HL Deb 21 January 2002 vol 630 cc1361-7

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to repeat a Statement made in the other place by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the British nationals detained at Guantanamo Bay.

"A team of British officials visited Guantanamo from 17th January to 20th 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.

"Our officials' report confirms that the three are British and that they are all in good physical health. During lengthy discussions they spoke without inhibitions. None complained of any ill treatment. None said they had any medical condition requiring treatment. Medical facilities are available in the compound.

"All three asked for messages to be passed back 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 detainees at any time. The detainees are free to conduct religious observances. They have prayer mats and calls to prayers are broadcast over the Camp X-Ray PA 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 wish 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 are completely false. The recent pictures of detainees featured in the media were taken on arrival at the base where security needs are paramount.

"Our officials report that as the numbers grow at the base there will be a need for more scope for exercise and every effort is made to provide all inmates who want one with a copy of the Koran.

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

"We are fully satisfied with the co-operation we have had from the United States authorities on this issue. Both 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 I have seen today, I can confirm that these standards are being met".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.48 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, we are very grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating that Statement from the Minister in the other place. It is her second Statement this afternoon—heavy duties for her. We very much appreciate her efforts.

The Statement was reassuring in a number of senses. The report from the British officials makes it clear that, as the Statement pointed out, the detainees are in good physical health. That is reassuring when one has previously seen those undeniably disturbing pictures in the Sunday press, which at first glance seemed to portray a rather hideous regime. If those pictures were not really a true depiction of the way in which those people are being held, I am slightly left wondering why a US Navy photographer took them and why they were circulated world-wide. I do not understand the motive for doing that. They certainly gave the situation a very ugly appearance.

It is reassuring that there is satisfaction that those people are being treated humanely. They are undoubtedly extremely dangerous people. Although they have not been properly tried, it is probable that charges of committing the most unspeakable atrocities will be laid against them. I am quite sure that the treatment that they are now receiving is infinitely better than anything they ever meted out to the people whom they may well have slaughtered. However, that remains to be seen.

When making the Statement in another place, the Minister said that he was satisfied that the accusations that have been circulating were "premature". I believe that "premature" is a slightly odd word to use in that context. It implies—and would do so grammatically—that, later on, the accusations might be justified. That leads one to express the hope that that is not what is meant in the Statement; and also to express the hope that there will be a continuing, open communication with our officials through the Red Cross, or perhaps directly with our officials, about what is unfolding and happening at the base, and the nature of the plans for putting these individuals on trial or bringing them to justice in one way or another.

I remain puzzled, as, I suspect, do many noble Lords, as to the exact status of these people. As is clearly recognised, they are extremely dangerous people. They would attack their warders and their keepers in a most dangerous way. But are they prisoners of war, or not? If they are, can the Minister say whether they are receiving the required treatment under the Geneva Convention? Alternatively, if they are just potential criminals and murderers—perhaps, for all we know, mass murderers—when will charges be brought forward? When will we know about the nature of those charges?

In our dialogue with the American authorities, which I hope will be both constructive and supportive, it is important for us to indicate to them that it would help their case, the world case, and the case of the grand coalition of which we are members, if they would make clear how matters will be handled and what the status of these people will be. Finally, will the three individuals who have been identified as UK nationals be returned—as it has been suggested that some will be returned—to the countries of their nationality—for any charges to be brought? Can the Minister say whether any indication has been forthcoming from the American authorities on the matter?

However, overall, one is ready to invest hope that the statement from the commander at the camp is right; namely, that the allegations were "lurid", and that the cries about torture were false. Let us hope that that is absolutely right. I assume that it is; indeed, I do not question it. But we shall need to keep a very close watching arrangement on what is going on at the base so that the world can continue to be reassured, and we can continue to be a good and friendly supporter of our American allies by whose side we have stood so clearly and so strongly thus far.

4.53 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, I, too, should like to express my gratitude to the Minister for repeating the Statement. While the team were in Guantanamo Bay last week, I should tell the Minister that I was in Washington attending a seminar of the American Bar Association on these topics. I also had discussions with senior officials of the Administration. When considering the status of these detainees, I hope that the Government will not grant to them the status of "prisoners of war". A terrorist is a criminal; he is a criminal who has no legitimate target, whether civil or military. To allow such a person to be labelled as a "prisoner of war" suggests, for example, that an attack on the Pentagon would be a legitimate military target. That cannot possibly be allowed.

This country has entered into many anti-terrorist conventions. We have made it clear that we stand shoulder to shoulder with many nations around the world against terrorism. The IRA terrorists and the loyalists in Northern Ireland were always anxious to be treated as prisoners of war: they wanted to be named in that way. They took steps to act as though they were prisoners of war. They would give no more than their names; and they would refuse to be interrogated; they would not give evidence at trial. They would accept their punishment, go to prison and set up blocks within the Maze Prison with a chain of command as though they were prisoners of war. Finally, they would wait for hostilities to cease whereupon they would be released, as, I regret to say, has now happened. We should not allow the label, or the privileges, of a "prisoner of war" to Al'Qaeda and Taliban detainees.

I have one question for the Government. Following my discussions last week, it is an issue that I shall continue to pursue. Can the Minister say whether the Government will request the extradition of British nationals suspected of terrorism from wherever they may be in the world—whether in Afghanistan or in Guantanamo Bay—to this country for open trial by the procedures that we have built over 30 years to deal with terrorism, and under the Terrorism Act 2000 passed by this Parliament, so that we play our part by standing next to our American allies and shouldering the burden of dealing with terrorism in the world?

4.56 p.m.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the main issue raised by both noble Lords related to the status of the detainees, and whether or not they are considered to be prisoners of war. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said very clearly that he thought that they should not be. Whether or not an individual is classed as a prisoner of war depends on the facts of each case. It is for the detaining power—in this instance, the United States—to take a view. We do not know all the facts and, therefore, cannot form a view about individual cases. We have stressed that the detainees are to be treated humanely, and in accordance with international law. The Americans have reassured us that that will be the case. Against that background, I am unable to say anything further to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, as regards his specific question on the issue of extradition. As I have said, we are not yet in a position to form a view about individual cases.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, asked particularly about the current situation. I believe he said that he found the Statement reassuring in that respect. I thank the noble Lord for his remarks. As I said when repeating the Statement, the British detainees had no complaints. Our officials saw no signs of physical maltreatment or unnecessary force. I understand that certain security and health measures were taken during the transfer of the detainees to Guantanamo Bay, such as the wearing of ear-muffs and masks. However, these were removed once the detainees were processed on arrival at the base. They are high security prisoners who, in some cases, have vowed to kill their captors. Therefore, it is understandable that security measures are clearly necessary.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, also asked when charges would be brought and what their nature would be. Again, we are waiting to receive clarification of the status, and I am unable to tell the noble Lord when we will have this information. However, as soon as the information is to hand, we shall share it with Parliament.

4.58 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I am obviously in a minority on the issue. I believe that the treatment of these people by the Americans is deeply wrong. Either they are prisoners of war and should be treated under the Geneva Convention, or they have committed a crime and should be treated as criminals through the due process of law. As far as I can gather, they have just been locked up and taken to a place that is deliberately held to be outside American criminal jurisdiction. They have no access to lawyers, to the Red Cross, or to the rules of law and justice.

I know and accept that an awful lot of them are disgusting toads of the worst order who would slit my throat and the throat of anyone else in this House. That is not the point. The Americans and, I hope, ourselves stand for a higher order. Therefore, we must do things by the book as we did in Northern Ireland. We hope always to act in that way. The Americans are letting themselves down by the way in which it appears they are treating these people neither as criminals nor as prisoners of war. Therefore, to mix metaphors, they are neither fish nor fowl nor fair red herring. That makes me, as a liberal constitutionalist with a Whig background, very unhappy.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, in the Statement I made it absolutely clear that we shall be judged by a higher standard than the Taliban and Al'Qaeda. We are absolutely clear that the detainees must be treated humanely and in accordance with international law. We have been given assurances by the Americans on the issue of humane treatment. I believe that, when I answered questions previously, I explained that we do not know all the facts. At this point we cannot form a view about individual cases. We are in constant contact with the Americans over the next steps, and decisions on those steps will depend on each individual case.

However, I believe that the important point is that the detainees are treated in a humane way and in accordance with international law. We have received assurances to that effect. The ICRC is currently in Guantanamo Bay and has access to the detainees day and night.

Lord Elton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the transcript of the Statement was not available in the Printed Paper Office after she sat down? That meant that those of us who were wrong-footed by the unexpected brevity of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, cannot fully take part in this discussion. Therefore, I simply ask the Minister to clarify what she said in reply to my noble friend Lord Onslow.

There are only two possibilities: either the detainees are prisoners of war, as some of them may be because they were captured in battle; or they are criminals who are terrorists, as some of them may be because they have committed terrorist crimes all over the world. Therefore, they must be treated as one or the other. However, at present it appears that those who are terrorists will be given the legal recourse appropriate for prisoners of war if, as we read in the press, it is correct that they will be tried by a military tribunal and not by a court. I believe that that is what worries my noble friend and it worries me, too.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, first, I apologise to the noble Lord about the transcript of the Statement. In fact, I received my own copy rather late.

With regard to clarifying what is happening, I believe that I have now said twice that we do not know all the facts and, therefore, cannot form a view on individual cases. The process is ongoing and we shall keep in constant contact with the Americans in relation to what happens next.

Earlier I was asked about legal representation. Clearly if any of the detainees face prosecution, then, under international norms, they should be entitled to legal representation. We know that. But at present decisions have not been made about the charges that the detainees might face. Therefore, it is our view that we must have all the facts at our disposal before making decisions about the next steps. That is why we are keeping in constant contact with the Americans. A decision on whether or not there will be military tribunals is for the Americans as the detaining power. Again, we have asked for full information on the way that such tribunals might work.

Lord Monson

My Lords, virtually all of us will have been very pleased to hear the noble Baroness's reassurances. However, she confined her report to the British detainees. Since Britain has given more support to the United States action in Afghanistan than almost any other country, is it not likely that we shall be held responsible by the world at large, and in particular by the Islamic world, for anything that happens to the detainees? Therefore, we should be concerned about the well-being of all the detainees.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, claims that the detainees are all terrorists. How can he possibly know? Distasteful though the Taliban regime undoubtedly was, that does not mean that every single Taliban solider is a terrorist. As the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, there is a mixture of simple soldiers, who are prisoners of war, and undoubted terrorists. But, pending the trial and finding of guilt of the terrorists, in the initial stages they should all be treated as prisoners of war. I hope that the noble Baroness agrees with that.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the reason that I focused my remarks on the British detainees is because the UK team saw only the three British detainees. The ICRC team is in Guantanamo Bay and will see all the other detainees. It will make its report to the US authorities. I understand that, as is the tradition, the ICRC will make its report in confidence to the US authorities. It will then be for the US authorities to act on any information contained in that report. But I believe that it is important for me to repeat that we have sought assurances that the detainees will be treated in a humane way and in accordance with international law. We have been given those assurances.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, temperamentally I am very much inclined to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. However, with regard to the British detainees—be they prisoners or whatever else—I wonder whether we know the circumstances under which they were captured. Were they captured under what one might call "orthodox military" circumstances, in which case, they may well be prisoners of war; or were they captured in another context in which they might be regarded as terrorists? I dare say that at present we do not know which is the case. But are we trying to find out?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I can say to my noble friend that the detainees were captured during the conflict in Afghanistan. I am unable to say more than that. Noble Lords will appreciate that further information is required on this issue. That is why we must keep in constant contact with the US authorities, and that is what we are doing.