HC Deb 07 July 2003 vol 408 cc751-9 3.30 pm
Mr. Speaker

Before I call the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) to ask his urgent question, I wish to make it clear that it is a narrowly focused question about UK nationals in Guantanamo bay. Supplementary questions should be brief and limited to the matter raised in it.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister to make a statement on the continued detention and trial of the two UK nationals in Guantanamo bay and what he proposes to do to safeguard their interests.

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

On 3 July, the United States designated six detainees, including two British nationals held at Guantanamo bay, as eligible for trial under a military commission. We have strong reservations about the military commission. We have raised, and will continue to raise them energetically with the US. The Foreign Secretary spoke to the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, about that over the weekend and will speak to him again in the next few days.

So far, neither of the detainees has been charged. However, we have made it clear to the US that we expect the process to fulfil internationally accepted standards of a fair trial. We will follow the process carefully.

The US is aware of our fundamental opposition to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances. If there is any suggestion that the death penalty might be sought in these cases, we would raise the strongest possible objections.

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, and I acknowledge that he has always shown a great interest in cases where there may be a miscarriage of justice.

Does the Minister share my concern for the plight of Mr. Begg and Mr. Abbasi? Under what law and in respect of what offences are they to be charged and tried? Is it correct that they are to stand trial before a military court? Will the trial take place in closed session? Does the tribunal have the power to impose the death penalty? Is it correct that there is no right of appeal outside the military process? Will the military choose the defence team?

What steps have the British Government taken to ensure that the men are tried for offences known to the law and before courts of usual competence in such matters? What steps have been taken to protect their civil rights? Does the Minister agree that the Americans' proposals are wrong, potentially unjust and gravely damaging to their reputation?

Mr. Mullin

As I hope I have made clear, we share the concerns that the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and others have raised.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked under what law the men would be charged. We understand that "designation" means that the persons concerned are subject to the order that governs military commissions and can now be charged and prosecuted. However, that is not automatic and we understand that matters will proceed on a case-by-case basis.

We are still seeking information about the conduct of any trial. Indeed, we continue to express strong views about the way in which we hope that a trial will be conducted. The same applies to the right of appeal.

We understand that the Americans will nominate the defence lawyers in some way. We are seeking further information about that, too. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will forgive me if I do not go into much detail, but many aspects are a cause of concern to us and we intend to pursue them all.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

As someone whose loathing of terrorism is second to none, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he is aware that there is bound to be considerable concern in this country over how those two British citizens are to be tried by a military tribunal, and even more so at his mention of how the defence counsel is almost certainly to be appointed by the authorities? Should not the United States listen very closely and heed the concern of a close ally? I hope that it will do so, because the United States requires all the friends it can get.

Mr. Mullin

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We hope that the United States will listen closely to the representations that he and others have made. Perhaps I should say that, in our view, it is strongly in the interests of the United States that these trials be conducted in a credible and transparent fashion, because that obviously will affect the respect in which the United States is held throughout the world.

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

We must never lose sight of the terrible atrocities committed on 11 September 2001. All terrorists associated with those and other acts of international terrorism must be brought to justice, but that justice must be beyond reproach and match the highest possible international standards. The treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo bay falls well short of that. They have no legal status, the conditions in which they are kept are condemned by human rights groups, and British citizens are to be subject to a military tribunal which can impose the death penalty.

The Minister says that he has strong reservations. Surely people have the right to expect more than that. Does he believe that if the tables were reversed, the United States would even begin to tolerate such a situation for its citizens? Will he confirm the date when the Prime Minister last raised these matters with the President of the United States, and whether he has summoned the American ambassador to explain the situation? Will he tell us why the Foreign Secretary's stated preference for a repatriation of the UK citizens to try them here has been rebuffed, and what further steps he intends to take?

Mr. Mullin

As regards the conditions in which all those prisoners are held, the Prime Minister has, on a number of occasions, made it clear that he regards the situation in Guantanamo bay as unsatisfactory. He has indeed raised it with the Americans. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman precise dates off the top of my head, but as I said in my statement, the matter was last raised with the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, over the weekend. It will be raised again repeatedly, I anticipate.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on securing this urgent question. I say to the Minister, for whom I have great respect, that I am surprised that the Foreign Secretary has not seen fit to come to answer this question when he was well enough to appear in Downing street this morning to defend the Government on another issue.

No one has been a stronger supporter of the war against terrorism than me, but as I said in last Thursday's debate in the House, there is now considerable public unease at what is happening in Guantanamo bay. We know that two British detainees are to face the tribunals. Last Thursday, I raised a number of serious questions in the debate, but I failed to get an answer. I wrote to the Foreign Secretary again on Friday, asking the same questions. I have not received a reply. Some have been raised again by my right hon. and learned Friend. May I raise one or two more?

What does the Minister understand to be the agreed format for bringing charges and for the subsequent trials of those detained at Guantanamo bay? Has any allowance been made for the fact that these are British citizens and British nationals? Will the tribunals proceed in public at any stage? Is he satisfied that the American military can provide an unbiased defence for those British nationals? What redress will be available to those who, I hope, may be released without charge in due course for spending time in Guantanamo Bay?

I say to the Minister, again with all respect, that his answer to the original question is unsatisfactory and that, after 17 months, there must be more precise details available to the House about how the tribunals will take place. We are told that the Government have been making representations to the American Government, but we need a detailed report on the extent of those representations and what their results have been.

We have accepted that in dealing with serious matters of terrorism force is sometimes necessary, and changes in rules and procedures are required, but we have always insisted that the rule of law must apply. Can the Minister assure us that that remains the case?

Mr. Mullin

First, may I apologise for not being the Foreign Secretary? Secondly, I will chase up the matter of the right hon. Gentleman's letter of last Friday. The precise way in which the trials will be conducted is not yet clear, and we are taking a close interest in that issue. Many of the questions that the right hon. Gentleman asks relate to matters that we are pursuing with the United States, and I can endorse his last point about our concern that the trials be conducted within the rule of law.

I should, however, add one note of caution, although in doing so I am in no way suggesting that the right hon. Gentleman was in any way hyping things up. It is probably not to the advantage of these defendants—or to that of any others—that we engage in megaphone diplomacy with the United States. This is a delicate and sensitive issue that has to be pursued in a delicate and sensitive way, but I repeat: we are pursuing all the issues in which he is interested and we shall respond to his letter as soon as possible.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

Feroz Abbasi, who is a constituent of mine, faces a stark choice: to plead guilty and serve a 20-year sentence, or to plead not guilty and face an unfair trial characterised by his not being able to pick his own defence lawyer. His mental health has been badly affected by being incarcerated for 18 months in a 2 sq m cage, with 15 minutes' exercise twice a week. He is unable to cross-examine the witnesses, who may present unreliable and critical evidence based on plea bargaining. The case will be decided behind closed doors by a judge and jury from the military, who are predisposed towards finding a guilty verdict and imposing the death penalty.

Will my hon. Friend now make every effort to ensure my constituent's repatriation and a fair trial in Britain, so that this kangaroo court in Guantanamo bay does not proceed? Otherwise, it could well result in the killing of my constituent, thereby playing into the hands of the terrorists and, indeed, of all those who want to undermine human rights, the rule of law and justice across the globe.

Mr. Mullin

I understand my hon. Friend's concern for his constituent, and I should point out that, as he is probably aware, Baroness Symons met Mr. Abbasi's mother and her lawyer this morning and discussed the case with them. One concern that we are pursuing with the Americans is that in our view, all the evidence concerning the case against these people must clearly be made available to them, so that they are in a position to rebut it.

We understand that the detainee does have the right to choose his own defence lawyer—if he meets the security requirements laid down by the Americans. However, it is clear that this matter will have to be checked out. As I have said, many of the details are not yet clearly known and we are seeking to establish them as soon as possible, but my hon. Friend can rest assured that we are going to take a close interest in his constituent's welfare.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire)

What is the Government's position on the United States' view that the Geneva conventions do not apply to these people?

Mr. Mullin

It is something that we have discussed with the United States, and frankly, we disagree with them about it. It is an ongoing discussion.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Can my hon. Friend clarify the precise nature of the jurisdiction claimed by the United States over these alleged offences—given that so far, it has not been specifically alleged that they took place in United States' territory—or is the entire world now regarded by President Bush as being within his jurisdiction? Will my hon. Friend and the Foreign Secretary make it clear to the United States that the world will not tolerate what is regarded as a charade of justice, and that the death penalty is utterly unacceptable in this case, as indeed it is in others?

Mr. Mullin

We have already and repeatedly made that clear, and we shall continue to do so. Discussions have continued with the United States about the terms on which the prisoners are held and on which they will be tried. At this stage, it is too early to be specific.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

If the Government's apparently strong reservations fail to protect the human rights of the two detainees, be they innocent or guilty under English or international law, what does the Minister propose to do about it?

Mr. Mullin

One thing I do not propose to do is to address the United States through a megaphone, which would have the opposite effect to the one the hon. and learned Gentleman and I seek. We must take events step by step. As I said to the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the issue is delicate and sensitive, and it must be dealt with as such. I am sure that any Conservative Government would proceed in exactly the same way.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the United States is already discriminating between US and non-US citizens? That is not permitted under international human rights law, but what is permitted is a fair trial, and it is clear that if discrimination is taking place, there is no possibility of that. My hon. Friend knows that I have raised the treatment of the prisoners in Guantanamo bay many times publicly and privately, and in eight questions. I believe that they should all along have been held under the Geneva convention, and we must tell the Americans, quite clearly, that the situation is not acceptable.

Mr. Mullin

We have made it clear to the Americans that many aspects of what has gone on at Guantanamo bay are not acceptable. We shall continue to do so. None the less, we must proceed step by step. It is a delicate situation, and that is all that I can say for the time being.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

The Minister said that the Government are raising the matter vigorously, but there is no evidence in what he has said that their action is indeed vigorous. The prosecution of British citizens has been on the cards for nearly two years, yet the Foreign Office seems woefully ignorant of the details of what that prosecution amounts to, or of whether those citizens are protected by prosecutors nominated by the court. It does not sound as though the Government are pursuing the matter vigorously, and this is a question of justice by international standards. The Government's vigour ought to indicate a little more fiercely that we hold strongly to the view of justice.

Mr. Mullin

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have taken some interest during my brief and undistinguished parliamentary career in matters of justice. We have made our views known forcefully to the Americans. The Foreign Secretary spoke to Colin Powell on this matter as recently as the weekend, and there are plans for further discussions. I do not think, however, that it will help anyone, least of all the two defendants referred to, if we start shouting and yah-booing at the Americans, which is not going to get us anywhere.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend and Baroness Symons on the vigorous way in which they have raised the matter. Does he share my concern that the more we talk about who represents the British defendants and what kind of trial there will be in the United States, the more we are distracted from what should be the Government's aim, which is to get those people here, to be dealt with under United Kingdom justice? Will the Minister confirm that that is the Government's principal aim? Will he also request the American ambassador to come in, which would be a highly symbolic act, in order that he may make it clear, not through a megaphone, but in the quiet but forceful way that I know he and the Foreign Secretary can deploy, that the matter is very important and that the ambassador should—I mean no disrespect to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg)—pay particular attention to those who regularly support the United States, most recently in Iraq, and who feel strongly that an injustice is being perpetrated?

Mr. Mullin

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's congratulations. We will certainly make it clear to the Americans that it is in their interests that the matter should be dealt with openly and credibly. Bringing the defendants here to face trial is a more difficult issue. It has certainly been thought about, but I cannot give my right hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Since the Americans have refused to transfer the British detainees to a British court, what steps have the Government taken to ask for them to be transferred to a court under the auspices of the United Nations, such as the International Criminal Court?

Mr. Mullin

It would clearly be desirable for any trial to take place in a form that guarantees maximum international credibility, but the form in which it is likely to take place is that which is decided on by the Americans, and the precise terms of that are what we are currently discussing.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

My hon. Friend seemed to have some difficulty earlier defining the legal status of Guantanamo bay. What is the Government's interpretation of any law under which two British nationals have been held for 18 months without charge, without trial, without access to legal representation, and, as I understand it, in very poor conditions indeed? On exactly how many occasions have the British Government raised with the United States Government concerns about that and demands that the prisoners be repatriated to this country to face trial, if there are charges against them?

Mr. Mullin

I cannot tell my hon. Friend on how many occasions the matter has come up, but it has come up repeatedly, and at all levels of the Government. I myself, in a previous incarnation, took part in a number of conversations on the subject. The Prime Minister made it clear from the outset that the situation of the detainees at Guantanamo bay is unsatisfactory and cannot continue indefinitely.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

In the eventuality that the American prosecuting authorities were to tell the British Government that these persons had been engaged in armed combat against British soldiers in Afghanistan, what would be the attitude of Her Majesty's Government? Would they ask the Americans to bring them back to this country for trial on charges of high treason?

Mr. Mullin

We are not going down that road for the moment. I was asked earlier about the jurisdiction under which the detainees are held and are to be tried. It is a US presidential order. As hon. Members probably know, the United States regards the detainees as enemy combatants and subject to US military regulations. Whether we agree with it or not, that is the position of the United States.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West)

I, too, have three constituents among the detainees, and I share the concerns that have been raised about the proposed judicial procedures for the two who have been named. Have the US authorities given any indication yet about whether the three detainees from Tipton will be tried, and if so, under what judicial procedures?

Mr. Mullin

No, I am afraid that I do not have any information about plans to try my hon. Friend's three constituents. Only the six who have so far been mentioned, including the two British citizens, have been designated as liable for trial.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

While the interests of the British detainees are extremely important, and it is an outrage and a scandal that the Americans have treated Mr. Walker, an American citizen, differently from the others, the more profound issue here is that the whole way in which the Americans are conducting this business is a considerable defeat for the values that we are all seeking to defend against terrorism. Is it not about time that language such as "delicate and sensitive", "strong reservations", and "cause for concern" was abandoned in favour of the megaphone, to convince the Americans of the folly of their actions?

Mr. Mullin

No, I do not think that megaphone diplomacy ever works, so if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, we will not go down that road for the time being. It would not do the six individuals, or indeed the other prisoners at Guantanamo bay, the slightest bit of good. It might give the hon. Gentleman some temporary satisfaction, but it would not make the situation any better.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Does the Minister agree that the Nuremberg and Tokyo military tribunals offer precedents for ways of dealing with people who have been accused both of atrocities and of waging illegal warfare? Would it not be a more constructive approach to the Americans to remind them of those precedents and of the fact that both those tribunals were held in the full glare of international publicity, with the defendants given every opportunity to put their side of the case?

Mr. Mullin

Yes, that point is well taken. There are a number of precedents for dealing with enemy combatants captured in this way, if that is what they are. However, the road chosen by the US is clearly set down, and we have to negotiate around that position.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the Minister remind the Americans that presidential orders are trumped by international law, and that all America's friends, while understanding the difficult and sensitive issues surrounding these issues, nevertheless deeply regret the harm being done to America's cause by their behaviour on this matter?

Mr. Mullin

Yes, I certainly will pass that on. Indeed, I shall pass to the American ambassador the record of our exchanges this afternoon, so that the Americans can see for themselves how strongly Members of the House feel about that.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

The Minister told us what the Americans say are their jurisdictional rights, but will he tell us clearly whether the British Government believe that every non-American citizen held in Guantanamo bay should be subject to some legal jurisdiction? If so, which jurisdiction—American, British or international law?

Mr. Mullin

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, people are currently in the custody of the Americans and American law is being applied. As I told the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) a moment ago, it is around that that we have to negotiate, and that is how it is going to be for the foreseeable future. I repeat that we have said repeatedly that the present position in Guantanamo bay—and, indeed, the proposed military tribunal—is not satisfactory, and that we believe that there are better ways of handling those matters.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

While it is important for the Minister to pass on to the Americans the spirit of this afternoon's exchanges, will he also tell the Americans that we understand why those people were detained and that it is important—on this occasion, as on others—to take the greater safety of the greater number into account?

Mr. Mullin

Yes, we all understand why those people were detained and that it is entirely right for them to face any legitimate charges against them. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that it would be better if the entire process commanded international confidence, which is what we are pressing for.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

Is the Minister aware that The Economist reported in January that American intelligence agents have been torturing terrorist suspects. They have been handing over suspects to countries such as Egypt, whose intelligence agencies have a reputation for brutality"? What efforts have the Government made to establish whether those reports are true, and what do such reports and the forthcoming trial say about the extent—or lack of it—of British influence over American policy at this time?

Mr. Mullin

Yes, I have read the reports to which the hon. Gentleman refers. British officials have paid five visits to assess the welfare of the half—dozen British citizens who are held at Guantanamo bay. Those detainees are obviously our prime concern and we have the greatest influence—hopefully—over their fate. We have taken a closer interest in the welfare of our citizens than any other country with detainees there, and we have also raised general issues about the way in which the Guantanamo bay detainees are held and treated and in the manner of their trial. I did, indeed, read the reports and I share the hon. Gentleman's concern.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

I wholly share the concerns expressed throughout the House about the intolerable circumstances there, but is the Minister in a position to tell us whether any of the intelligence gained from the detainees will be any use in the war against terrorism?

Mr. Mullin

I regret that I am not in that position.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

In replying to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Minister went further than in other replies to say that he thought that America was in breach of the Geneva convention. Will he elaborate on what he said and also tell us what sanctions are available for countries in breach of that convention?

Mr. Mullin

I think that the hon. Gentleman's question concerns whether the Geneva convention should apply to the detainees, and I have already made it clear that, in our view, it should.