HC Deb 21 January 2002 vol 378 cc623-32

4 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

I should like to make a statement on the British nationals detained at Guantanamo Bay; my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

A team of British officials visited Guantanamo between 17 and 20 January and saw the three British detainees. We received a full report this morning. The team asked the detainees questions about their identity, nationality and welfare. The officials' report confirms that the three are British and that they are all in good physical health. During lengthy discussions, they spoke without inhibition. None complained of any ill treatment. None said that they had any medical condition requiring treatment. Medical Facilities are available in the compound. All three asked for messages to be passed to their next of kin, which we have undertaken to do. The identity of one of the men, Feroz Abbasi, is already in the public domain. It is not our intention to reveal the identities of the other men, pending contact with their families.

The International Committee of the Red Cross now has a permanent presence at Guantanamo Bay, and ICRC officials have access to the detainees at any time. The detainees are free to conduct religious observances. They have prayer mats, and calls to prayer are broadcast over the Camp X-Ray public address system. They are given as much drinking water as they want, three meals a day and food that complies with their religious practice if they require it.

During the visit, our officials received full co-operation from the camp's commander, who said that the more lurid allegations about torture and sensory deprivation were completely False. The recent pictures of detainees featured in the media were taken on their arrival at the base, when security needs were paramount. The House should not forget that we are talking about some of the most dangerous men in the world, who have in the past displayed murderous and suicidal tendencies—often both together.

Our officials report that, as the number of detainees grows, there will be a need for more scope for exercise, and every effort is being made to provide all inmates who want one with a copy of the Koran.

Conditions at Guantanamo Bay have attracted a great deal of parliamentary and media interest. On the basis of the detailed report that I have seen today, I am satisfied that the accusations were premature and that the detainees are being treated in line with international humanitarian norms, in conditions in which security is paramount.

We are fully satisfied with the co-operation that we have had from the United States authorities on this issue. We and the Americans are well aware that we will be judged by a higher standard than the Taliban and al-Qaeda. On the basis of the report that I have seen today, I can confirm that these standards are being met

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

Given the unusually short notice that we received of this statement, may I ask the House to accept the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) for not being here to respond?

We—and, I am sure, the entire House—expect the highest standards of treatment to be accorded to the prisoners. The current interest in them as they are held by the US military in Cuba has largely been provoked by photographs that perhaps represent a PR setback, but that, it seems, do not reflect the full truth. We are pleased to learn that the prisoners—in particular, those from the United Kingdom—have no serious complaints about their treatment. They are not suffering the abuse of their human rights that many commentators have asserted; that assertion now appears to have been unfounded. Indeed, in considering that issue we must remember that the very Fact that our free press can publish the pictures, ask questions and express opinions is an enduring testimony to the free, democratic society in which we live and which we are fighting to defend.

As the Minister said, we should be under no illusions. The people who have been transported to Cuba are, more likely than not, highly dangerous terrorists who are part of a network that has shown utter contempt for human life and who have raped and tortured women and innocent civilians, subjugated their own people and even denied those whom they pretended to govern access to life-saving humanitarian aid.

The prisoners probably have information about their organisation and they could have information on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. We must remember that, by extracting it, we could prevent terrorist outrages and the loss of more innocent lives. If all their human rights had been removed, and if they had been brutally treated when coalition forces captured them in Afghanistan, they probably would not be in Cuba now. There is no reason to suspect that they are likely to receive any worse or harsher treatment than that which they received on capture.

I am grateful to the Minister for his statement, but I would welcome clarification of a number of areas. Does he have any indication of the circumstances in which the British prisoners were apprehended? What jurisdiction do they Fall under? Is there any case for bringing them back to this country for trial? What charges are likely to be filed against them?

Does the Minister have any specific information on whether the detained Britons are al-Qaeda or Taliban members? During questioning over the past two or three days, what indications have any of them given about the nature of their involvement or activities in Afghanistan? I respect the Government's decision not to reveal names until the next of kin have been contacted, but can the Minister offer any indication of where in the United Kingdom the prisoners are from?

Does the Minister share our view that there must be firmness and Fairness in this matter? We want the highest standards without risky naivety, which is what we look for in his answers to our questions.

Mr. Bradshaw

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's supportive comments. He asks about the circumstances of the arrests of the three men, but I am afraid that I cannot give any more details. Even if we had them or if I had seen them, military activity is still going on in Afghanistan and any details that I revealed could jeopardise other people's security. I simply stress to him and to the House that at no stage during their long interviews with British officials did they complain about their treatment, from their arrest to their transfer to Guantanamo and since.

In terms of a trial, we should not get ahead of ourselves. One problem of the public debate in this country over recent days is that people have assumed things that we are not yet sure about. Until we have had a chance to interview all those concerned, and until we have more details about exactly what went on and the prisoners' circumstances, we should not speculate about their status or where their trial might take place.

The hon. Gentleman also asks whether I can give some idea of where in the United Kingdom the prisoners come from, but I am afraid that I do not intend to give any more details that might reveal their identities until we have spoken to their families

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

If some reports on the treatment of prisoners are exaggeration, that is welcome, but is my hon. Friend aware that disquiet will undoubtedly remain in this country over the British and other prisoners being held? I fully supported the campaign in Afghanistan and believed that it had to be waged, but is he aware that the democracies must accept at all times the necessity of civilised values, which are the opposite of the values of the terrorists and the Taliban? I have no illusions—these are very dangerous people—but, as in 1945, prisoners must be apprehended, questioned and interrogated in accord with civilised values and norms.

Mr. Bradshaw

Yes, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that, by our statement and by giving details of the interviews that British officials conducted, some of the disquiet to which he rightly referred will be dispelled.

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

As other hon. Members have said, there is great concern in the United Kingdom and elsewhere because of the pictures and reports of the treatment of prisoners in Camp X-Ray. There are continuing worries about how the United States should treat the prisoners. The Minister says that the Red Cross will have a permanent presence at the prison, but will he give an assurance that some form of reporting—independent of the Governments—on the prisoners' conditions will be given to those outside the camp? Is he able to place extracts from the report in the Library of the House of Commons, and make it his habit to do so while the prisoners are kept in detention?

Although the Minister says that it is too soon to determine the legal status of the prisoners, does he acknowledge the great concern about whether they are being held under the Geneva convention and under what international law they will be tried? Does he accept that there is a damaging contrast between the treatment of John Walker, the United States citizen, who will be tried in a federal court, and the others, including British citizens, who are likely to be tried in a secretive, military tribunal? Does he agree that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done in these circumstances?

The United States, along with the United Kingdom, made much of the moral case for the war against terrorism. Will the Minister tell us what assessment he has made of the impact of the prisoners' treatment on coalition opinion? Is not there a danger that America's treatment of the prisoners at best sends out the wrong signals, and at worst undermines the moral authority of the coalition against terrorism?

Mr. Bradshaw

I should have thought that the Red Cross was an eminently independent enough organisation to be able to make its own judgment. It will report to the United States Government in the usual way. The hon. Gentleman asks for more details of the report. We will release as many details as we can, and I have done so today, but I shall not give a running commentary. Much of the detail of the report is confidential material that we cannot put in the public domain, not least because it contains details of the identities and backgrounds of the people involved.

We have had assurances from the United States that the detainees will be treated in accordance with the Geneva convention. Like me, the hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the definition of a prisoner of war is an extremely complicated matter on which it is not easy to make a judgment. What is important, and what matters, is that detainees are treated humanely in accordance with international norms, which is the case, and that if they are brought to trial, they are given a Fair trial.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asks about the impact on coalition opinion. I suspect that the impact has been Far greater on some elements of the press in this country than it has been on our coalition allies. As Minister with responsibility for the whole of the Muslim and Arab world, I have not had a single representation on this issue. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is as well aware as I am that public opinion in the Muslim world changed dramatically on the day of the liberation of Kabul, when ordinary people in the Muslim world saw the Taliban in their true colours.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

The Minister painted a Far rosier picture of the situation in the camps than the American Secretary of Defence did, and for that I suppose we should be grateful.

What will happen to the British citizens who have been captured? Unless they can be directly connected with September's events, under the Geneva convention they are, surely, prisoners of war or the equivalent. In that case, should not they be tried in this country for offences under our legislation? Have the British Government made representations to the United States that British subjects not accused of crimes in the United States should be tried in the United Kingdom, and that if tried in the United States they should not be subject to the death penalty or to a military tribunal?

Mr. Bradshaw

My statement was based not on any opinions expressed by politicians from other countries, but on an account given by reputable British officials after a detailed visit and interview.

I am afraid it is too early to speculate on what will happen next. That depends on the outcome of the interviews with those in captivity. It is certainly too early to speculate on what might happen to them—on whether they will be tried in the United States, or deported.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Should we not be careful to avoid confusion over the status of the detainees? Some—for example, members of the Afghan forces—may well be entitled to prisoner of war status; others, for example, members of the bin Laden organisation, are persons against whom criminal offences have been alleged. It is difficult to see on what basis those persons could be entitled to prisoner of war status. They are, however, entitled to the kind of protection that would be afforded to any citizen charged with criminal offences before any civilised court.

Should not our message to the American Government be that no one being held should receive treatment worse than that afforded to those charged with criminal offences before an American court, but that some—probably a minority—are entitled to the higher status of prisoners of war?.

Mr. Bradshaw

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely correct about the difficulty of arriving at a definition of "prisoner of war". We have made exactly the representations that he suggests to the United States, as well as the representation on the death penalty suggested by the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara).

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I was in Geneva last week, talking to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the president of the Red Cross. There was no doubt that they felt the detainees should be designated prisoners of war. If there is any dispute about the issue, however, it should be determined by a court of law—an independent tribunal—and certainly not by any one man: not by Donald Rumsfeld, Ben Bradshaw, or any other single person.

Can my hon. Friend say how many other British prisoners are on their way to Cuba? Why can British prisoners be taken out of Afghanistan without, apparently, any consultation with the British, who did not seem even to know that there were British prisoners until they arrived in Cuba? Can we be assured that that will not happen again?

As Kofi Annan said last week, human rights cannot be cherry-picked. For 50 years we have fought for a definition of human rights, and I thought that we had arrived at one. I supported the war. I hope that we can persist in our dealings with the United States, and say that—although we support that country—we have standards in Britain, and we do not want them to be dropped.

Mr. Bradshaw

First, let me congratulate my hon. Friend and say how much I admire her work on human rights and similar issues. Secondly, let me repeat what I said to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg): it is not possible to make a blanket declaration that the detainees are prisoners of war, whatever some organisations may want, because under international law the status of any detainee must be considered in the light of the individual case. That is why this is such a complicated issue. What matters is that all the detainees, regardless of whether they are prisoners of war, are entitled to humane treatment and, if prosecuted, to a Fair trial.

I also cannot speculate on whether more British detainees are likely to be on their way, or soon to be on their way, to the base at Guantanamo Bay; but we have good channels of communication with the Americans, and they will continue to operate if that turns out to be the case.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Will the Minister be kind enough to send a copy of his robust, sensible statement to the editors of all those newspapers who published such scurrilous stories yesterday? Will he remind them that the United States and Great Britain yield to no one in their defence of truth and observance of the highest possible standards in these matters?

Mr. Bradshaw

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, which the Foreign Office news department may like to take up, particularly as I wrote the statement myself.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that my constituent, Mr. Abbasi, is one of the detainees in Camp X-Ray. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his reassurance that Mr. Abbasi should be treated both humanely and in accordance with international law. He will know that Mr. Abbasi' s mother, Mrs. Juma, fears that her son will Face the ultimate breach of human rights: the death penalty. With that in mind, has any progress been made in respect of extradition, particularly given that American detainees will Face a federal court? Does he agree that that underlines the case for the establishment of an international criminal court, where these things can be sorted out even-handedly?

Mr. Bradshaw

I can give most of the assurances that my hon. Friend has asked for, but it is too soon to speculate about what charges his constituent may Face. We regularly, not just on these issues, make plain our views on the death penalty to our friends in the United States. Although the Government and I fully support the idea of an international criminal court, he will know that the jurisdiction of an international criminal court cannot be retrospective. Some people call for these people to be tried in international criminal courts or ad hoc courts, but those are not supposed to replace national jurisdictions. They are used only when national jurisdictions are unwilling or unable to prosecute.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

The Minister should be warmly commended by the House for coming at the first possible opportunity to report and to put the minds of many of us at rest after we had read what now appear to be singularly ill informed comments in Sunday's newspapers.

I ask two specific questions. First, will the Minister confirm that many of the prisoners held in Cuba were among the prisoners who murdered 300 Afghan guards before Christmas; and, secondly, that many of them have openly and publicly said that they wish to do the same to their American guards?

Mr. Bradshaw

I do not want to give too many details about those who are in Guantanamo Bay but I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's support. I can confirm, however, that those who are held there are in the highest category of seriousness in terms of what they have done and the responsibilities that they have had. Some are the most senior foreign al-Qaeda fighters.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

May I also congratulate my hon. Friend on volunteering the statement so early? I well understand why he says that we should not speculate about where the prisoners will be tried. Wherever they are tried, however, the British subjects should have proper legal safeguards, including access to lawyers, knowing the nature of the case against them and having an appropriate appeal procedure. Can he give the House the undertaking that, whatever the forum in which they are tried, those basic legal safeguards will be upheld?

Mr. Bradshaw

Yes, I can. Again, it is too early to speculate about what charges the prisoners may Face, but if the detainees Face prosecution, under international norms they will be entitled to legal representation.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Is the Minister aware that, if the prisoners had been held under the Geneva convention, none of the intrusive media and press photography and comment would have been allowed? Under article 13, POWs must at all times be protected particularly against … public curiosity". The last prisoner of war camp in the United Kingdom was at Roll stone camp in my constituency during the Gulf war. The press and media were forbidden from taking any photographs or approaching the camp to take photographs, which could indeed be taken to humiliate those prisoners.

Mr. Bradshaw

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point for those who think that this is an issue of definition rather than of how the detainees are actually treated. He is absolutely right: there are some ways in which, if they had prisoner of war status, their conditions would be seriously worse. He spoke about press intrusion, and the other aspect is that it would be allowable to hold them indefinitely, until the end of hostilities in Afghanistan.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is my hon. Friend aware that we in the House always expect that all prisoners should be treated according to the highest standards expected of western parliamentary democracies, Far beyond what these people would have experienced if they had been prisoners of al-Qaeda or the Taliban? Will he confirm that these men are where they are because they were where they were? They were in Afghanistan, and if the charges against the British prisoners are proven, they were there to fight against their own country and its interests, and if possible to kill many of their own fellow citizens.

It is extremely important to abide by our own standards, but will my hon. Friend take into account the Fact that there are already reports that one of the prisoners has attacked a guard at the camp? In view of the Fact that such people have attacked and killed guards in Afghanistan and tried to hijack planes, should not we take a very measured approach indeed?

Mr. Bradshaw

Yes, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. While we should of course insist on treatment that is in accord with international norms, we should never forget who these men are, what they are responsible for, and what many of them have done while in captivity in Afghanistan, including exploding grenades on their bodies to kill themselves, their captors and others. An ITN journalist was killed in one incident. These are highly dangerous Fanatics who have absolutely no regard for their own safety or that of others.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I note what the Minister said about the three Britons having no complaints about their treatment. Is he in a position to tell us whether their treatment differs from that of the other detainees?

Mr. Bradshaw

We have absolutely no reason to believe that that is the case, but our officials, quite rightly, were involved in detailed discussions only with the British detainees.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

We have got to remember that not so long ago these al-Qaeda people were shooting our soldiers in Afghanistan. Anyone who goes abroad to fight for another country is nothing more than a mercenary, and we know what mercenaries were like in Africa. When we talk about these people's human rights, we should remember the people on the planes in America. They were not accorded any human rights.

Mr. Bradshaw

I completely agree. Some of the first tranche of Royal Marines returned to my constituency of Exeter last night, having been away from their Families and loved ones over Christmas, bearing the brunt of these people's aggression.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

I congratulate the Minister on his statement and on the answers that he has given. Does he accept that al-Qaeda is still out there, plotting further outrages? If so, does he accept that information gleaned from the interrogation of al-Qaeda prisoners will be essential for the prevention of such outrages? If so, does he further accept that it would be absolute madness to accord the protection of the Geneva convention to people who are not regular forces, allowing them to answer only name, rank and number? Finally, does he accept that when these people are brought to trial, we must avoid what happened after the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre, when important secrets were revealed in a civilian court that led bin Laden to know that his telephones were being listened to and may well have contributed to the success of the attacks on 11 September?

Mr. Bradshaw

The hon. Gentleman is right to make the point that if too much information is revealed, there is always a danger that other people's lives and security will be put at risk. He is also right to say that many of the people currently detained may have a great deal of useful information that could prevent horrific events such as those of 11 September from being perpetrated again. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, through the information that we have gathered in Afghanistan, we already know much more about the nature of al-Qaeda and its intentions than we did two or three months ago. We have every reason to believe that we have already foiled a number of potentially Fatal operations, including one in Singapore recently, as a result of that information.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

We shall soon be commemorating the holocaust, whose horrors surpassed in scale and cruelty even those of 11 September. After the second world war, our US allies played an honourable role in persuading the international community that we should demonstrate civilised values in our treatment of prisoners, and in submitting them to proper judicial process. Would the Government commend that example to our US allies now?

Mr. Bradshaw

Yes I would, and I reiterate to my hon. Friend that we are satisfied that the Americans are working in accordance with those international norms—which, as several right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out, was never the case with the Taliban, who did not recognise a single international law.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

I welcome the Minister's statement and the replies that he has given. May I tempt him to go further? The Government are content to allow suspects to be taken to Guantanamo Bay, where they may be subject to US military tribunal process, possibly including the death penalty. Is it not odd, therefore, that they do nothing about article 3 of the European convention on human rights, the interpretation of which now stops us deporting anyone who may threaten this countr—Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza or anyone else—to a jurisdiction where they may be wanted?

Mr. Bradshaw

That is an irrelevant point. The Government would consider every request from the United States for the extradition of any such person on its merits and according to the individual case.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

Does my hon. Friend accept that we have fought a long, difficult and risky war against terrorism and have emerged victorious, but that one staggeringly incompetent misjudgment by the American authorities may throw that gain and that victory away and give incredible propaganda value to the enemies of the free world? Will he make every effort to inform our American friends that the treatment of even the most vile human being must meet the standards for which we fought?

Mr. Bradshaw

No, I would not agree with that. I am afraid that my hon. Friend has come here with a pre-written question based on rushing to judgment. He does not seem to have listened to a thing that I have said, or to what I have reported from the interviews conducted by the British officials in Guantanamo Bay. I would also caution him about his claim that we have already been victorious against terrorism: the campaign against terrorism will be very long, and will continue well after peace and security have returned to Afghanistan. I would be extremely cautious about jumping to premature victory.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

From which Department of State did British officials go to speak to the British prisoners in Guantanamo Bay? When the representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross meet British citizens there, will their findings be made public, as I understand that the ICRC does not publish its findings? Are there representatives of the Red Crescent within the group representing the Red Cross? May I remind my hon. Friends that the photographs of what has been dubbed torture were taken, and released, by the American authorities? What was happening may not have constituted torture, but it certainly constituted a gross infringement of human rights. If we are indeed committed to tackling international terrorism and defeating it, examples of western powers not taking Muslim religion, or Muslim lives and human rights, as seriously as others will work against success.

Mr. Bradshaw

The officials came from my Department. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that Red Cross reports are always confidential. That is the whole point of them; they are not publicised, and they are not used for grandstanding, but are taken extremely seriously by those Governments to whom they report. It is not up to us to publish them. If the Red Cross wishes to do so, it may. The American Administration are under the same constraints as we are in that respect. I have no doubt that, as usually happens, details of such reports will come into the public domain in some way.

My hon. Friend asked about Red Crescent representatives, and I must confess that I do not know the answer. I shall write to her on that as soon as I can.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Would it not be wise to be a little cautious about the assertion in the statement that no complaints were made by any of the British prisoners? If the Under-Secretary had been a prisoner, given human nature—particularly American Marine human nature—would he have thought it prudent to complain? Did the prisoners assert in private that there were no complaints?

Mr. Bradshaw

As I said in my statement, for which I chose my words extremely carefully, none complained of any ill treatment. There is an important difference there. Points were made about exercise Facilities, and I made it clear later in my statement that those Facilities would not be adequate if the number of detainees in Guantanamo Bay increased dramatically.

I am not prepared to give my hon. Friend details of exactly who was present, but our officials spoke to detainees for a long time and were quite satisfied that the detainees spoke without inhibition.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Should we not openly recognise that we are dealing with two important and conflicting sets of principles? First, security is imperative, and that may lead to people being treated toughly. Secondly, there are humanitarian considerations, and we are supposed to have standards that differ from those of the people we have been in conflict with. We must try to reconcile those two different sets of principles.

Should we not say that the people who are being detained are prisoners of war? President Bush himself began the argument about war by declaring a war on terrorism. The prisoners are the consequence of the action taken to defeat terrorism, and that is one ground on which we could be clear about humanitarian considerations.

Mr. Bradshaw

I think that I have already answered that question in several of my earlier replies. The definition of "prisoner of war" is complex. What matters most is that detainees should be treated humanely and in accordance with international norms, and that if they are brought to trial, the trials should be Fair.