Foreign Office not acting quickly enough because the men were Asian, I believe that our Foreign Secretary would be the last person in this world to let that happen. He is highly regarded in the Arab world, and his speech last October in Blackpool showed enormous respect and sensitivity to Muslim nations and to the Muslim and Asian communities.

I shall now discuss what I consider to be the ways in which the crisis can be solved. The main goal must be to ensure that Anglo-Yemeni relations remain intact and that the men currently detained in Aden get a fair trial. As I have said, when I visited Yemen last year I was struck by the good will on the part of the Yemenis toward Britain, and by the eagerness of Ministers, from the President down, to discuss openly and frankly the salient issues affecting the middle east. In 1986, trade with Yemen was worth £82.6 million, and Britain has been heavily involved in efforts to redevelop the port of Aden, and to develop the tourism industry. Britain and Yemen obviously have a lot to lose from any straining of relations.

I place on the record my appreciation of the role played by the excellent Yemeni ambassador to Britain, Dr. Hussein Al-Amri, who understands fully the importance of these relations and has done an enormous amount of work in very difficult circumstances. Any nation, including ours, would be severely tested when world media attention focuses on it on such complex issues as hostage taking, terrorism and fundamentalism. It is amazing how Yemen has coped.

The Yemeni Government have said that they have acted as they have in order to continue the fight against international terrorism. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will agree that joint co-operation between Britain and Yemen to combat terrorism is vital, and I hope that he will offer his support in the continued fight against it.

The only way to maintain strong bilateral relations is for contact to be maintained at the highest possible level. We need to bring outstanding matters to a close. Early contact between the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister Iryani was extremely important in ensuring that the Britons in Aden were charged, and that the trial got under way. Anglo-Yemeni relations will suffer if this high-level contact is not maintained. I was very pleased to read that a meeting took place between our Prime Minister and the President of Yemen last Monday in Amman at the funeral of King Hussein. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend the Minister can tell us more about those discussions.

However, I am puzzled by one point. Britain has strongly advised its citizens to leave Yemen and has evacuated British Council teachers from the country. Yet the German Foreign Minister and Green party leader, Joschka Fischer, has just been to Yemen. If a German Minister is safe in Yemen, why not a British Minister? Our ties with Yemen are much longer and more historic than those of any other country. As the Deputy Foreign Minister Abdullah al-Saidi said: Yemen and Yemenis consider themselves good friends of the British people". Secondly, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that the trial of the Britons in Yemen must be concluded in a fair and open manner according to the due process of international law. That means that the men who face trial must understand what is happening in the court process and what is happening in terms of their defence. We expect nothing less. The Yemeni ambassador has given me an assurance that the trial will be conducted according to due process. Has my right hon. Friend received those assurances as well?

In addition, I propose two further means of speeding up efforts for a solution. I reiterate the suggestion that I made to the Foreign Secretary in the House on 11 January: it would be extremely helpful if he sent a special envoy to Sana'a and Aden to supplement diplomatic efforts that are already being undertaken. I do not wish to undermine the work that has already been done by Ambassador Victor Henderson and Consul-General David Pearce—I know from the help that they gave to my delegation what an effective team they are. I simply feel that, because of this highly complicated situation, we need a high-profile expert with a solid diplomatic background and knowledge of the middle east, such as a former permanent secretary, to go to Yemen and continue the dialogue.

Finally, I return to a theme that I have mentioned on other occasions in the House: the need for a new unit in the Foreign Office with specific responsibility for British tourists and other visitors to foreign countries. If such a unit had existed, procedures for dealing with the taking of hostages and the detentions would have been in place and I believe that the crisis could have been handled more smoothly. Families in such situations must be kept informed constantly, as the families of James Miles and Paul Loseby, and of Edgar Fernandes—whose cases I have raised previously—have discovered.

There is also a need for better administrative streamlining. As I understand it, three of the four Foreign Office Ministers have been involved in the case: my noble Friend, who deals with consular matters; my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), who deals with kidnappings; and my right hon. Friend who is in the Chamber tonight and who has geographical responsibility for this region.

I know how eager the Yemenis are to resolve this crisis without any lasting damage to Anglo-Yemeni relations. We should be equally keen to do so. This is not a relationship of former colonial master and former colony, but one of partnership. I hope to visit Yemen when the time is right—indeed, I was planning to go last week, but I postponed my visit when I had the chance of introducing this Adjournment debate.

I am confident that there is enough good will on both sides to ensure a speedy solution to the problems. We must make sure that that good will is utilised and built on in a constructive way in order to prevent any new, dramatic and unexpected turn of events from destabilising the situation further. Nothing would please this son of Yemen more than for the country of my birth and my adopted country—where I have spent three quarters of my life—to work together. We are, after all, bound together by history.

10.9 pm

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) and thank him for the way in which he has raised this issue. Hon. Members will have been moved by his descriptions of his early years in Yemen, and we understand his strong affiliation to that country. I wholly agree that the relationship between the United Kingdom and Yemen must be one of partnership: a partnership of equals in which we have shared diplomatic, political, commercial and other links. My hon. Friend is right to say that both sides want that relationship to develop over the next few years. He is also right to say that despite our history, the content of that relationship at present is somewhat thin.

The trade between the United Kingdom and Yemen added up to only £81 million during the past calendar year, with a massive imbalance towards the United Kingdom. We are not major trading partners, and there is surely the potential for much further development. Also, Yemen is not a beneficiary of a substantial international development programme. My hon. Friend will be delighted, however, to hear that the programme, which currently stands at £600,000 a year, is likely to be trebled to £1.8 million by 2000–01. On that basis, at least, our international development involvement in Yemen will become more significant.

My hon. Friend spoke about the events that have taken place in Yemen since 24 December, and the impact of those events on the relationship between the two countries. He was absolutely right to send his good wishes and those of every hon. Member to the families of Ruth Williamson, Margaret Whitehouse and Peter Rowe. I add the condolences and sympathy of the Government to those expressed by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend asked about the investigations that are taking place with the participation of representatives of the Metropolitan police force. Those investigations are continuing. We hope that the Metropolitan police will be able to produce a report in the not too distant future. They are happy with the co-operation that they have received from the Yemeni authorities and will continue to work with them.

I stress to my hon. Friend that the remit of the investigation by the Metropolitan police is limited to the events surrounding the hostage-taking and the sad deaths of Ruth Williamson, Margaret Whitehouse and Peter Roe. Their remit does not extend beyond those incidents.

My hon. Friend dealt with the cases of the five British citizens currently detained in Aden—Gulam Hussain, Sarmed Ahmed, Shahid Butt, Mohssin Ghailan and Malek Nasser. I shall explain to my hon. Friend the role that the Foreign Office plays in such cases. My hon. Friend knows the situation well, but it is always worth while repeating the responsibilities of the Foreign Office.

We do not have a responsibility for prosecuting or defending particular cases. We cannot act as banisters, solicitors or lawyers on behalf of any UK citizens charged overseas. As my hon. Friend mentioned in his opening remarks, a substantial number of British citizens are held on charges throughout the world.

We must do two things. First, we must ensure that we have access to British citizens, and that we can maintain contact and links between them, their families and their lawyers. Secondly, we must do what we can to ensure that there is due process—a fair procedure before trial, and a fair trial. Our objectives are thus limited but extremely significant: to carry out our consular responsibilities towards any UK citizen who is detained overseas, and to ensure that there is due process and a fair trial. We are wholly committed to discharging those responsibilities in the present case.

There has been some suggestion, which my hon. Friend hinted at but then dismissed, that the Foreign Office has been less active in this case than it may otherwise have been. There is implicit in that a suggestion the idea that because we are dealing with five young Muslim British citizens, their treatment and the rights accorded have not been the same as in other cases. Let me lay that totally to rest. We see our responsibility as extending to all British citizens, regardless of their background, colour or religion. We will discharge that responsibility to all our citizens. I give a strong personal commitment to my hon. Friend: I assure him that, as long as I am a Foreign Office Minister, I will do everything to ensure that there is parity and equality of treatment.

My hon. Friend raised a number of points about the way in which we have discharged our consular functions in relation to the five. It may be useful if I set out some of the background information, which will help him to understand what has happened. As he rightly said, the five were arrested on 24 December. On 29 December, Yemeni officials, who were discussing that day's sad killing of four of the 16 tourists taken hostage the day before, mentioned that they had arrested some British passport holders earlier that day. No names or other details were made available to the British embassy or to the staff.

At that point, British embassy officials asked for further information and for permissiolbn to see whichever British nationals may have been arrested. I re-emphasise to my hon. Friend that we received the first piece of information from the Yemeni authorities, incomplete as it was, five days after the arrest of the individuals. On 29 and 30 December, the British embassy continued to ask the Yemenis for further information about the alleged arrest of British nationals and for access to them, if the report of those arrests were true.

On 31 December—a week after the arrests had taken place—Mr. Shahid Iqbal telephoned the Foreign Office to report that three British nationals, a dual national and a French national had been arrested in Yemen. He had surnames, but no other details. He undertook to obtain further details and left at the Foreign Office a Birmingham telephone number.

No further contact was received from Mr. Iqbal. On 4 January, the Foreign Office, through an official, telephoned him. At that stage, full names were obtained and forwarded to the British embassy in Yemen for verification. On 5 and 6 January, the British embassy made repeated inquiries about possible arrests in Yemen of British nationals, asking for confirmation. To labour the point a stage further, my hon. Friend will be interested to know that on 7 January—13 days after the arrests—the Yemeni authorities confirmed that they had indeed carried out the arrests. They provided the names of the individuals and, at that point, the embassy asked for immediate access to the five.

I stress to my hon. Friend that those 13 days were a crucial period in which the British embassy and the Foreign Office in London were both trying to find out what had happened. The full information, as he will now realise, was not forthcoming from the Yemeni authorities. It took us until 7 January to confirm that five British citizens had been arrested in Yemen.

It is important in that context to say to my hon. Friend that I am confident that Foreign Office officials—in Yemen and in London—acted properly, with efficiency and with due diligence and speed. However, they could not put pieces of an incomplete jigsaw together, because the vital piece of information was not forthcoming from the Yemeni authorities.

Thereafter there has been continual contact between our officials in Yemen and the Yemeni authorities, and between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Yemeni Prime Minister. My noble Friend Baroness Symons, who represents the Government on consular matters, has met the Yemeni ambassador and the families and representatives of those who have been detained.

My hon. Friend will also wish to know that I had a meeting on 20 January with leading members of the United Kingdom Muslim community, plus representatives of the families and the lawyer representing the families. The British Government at ministerial and official level have sought information, and have tried to ensure that the due process takes place. I can say with some confidence that that catalogue of events and action by the Foreign Office shows that we have fully discharged our consular responsibility, and have sought to ensure that the individuals involved receive a fair trial. We have also tried to ensure that they have access to a lawyer and to medical advice. They have been visited, and the consular staff can see the five involved.

We cannot make a judgment on the guilt or innocence of these individuals, and my hon. Friend does not ask us to do so. That is not our task. My hon. Friend is right that these are matters for Yemeni law, and they will be dealt with by due process under the Yemeni legal system. We want to ensure that the due process takes place, and that there is proper regard for the Yemeni constitution.

Mr. Vaz

Some of the relatives and others wish to travel to Yemen to have contact with the detainees. Is it still the Foreign Office's view that it is unsafe to go to Yemen? If so, are the Government suggesting that more British citizens should be evacuated from Yemen? The ambassador is still there, as are many other British citizens.

Mr. Fatchett

The ambassador and staff are doing an excellent job. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to them for their efforts in these trying and difficult circumstances. I wish them well with their task.

As my hon. Friend knows, we have toughened up our travel advice. We advise people that it would be unwise to travel to Yemen. I think that he would agree that we are wise to provide evidence of the dangers, because recent events suggest that the Foreign Office would be criticised if we did not offer that advice and more British citizens were taken hostage. We are right to offer that advice, and we shall continue to do so.

Our consular responsibilities for the five, and for the three who have also been charged with offences in Yemen, include ensuring that the due process takes place and that access is allowed. I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue to carry out those responsibilities.

My hon. Friend spoke about how these cases are playing in the Muslim community in the United Kingdom. That is why I met leaders of the Muslim community in January. and why I have subsequently had a further meeting to discuss a range of issues. I can confidently say that at those meetings, the community leaders recognised the role that the Foreign Office must play and the way in which we have discharged our responsibilities.

My hon. Friend also referred to terrorism. It would be wholly wrong to imply that these individuals have been involved in any terrorist activities, and neither my hon. Friend nor I will do that. The issues of criminality, guilt or innocence are matters for the court. My hon. Friend is right to say that the United Kingdom and Yemen have a shared interest in defeating terrorism. That is why, last September, we introduced new legislation to toughen up our laws on terrorism. We introduced a new range of offences to ensure that the United Kingdom cannot be used as a haven from which to organise and plan attacks against Governments and individuals in other countries.

The new legislation has been welcomed by Governments throughout the world as an earnest sign of the Government's intention to take the issue of terrorism seriously, and we shall continue to take a hard line against terrorist activities. We do so wherever we can, and we share with the Yemeni Government and with other Governments in the region the belief that there should be no home for those who, through their actions, try to inflict pain and suffering on innocent people.

I get slightly irritated when others around the world say that the United Kingdom is soft on terrorism. I remind those people that we have experienced terrorism in the past two decades, and have faced up to it. We know its evil nature, and we know that it makes victims of the wholly innocent—those who have no political affiliations or axes to grind, but are in the wrong place at the wrong time. We know about terrorism, and the United Kingdom will certainly not be soft on terrorism. I say that not just on behalf of this Government; if ever there were a change of Government in the United Kingdom, I am sure that there would be a similar approach to terrorism.

My hon. Friend made a number of suggestions about how the Foreign Office could build up relationships with Yemen and deal with the current issues. He spoke of sending an envoy. We have already done that: there is an ambassador. Moreover, we already have a Minister responsible for Yemen—me—and a Foreign Secretary, who has been in touch with the Yemeni Prime Minister on a number of occasions. An additional person would not help in these circumstances. We need to build up our bilateral relations, and to discuss issues in which we have a common interest. What we must never do is create the impression that we are sending an envoy to Yemen to question the Yemeni legal system, and to make judgments about individual cases. That would set a dangerous precedent. What we need to do is what we have done in working towards the objective of establishing individuals' right to a fair trial.

My hon. Friend said that we should have a special Foreign Office unit to co-ordinate our activities in circumstances such as this. I am always a bit sceptical about the establishment of further units: it seems to me that, when a Department has no other response, it sets up another organisational unit. I suggest to my hon. Friend that we do not need a unit, but that we do need to co-ordinate effectively. The fact that three Ministers are working on the issue is not a sign of inefficiency; it is a sign of the importance that we attach to the issue, and shows that we are able—thanks to great skill on the part of our officials—to co-ordinate their activities, and to ensure that we have an effective co-ordinated policy. I know that is what my hon. Friend wants, and I am not sure that the unit that he suggests would help us to achieve his objective.

Mr. Vaz

I understand that our Prime Minister met the President of Yemen in Amman during the funeral of King Hussein. Could any part of that discussion reflect on the issues that we are discussing today?

Mr. Fatchett

Yes, to the extent that the meeting took place, but it took place on the margins of King Hussein's funeral, and obviously people's minds were on that occasion rather than on other issues. Contact was made, but it was not a substantive occasion on which the specific issues to which my hon. Friend has referred could be discussed.

My hon. Friend has shown a keen understanding of, and commitment to, his country of birth. Yemen has a good friend in the House of Commons, and in my hon. Friend, who raised difficult issues in a sensitive way. I thank him for that. I hope that I have been able to give him detailed information that will enable him to conclude that, although we must deal with a number of difficult issues, once they have been resolved we can continue to build up bilateral relations between the two countries.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.