HC Deb 03 June 2003 vol 406 cc43-50WH 12.30 pm
Dr. John Pugh (Southport)

I will choose my words carefully because this is the first time in the two years of such sad events that we have had a chance to debate them in Parliament. I am not speaking to impress anyone, but to help to achieve a given result—the release of men who, I believe, are wholly innocent of the crimes with which they are charged. I know that their release depends on people outside the jurisdiction of Parliament because we are awaiting the outcome of an appeal for clemency. It sets aside the alleged guilt of the men in favour of the interests of mercy.

If the appeal for clemency were successful, it would resolve the destiny of men worn down by captivity and alleviate the anguish felt by their families who wait for them. Furthermore, it will clear away an obstacle to the wholehearted pursuit of terrorism that threatens the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom, undermines civil society and disfigures this very building in which we meet. The true antidote to terrorism is a just world order, which is defended robustly and is apparent to all. The conviction of Sandy Mitchell, James Cottle, Les Walker, Glen Ballard, Peter Brandon and James Lee of bombing forms no part of that just world order.

I say that as someone who came to the issue by chance—almost by accident. A constituent, David Brown, was one of the alleged victims. He felt strongly that the people accused were not those responsible for the crime that had blinded and maimed him. He has sought actively to ensure that justice is done and has appealed to many media outlets to listen to his story. I pay tribute to him and his selfless endeavours to secure the release of those citizens of England who have been charged unjustly.

The more that I looked into the matter, the more I believed that a grave injustice had been done. The convictions were made without any forensic evidence. They are based on confessions; indeed, in some cases, televised confessions. The convictions were allegedly extorted after solitary confinement at least and possible torture. The comments of a senior Saudi figure from the embassy on a recent radio programme on 23 February 2003 did not gainsay or contradict that particular allegation.

The convictions were criticised by the rapporteurs of the United Nations when they investigated the Saudi Arabian justice system. They have bizarrely failed to stop the offences for which the men have been charged because such offences have taken place subsequent to their arrest, conviction and incarceration. The convictions have also failed to ascribe a coherent set of motives to the accused. Fundamentally, they would not pass the stringent tests of British law and, possibly more important than that, fall short of the higher standards of Islamic and sharia law. As the Muslim lawyer arguing for their appeal on behalf of the men said: The majority of Muslim jurists back up the illegality of coercion"— as a means of getting a confession— referring to the Koran, the Sunnah, the Athar and Logic". There is no reason to consider the issue with a false sense of cultural pride. We have been here before. In our desperate attempts to stem terrorism on this island, we have made errors: we imprisoned the Birmingham Six for 17 years. Here we have a group of men who face 18 years or death, and in one case beheading, not for drinking or distributing illegal alcohol, which is against Saudi law—if they had been involved in that they could have no complaint—but for homicide, which I believe none of them would ever have contemplated.

The surprise is that this false hypothesis has been persisted with and has even led to further allegations against people who have been released. We all know of the case of Ron Jones, who was incarcerated at one stage then released. We know of his ongoing legal action in respect of that incarceration and his treatment during it. We also know that people who have been at the scenes of bombings and who have been associated in some way with people involved in bombings have, temporarily, been arrested and considered for some time to be culprits of offences of which they would not have dreamed.

On 23 February 2001, during a radio interview on a programme chaired by Robin Lustig, the Saudi ambassador, Prince Turkey al-Faisal, maintained that most of the offences were, as originally diagnosed by the Saudis, committed by Britons on Britons. If that is the case, it is curious that the incidents have persisted as they have.

Subsequent to the offences with which the men are charged, there was a further bombing on 15 March in Riyadh, involving a bomb in a bin near a bookstore, in which an Egyptian man suffered minor injuries—that was said to have involved Ron Jones. In May 2001, a United States chiropractor, Gary Hatch, lost his left arm and an eye because of a parcel bomb delivered by a courier. On 6 October, a pedestrian exploded a bomb, killing himself—he was subsequently found to be a Palestinian—and a US oil engineer, Michael Gerald. On 20 June 2002, Simon Veness was killed by a bomb that was planted under his Land Rover. And so it goes on. Maximilian Graf, a German, was killed on 29 September. A Dutch family found a bomb under their Cherokee jeep on 5 December 2002. An American couple found a bomb attached to the underside of their vehicle on 29 June 2002. It is difficult to sustain the belief that those incidents all involved disputes about alcohol.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the recent events and bombings that he has listed should signal to the Minister and the Foreign Secretary that, if anything, it is time to intensify the campaign for release rather than ease up on it?

Dr. Pugh

I agree. The case against the men as based solely on confessions was slender. It has now become implausible in the face of subsequent events.

We all prefer to believe that life is less dangerous than it is. Recent events have disabused all of us of our preferred illusions. Earlier this year, the Saudis made 90 arrests of al-Qaeda suspects, which we all welcome. Shoot-outs occurred in Riyadh and there was the awful destruction of the compound there and the subsequent loss of life, including Muslim life. The pieces of a horrible jigsaw are falling into place. Despite that, what the Foreign Office truly thinks about the situation remains a mystery. Perhaps we shall find out today. I have been unsuccessful in finding out through parliamentary questions its thoughts on the alibis presented by the men, the absence of forensic evidence and human rights issues. In public, the Foreign Office remains concerned, but silent.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I agree with a large part of the hon. Gentleman's preamble about the background to justice in Saudi Arabia. What we do not know—I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to be able to tell us this today—is precisely what has happened behind the scenes. I know, because of my connections with Mr. Walker's family, that an awful lot has been done, but so that we are absolutely clear, may I ask the hon. Gentleman what he would have the Government do? What is missing from the jigsaw? What more should Her Majesty's Government do? Mr. Walker's family would love to hear about it if initiatives could be taken.

Dr. Pugh

I think that the Government have pursued all relevant diplomatic channels with force, and I do not doubt their sincerity in doing so. Their mistake, which goes back some time, was probably not to have identified properly to all and sundry the predicament and the environment in which the men found themselves. The Government have been sincere in their diplomatic efforts, but they have not satisfied the concerns of the bulk of the relatives to whom I have been speaking. I say that as someone who is in constant contact with many of them. They have not expressed to me total satisfaction with what the Foreign Office has done, but I shall come to that in a moment.

In so far as the Government have pursued a concerned approach but have been relatively silent on the main public issues, they have been open to the criticism—I do not make it here—of subordinating the men's cases to the interests of geopolitics or, worse still, commerce, because we all know that Saudi Arabia has many very important economic links with England.

I have no doubt that the Government are concerned and think that diplomatic pressure is the safest route. I have no doubt that, despite the succession of false hopes and the long anguish of the relatives and their evident frustration, which has been voiced to me on a number of occasions, the Government still think that that is the best way. However, if it is true that careless talk can cost lives, it is probably also true that lack of plain speaking can, too. One could ponder whether, if there had been a more open dialogue about the case and more public concern expressed about the possible terrorist dimension, lives could have been saved—lives such as that of Robert Dent, who was shot in his car at traffic lights in Riyadh. He was a former constituent of mine.

I am genuinely struck by how much of what has subsequently gone on appears to have been predictable once we accept that we are talking not about a turf war between expats, but the insidious growth of al-Qaeda activity. I know of no better way to put it than this: four days before the awful bombing in Riyadh in May, I received an e-mail from a gentleman who was worried that precisely that type of event might occur. I shall say something about that gentleman and the circumstances in which he found himself in Saudi Arabia. He found himself close to the scene of an attack, trying to help a comrade of his who was blown up and in fact killed. As a result, he was interrogated. He was traumatised already, but he was even more traumatised after being interrogated on several subsequent occasions and treated almost as the chief suspect for the attack. All he was endeavouring to do was to help his friend, who was killed by the blast.

As the evidence mounts up, the hypothesis of a homicidal turf war, which was shaky at the start, looks as odd and bizarre as trying to sustain a Ptolemaic view of the universe in the face of recent science. That is comforting for some, but it is downright false. Those of us who cannot accept the hypothesis of a homicidal turf war will not and must not keep quiet about the issue because that would let it die down. As we forget about it to some extent, the men's health has deteriorated. Organisations acting on their behalf have been clear in reminding us of the dangers to their health. We are talking about individuals with heart problems, individuals who have developed heart problems as a result of their incarceration, individuals who have had operations on their gall bladder, individuals who shock their relatives by their appearance and who have lost substantial amounts of weight. Their health is deteriorating almost as quickly as the case against them.

One acknowledges that illicit drinking goes on in Saudi Arabia, that illicit imports take place and that that is all punishable by Saudi law. However, one contests the relevance of that to the charges that have been made against the men. Therefore, we must ask the Foreign Office some questions. The questions that other Members and I have tabled have been answered in either a formulaic or an obstructive way. The answers have always been concerned but never precise, so we must ask specific questions.

What is the Foreign Office view of the men's probable guilt? I recognise that there are circumstances in which it would not be prepared to state that, but it has the opportunity to do so today. Does it have a view on the conduct of the trial? Is it satisfied that the trial would recommend itself by the highest standards of both English jurisprudence and Islamic law? Is there now a reliable expectation of release and are we likely to see a successful plea for clemency? What news do the Government have on that?

If there is to be a successful route to the men's release that sets aside guilt and concentrates on the future, is there a possible deadline that, unlike previous deadlines, will not be passed, dashing the hopes and expectations of relatives? Exactly what stage have negotiations reached and as they progress, will the relatives get regular feedback? If the men are released, will their medical state be checked? Will their medical, physical and financial needs be attended to as they try to rebuild shattered lives? The Foreign Office has done considerable work in connection with Ron Jones, so what does it intend to do if the men are released by an act of clemency?

What is the Foreign Office's current information about the men's physical and mental well-being? Does it know anything about a new witness to the original alleged crimes who is cited in the plea for clemency, and is that relevant to the trial or the men's guilt? At what level is the Foreign Office now negotiating with the Saudi authorities on the appeal for clemency? The central question, to which we may never get an answer, is how we can be in such a situation when we are on such unprecedented good terms with Saudi Arabia—such good terms that the Foreign Secretary appears on television with senior Saudi figures in conditions of complete amity. I have taxed my mind on that question a great deal.

Mr. Miller

Looking from the outside, I agree with the hon. Gentleman's observations, but as you will remember Mr. Deputy Speaker, I dealt for a long time with a constituent who was in jail in the United States having originally been charged with murder. I asked exactly the same questions until I got inside the case, when I understood the situation more fully. Surely the hon. Gentleman is not expecting a Minister of the Crown to answer his questions today. That is absurd.

Dr. Pugh

There is nothing wrong with some of the questions that I have asked. They are not confidential and they are about current activity. They ask not that the nature of the dialogue be divulged, but simply for straightforward, factual evidence to which the relatives are entitled.

To conclude, the puzzle is how we can be on such terms of friendship and over two years have achieved so very little.

12.49 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell)

This is a serious and important debate, although, as I shall make clear, I do not wholly agree with some of the points that the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) made. However, I congratulate him on securing the debate and welcome the opportunity to put on the record the actions that we have taken in this case.

The motivation of every hon. Member who has been concerned with this case is entirely understandable, and I recognise that this is an exceedingly difficult time for the men who are detained and their families. I shall make clear the position of the Government and of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

From the outset, we have been deeply concerned about the case of the British men detained in Saudi Arabia accused of involvement in a series of bombings, and we remain deeply concerned about their case. We are in close contact at every level with the Saudi authorities, who are well aware of our concerns. We have raised those concerns at the highest levels and will continue to do so until the case is resolved to our satisfaction, and to that of the families concerned.

The British Government are working tirelessly on behalf of the men who have been detained. However—and this is the substance of the difference of emphasis between what I am saying and what the hon. Gentleman said—we believe that that pressure is most effectively applied by engaging the Saudi authorities in private because we believe that publicity will be detrimental to the men's interests. In this case, as in all consular cases, we have worked in the best interests of the men. When Foreign and Commonwealth Office consular officials visited them, they made it abundantly clear that they did not wish us to discuss the details of the case in public. When such a view is clearly expressed, we must respect the judgment of those who are most closely affected.

Dr. Pugh

The Minister has almost made a generalisation that in all cases in which people are falsely imprisoned, publicity is a negative factor. Is it a negative factor only in the case of dealing with the Saudi Arabian Government, or in other cases, such as Burma?

Mr. Rammell

When we are dealing with human rights cases, judgments must be made on a case-by-case basis, taking account of the particular circumstances and assessing the most effective way to achieve the desired result.

This issue is easy to grandstand on from the Opposition Benches. I was particularly struck by the fact that the hon. Gentleman said that he was not aware, from the answers to the parliamentary questions that he tabled, of what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was doing on the issue. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), took some time to explain to the hon. Gentleman that we would not say more publicly at the moment because we believe that that would not help the men's case. That is our judgment, and if we genuinely believe that to be the case, it would he irresponsible to act otherwise.

I should also make it clear that the men have legal representation. They see their lawyers regularly and discuss their cases with them. We are in close contact with those lawyers and discuss the men's cases with them. The lawyers also maintain contact with the Saudi authorities about the progress of the case. We are in constant touch with the families and keep them informed of developments. I stress that as the process continues, we will keep in regular contact with the families and will inform them of our actions in seeking to resolve this serious problem.

I understand that this has been a long and difficult process for the families. I do not underestimate for a minute how upsetting and concerning this must be for all members of the men's families. As in all such cases, the men's well-being is our paramount concern and we continue to make regular consular visits to reassure ourselves about their health and welfare.

Since November 2000, there has also been a series of small bomb explosions in Riyadh and Al Khobar, which resulted in the death and injury of British nationals and other westerners. At no time should we forget the victims of the bombings in Saudi Arabia. Nor do we underestimate the huge amount of pain, hardship and distress that has been caused by that series of bombings. Some people lost their lives; others were horribly injured. I reassure the House that we continue to work vigorously to resolve the case of those British men detained in Saudi Arabia who have been accused of involvement in the bombings.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I have a constituent, Mrs. Mitchell, who has not seen her husband, and he has not seen his wife or child, for more than two years. His health is suffering. Can the Minister say when quiet diplomacy will be deemed to have failed? How much longer will he have to stay there? Are there alternatives, such as sanctions or United Nations involvement? I am desperately worried about Mr. Mitchell's health.

Mr. Rammell

I cannot pluck a definitive answer out of thin air; I say only that we would not be pursuing this course of action unless we felt that there was a significant chance of success. Given the sensitive stage that discussions have reached, going beyond that would be counterproductive and unhelpful, but we would not be pursuing that course of action unless we thought that it would bring results.

Let me make it clear also that we are not reluctant to criticise Saudi Arabia more generally, which was one of the summing up accusations made by the hon. Member for Southport. We address a wide range of concerns with the Saudi authorities. We raise human rights issues both generally and in the context of those men who have been detained. In our annual human rights report, hon. Members will see specific references to our concerns about Saudi Arabia. However, on issues such as that raised today, we judge that those messages are most effective when made in private.

Promotion of human rights, including freedom of thought, conscience and religion, is at the heart of British foreign policy. We take every opportunity to urge states to pursue laws and practices that foster tolerance and mutual respect and to protect religious minorities against discrimination, intimidation and attacks. We also work with our partners in the European Union and with the United Nations to raise those issues with other Governments, including the Saudi Government.

I underline the fact that we have deep concerns about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. Our concerns apply to a wide range of human rights issues. including the implementation of basic international human rights norms, aspects of the judicial system, corporal and capital punishment, torture, discrimination against women and non-Muslims, and restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and worship. We discuss our concerns about human rights matters with the Saudi authorities at every suitable opportunity, at both ambassadorial and ministerial level.

In response to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), some progress has been made. Saudi Arabia has recently shown a greater willingness to engage with the international community on human rights issues. It has produced reports for, and answered questions from, UN treaty monitoring bodies. That is welcome progress, but it does not go far enough and we shall continue to reinforce our concerns.

I place on record the fact that the UN special rapporteur for the independence of judges and lawyers, Mr. Cumaraswamy, visited Saudi Arabia in October 2002. During his mission to Saudi Arabia, he examined the case of the British men who had been detained. He visited some of the men accused of involvement in the bombings and he also discussed their case with their lawyers and the Saudi Ministry of Interior. In his report, the special rapporteur voiced his concerns about the men's case. We welcome that because it underlines the fact that there is international co-operation on the issue.

It is a difficult and serious case. I respect the hon. Gentleman's motivation for raising the subject today, but we are acting according to the best information and advice about the most appropriate and effective way to deal with it—the one most likely to secure the release of the men.

Dr. Pugh

We have a difference of opinion, or emphasis, on tactics. However, the Minister has not yet responded to a specific question. Has anyone shared with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office the information about an additional new witness that appears in the plea for clemency? Does he know what relevance that has to the original trial?

Mr. Rammell

I shall seek guidance on the matter. We will of course consider any further information that can help to secure the release of the men and act in the most appropriate way. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are already acting in the men's best interests. Surely he would not call on us to pursue the course of action that he suggests if it imperilled the men's situation? Nevertheless, we continue to pursue the matter in the most effective way that we can.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Nicholas Winterton)

Order. This is a very important debate, but I am afraid that time is up.