HC Deb 05 November 2002 vol 392 cc256-64

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

11.10 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

Tonight, Maajid Nawaz lies incarcerated in a prison in Egypt. He was arrested in April and accused of belonging to the Islamic liberation movement. He is a 24-year-old married man with a child aged two. His mother, Mrs. Nawaz, my constituent, saw me at the beginning of her son's imprisonment to share with me her agony at the way that he is being treated.

When Mrs. Nawaz came to see me at my surgery last Friday, she was even more distressed, because she had not been prepared for what she saw in Egypt when her son's trial began. He was brought into the courtroom in a cage, along with 25 other men. During the proceedings, incredibly—it is not common practice in British courts—drinks, ice cream and other things were sold, as if the trial were a trivial matter.

During the trial, it transpired that there was no proper translation of the evidence; indeed, the evidence did not seem to be correctly presented. The trial is adjourned at present because of Ramadan, but I hope that as a result of the debate the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) will do his best to ensure that justice is done. I know, too, that constituents of other Members currently in the Chamber are similarly affected.

I want to make it clear that I do not want to criticise the actions of Ministers in this matter. Baroness Amos has done everything that she possibly can to secure justice for those in prison. The Foreign Secretary has done what he can. However, for whatever reason, the Government's protestations have not been entirely heeded.

Maajid's arrest took place at 3 am on 1 April. It was a frightening experience. The arresting officers and soldiers had no warrant. They claimed that, as it was their country, they did not need one. I have evidence about what took place.

Maajid was taken from his house at gunpoint. He claims that the security forces were brandishing semi-automatic machine guns, grenades and various bombs. The experience was extremely frightening. Dozens of soldiers were in attendance. It appears that there was overuse of violence, even though unarmed men were being arrested.

Maajid's wife was told that he would be back in two days. That was in April. The phone cable was removed, leaving Maajid's wife, who has no command of the Egyptian language, alone in a foreign country with no means of communication with the outside world. Maajid was taken to a cell where he was blindfolded and handcuffed. He was quizzed about his ethnic origin and left to sleep on a concrete floor. At no stage were the families of the men informed why they had been arrested.

Between 1 and 4 April, Maajid and the other men were held in a jail in Cairo. The House would not benefit from hearing lurid details of the torture that went on, but Maajid was forced to listen to people being tortured by electricity. He was threatened, blindfolded, tied up with rope and deprived of sleep. His hands were tied behind his back. He had to share a blanket with another person, even though it was not big enough to keep either of them warm. When eating meals, his hands were tied together in front of him. The meals were simply bread and cheese. Maajid was often treated badly. I know that it is a complaint sometimes about British jails, but the toilet facilities were beyond belief.

From 4 April, Maajid was transferred to another prison. He was forced to make statements while still in a state of shock. Increasingly, he was deprived of any sleep whatever. That went on for a month and a half, as Maajid and his colleagues obviously became more and more demoralised. They were denied access to beds, lights and other such facilities. They were revisited by the torturers from state security and tortured again while blindfolded. There were no mattresses; the men were again left to lie on a concrete floor in the dark. While all that was going on, is it surprising that some style of confessions were extracted under torture?

The general complaint—of which I know the Minister is aware—is that Maajid and others feel that they were denied access to the British consul for roughly a week, and to lawyers for a month and a half. Gordon Brown, the head of the consulate in Cairo, has been given all this evidence and is acting on it.

Maajid, his mother and the legal team believe that the Egyptian Government have broken the Vienna convention on consular relations by not informing the consul of the arrests until 10 days after they took place. The United Nations convention against torture has also been infringed by a failure to investigate the claims straight away and by not responding to an official complaint lodged by the United Kingdom consulate. Egyptian law and human rights law have also been infringed by denying the men access to lawyers for one and a half months despite attempts by the consulate to gain such access.

Added to that, people can be held under emergency law only if they are thought to be drug dealers or terrorists, yet on 24 June, the terrorist charges were dropped and the men were instead charged with being members of a banned party. Suspects can only be held under emergency law for a maximum of 30 days, yet they were held under that law for two months and 24 days—another breach of the conventions.

The solicitors assisting Maajid and others, Christian Fisher Khan, said that the charges are as follows. The first is that of promoting by speech and writing the goals of a group founded in violation of the provision of the law—the Islamic Liberation party—which calls for dispensing with the constitution and laws, preventing state institutions from performing their work, promoting among themselves and others the group's call for considering the ruling regime as oppressive and rising against it with a view to destabilising a state based on Islamic teachings.

The second charge is that of possessing printed literature that promotes the movement's message, of distributing the literature and of showing it to others. The third and final charge is that of possessing a printing instrument—a computer—which would be used for propagating the movement's message.

Mrs. Nawaz came to see me on Friday to describe exactly how the trial was conducted. Twenty-six men were held in the courtroom in a cage in which there was standing room only. Ice cream, other food and drink were sold in the aisles to the public—during a trial in 2002. The men were not allowed any food or drink. They were allowed neither interpreters nor bail. The prosecution failed to disclose evidence and had to be ordered to do so by the judge.

The men, after much changing of the charges, are accused, among other things, of possessing books that should not have been in their possession, even though the books are London university textbooks and freely available in Egypt—in fact, the men bought them from the annual Cairo book fair. According to a press release from the solicitors Christian Fisher Khan, Hodan Pankhurst, the wife of Reza Pankhurst, has said: it has emerged from the trial proceedings that the so-called printed evidence against my husband and the others are actually taught in the Egyptian National Curriculum! Charges were changed from trying to overthrow the Government to being affiliated to a Moslem group that tries to overthrow the Government by speech and writing", which is a problem given that Maajid cannot read or write Arabic. The trial has now been postponed through Ramadan. Two committees were set up to examine the issues connected to the books seized. The judge has agreed to appoint translators for the next hearing so that the accused men will know what is going on. I am glad to say that the judge is unhappy about the fact that some evidence presented by the prosecution has nothing at all to do with the men who have been charged.

Maajid was in Egypt as part of his university course, for which he was required to spend a year in either Egypt or Syria; he felt that Egypt would be the safer of the two countries. Maajid is a member of the Islamic Liberation party, which is not proscribed. That is the heart of the problem. Hassan Risvi and Hirosho Ito are not in that group: initially, they were held under the emergency law, but after 24 June they were held under criminal law.

As I said, Egypt is in contravention of the Vienna convention on consular relations. Mrs. Nawaz has a campaign going in my constituency to get support for her son, and that is working extremely well—the local newspaper, the Southend Evening Echo is assisting, and Mr. Andrew Baker, Maajid's former headmaster, has written to me in some detail about Maajid and told me how incredible it is to him that Maajid has been accused of trying to undermine the state of Egypt.

Forensic state doctors examined the men and found no evidence of torture, but that was done seven months after the alleged torture took place, and it is said that electrical torture can be administered in such a way as to leave no marks. Some of the men have lost the use of their limbs, or did so temporarily. They are, I am pleased to say, now freely allowed to use the toilet, and all those with Maajid in the cage have recently been contacted by their lawyers, so there has been some improvement there.

It would appear that Maajid's telephone was tapped for a week prior to his arrest because he looked up the ILP website. Maajid signed a confession, but cannot read Arabic. Reza Pankhurst signed a confession, but cannot read Arabic and needs glasses, which he did not have on him when he signed it. Hassan Risvi and Hirosho Ito both signed confessions but have been let go.

Finally, Mrs. Nawaz is very worried that, in the light of what has happened in the past, if her son is found innocent he could be released into the community, not allowed to travel to another country and be rearrested. That is a real fear of Mrs. Nawaz. I ask that the Minister have a word with the Prime Minister. If, at some stage, he is minded to intervene, I know that Maajid, his mother and all right-thinking citizens would be extremely grateful for the Prime Minister's intervention.

11.25 pm
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) for enabling me to intervene briefly in the debate on behalf of my constituent, Ian Nisbet, whose parents I have come to know well as they live in Brackley, very near my own home in my constituency. I echo the points that my hon. Friend made so eloquently. They are compelling points, to which I add a few comments of my own.

First, I offer my sincere thanks to Her Majesty's ambassador in Cairo, and to all the consular staff both in Cairo and in London who have been involved in the case. I echo my hon. Friend's assertion that it is not a matter of criticising the Government in this case. We are all aware of the sensitivities involved.

Secondly, we need to recognise that legal systems are different. Things that are seen in one light in London are now always seen in the same light in Cairo. The culture and conditions in prison, the operation of the legal system and the rules of evidence are not likely to be the same. We must respect some degree of difference, but that does not absolve us from concern if we feel that conditions are unacceptable or intolerable. It is an important part of the consular role and the Government's role to ensure that conditions are kept to an acceptable standard, and that accused people, who are very vulnerable when they are incarcerated, are treated decently.

I draw the attention of the House to three brief points. The first is that the Islamic organisation in question is not proscribed in the United Kingdom, although it is in Egypt. That is a relevant consideration for any of us. The second is that a real concern about the evidence has been highlighted by my hon. Friend. I cite the fact that among the bundle of documents, which seems to have been comprehensive, was a sports magazine in English, a calendar, a bundle of till receipts from the supermarket, and a number of documents that do not appear to have an owner among the accused. The operation does not seem to have been very professional. That is a matter of concern.

Finally, I echo my hon. Friend's concern about conditions not only in terms of the original arrest and incarceration, but in the conduct of court proceedings, which cannot amount to an acceptable trial if people are held in cages, without being able to sit during the day, probably in considerable heat and discomfort, and in very large numbers. I would be extremely grateful for the Minister's response. We are aware of his difficulties, but we are anxious to have his co-operation in the fullest possible Government attention to the case.

11.28 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing the Adjournment debate and on bringing this important case to the attention of the House. I know that the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness, my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), have taken a keen constituency interest in the case and have followed it closely. I assure all the hon. Members and others who are present that the Government take the issue seriously and will continue to take a very close and direct interest in the way in which the case is handled.

I welcome the opportunity to set out the assistance that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has provided to Maajid Nawaz and two other British nationals who remain in detention in connection with the case. I am grateful for the kind words of hon. Members about FCO staff, and I shall pass on those messages to them.

On 1 April 2002, Maajid Nawaz, a student at the university of Alexandria, was arrested. Hassan Rizvi, Ian Nisbet and Reza Pankhurst were also arrested on 1 April.

Consular staff at our embassy in Cairo immediately sought confirmation of the arrests from the local authorities. On 7 April, it was officially confirmed that the four men had been detained by state security and we immediately sought consular access. Our consul and vice consul were allowed to visit Maajid Nawaz and the other detainees on 11 April. They appeared well but said that they had been intimidated and treated roughly in the initial days of their detention. One of the men made serious allegations of torture. The men did not, at this time, request independent medical examinations, nor did they wish embassy staff to raise the allegations of mistreatment and torture formally with the Egyptian authorities. I shall return to that subject in a moment.

In the meantime, every effort was made to secure information on the judicial process under which the men would be prosecuted. Our ambassador met senior Government officials on 18 April and 7 May, and the prosecutor general on 8 May, to seek information. My noble Friend Baroness Amos, the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for consular matters, met the Egyptian ambassador to London on 9 May to raise our concerns about the treatment of the detainees. On 22 May, Maajid Nawaz and the other men saw their legal representatives for the first time.

We were then able to ascertain that the men had been arrested under a ministerial decree issued by the Minister of the Interior. On 23 June, the decree was overturned by the prosecutor general and the case transferred into the normal court system.

The detainees appeared in court on 4 July, 20 July and 3 August. On 4 August it was announced that three of the detainees were to face charges and that the fourth, Hassan Rizvi, was to be released. Mr Rizvi was released from custody on 12 August and subsequently returned to the United Kingdom. The relatives of the detainees were aware of the exact details of the charges faced.

The trial commenced on 20 October. Proceedings were adjourned after five hours and recommenced on 29 October. The judge, over the next three days, presented the prosecution evidence to the court and, on 31 October, proceedings were adjourned. The trial proper is expected to start on 21 December. Staff from our embassy in Cairo were present during the hearings and we hope to have someone present during any trial.

During court sessions the detainees were being held in a cage. We acknowledge that conditions have been cramped and that there have been difficulties with access to toilet facilities and the provision of drinks and food.

The lawyers registered protests with the presiding judge, and by 31 October conditions had improved. I am also pleased to be able to inform hon. Members that the detainees were able to speak to their relatives by telephone from the judge's chambers, I understand on 31 October.

We were concerned to learn about the allegations of mistreatment and torture suffered by Maajid Nawaz and the others. As I have said, when we first learned of them, the detainees asked us not raise them formally. However, the allegations were serious, and therefore were raised informally by our ambassador in meetings with the Egyptian Foreign Minister on 11 April and with the Interior Minister on 18 April. The allegations were also raised when our ambassador met senior Egyptian Government Ministers on 7 May, 8 May, 24 June and 26 June.

On 1 July, Maajid Nawaz, Reza Pankhurst and lan Nisbet wrote letters to the Prime Minister setting out in detail the treatment they had suffered in the first four days of their detention. A request was also made for an independent medical examination.

On 3 July, the Foreign Secretary was able to raise the case when he met the Egyptian Foreign Minister. On 25 July, my noble Friend Baroness Amos wrote to the Egyptian Foreign Minister to ask that an investigation be conducted into the allegations and that the detainees be allowed access to an independent medical examination.

On 19 September, our ambassador met the prosecutor general who assured us that he had been asked to conduct an investigation into the allegations, but said that that was not yet complete. On 25 September, our ambassador wrote to the prosecutor general to ask for the results of the investigation.

We have continued to press the Egyptian authorities for a formal response. Most recently, on 8 October, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spent time discussing the case and the allegations of mistreatment and torture with the Egyptian Foreign Minister when they met in Cairo. Our ambassador spoke with the Foreign Minister on 21 October and with the Interior Minister on 24 October. A formal reply from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is still awaited.

We have been active in trying to ensure the detainees' welfare in detention. Since Maajid Nawaz was arrested on 1 April, concerns about prison conditions have been raised by the detainees and their relatives in the United Kingdom. We are unable to seek better conditions for British prisoners than those afforded to local nationals. However, through representations made to the authorities by consular staff and by working with the relatives, improvements to the prison conditions have been secured. That culminated in a move to newly refurbished cells equipped with toilet facilities in September. Maajid Nawaz, lan Nisbet and Reza Pankhurst do not currently have any complaints about the prison conditions, although they obviously had serious concerns at an earlier stage.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)

I thank the Minister for giving way. Speaking very briefly, one appreciates the sensitivities involved and our feelings are, of course, with the relatives and friends of those who are currently detained in Egypt. Does my hon. Friend accept that the difficulty that he appears to be having in getting responses to the proper queries that we have raised is un usual from a Government as friendly and helpful as the Egyptian Government have always been? One hopes that the answers will come forward very quickly, but in the meantime, will he reassure the House that British visitors to Egypt, of whom there are tens of thousands every year, need have no particular concerns? Will he acknowledge that the Egyptian authorities are extremely sensitive to these matters, but live in the light of the desperate difficulties that they experienced at Luxor some time ago?

Mr. O'Brien

There are certainly serious problems in relation to terrorism in Egypt, and the Egyptian Government are working hard, not least in co-operation with our country and others, to seek to resolve those issues. I certainly acknowledge that they have to be prepared to deal with their concerns, but we also need to ensure that any British citizens who are detained are treated properly.

The point made about whether the detainees would be able to leave the country if they are acquitted is important. We know nothing at the moment to suggest that, if they are acquitted, the Egyptian authorities would not allow them to leave Egypt. However, the formalities involved could mean that an actual release takes several days. The fourth person in this case, Hassan Rizvi, was released on 12 August following the announcement of the intention to release on 4 August, and he was able to leave the country on the same day.

On the suggestion that the Prime Minister might be involved, I hear that request from the hon. Member for Southend, West and I shall certainly consider the appropriate time when it might be looked at.

In conclusion, I assure the hon. Gentleman and others that Ministers in London and our ambassador in Cairo have taken a close personal interest in this case. Consular staff in Cairo have worked extremely hard to ensure that we have done all that we properly can to assist Maajid Nawaz, Ian Nisbet and Reza Pankhurst since their detention on 1 April. In London, our consular division has tried to maintain contact with the relatives and keep them informed of developments. Baroness Amos met the families on 7 May and 3 July. Mrs. Nawaz was able to meet our ambassador in Cairo to discuss the case during her recent visit to Egypt.

We have done what we can and we will continue to do so. This is a difficult case that is obviously traumatic for the families, and we will do all that we reasonably can to help and assist them through this difficult period.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Twelve o'clock.