A parliamentary debate called by Sikh MP Preet Kaur Gill forced the Foreign Office to confront specific concerns raised by several MPs over the condition of a detained Briton in India.
Jagtar Singh Johal, a British citizen from West Dunbartonshire, Scotland, has been detained in India for the past 131 days (accurate from date 14.03.18) without charge. In that time, he has been tortured and been refused both an independent medical examination and private access to British consular staff.
Yesterday, Britain’s first female Sikh MP Preet Kaur Gill, called a debate on the Britons imprisoned abroad which focused on the case of Jagtar Singh. Opening the debate, she raised five specific concerns with the government regarding his case:
- ‘Why it is that the Indian authorities prevented him from having private access, and what actions they [the British government] have taken in the last 130 days to address this unacceptable state of affairs?’
- ‘The steps taken to secure an independent medical examination and any necessary medical treatment following the allegations of torture.’
- ‘is it the case that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have complained to the Indian authorities that Jagtar is facing trial by media and that this will mean that if Jagtar is charged, he will never get a fair trial?’
- ‘Will the Foreign Secretary meet the family of Jagtar, who are concerned with the priority being given to this case?’
- ‘Will the Prime Minister raise Jagtar’s case with Narendra Modi when she meets him next month in London given she spoke to the BBC and showed interest in Jagtar’s case within days of his abduction and torture?’
Slough’s Sikh MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi was critical of the Foreign Office in his speech. He said: ‘Such cases highlight the continued failures by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in handling [Jagtar Singh’s] case, and raising the important issues of his welfare with the relevant authorities, the UK government’s failure to condemn the series of abuses has left all British citizens travelling abroad vulnerable. And I implore upon the honourable minister to act now and press for further access to Mr Johal so he can receive the necessary support that he is entitled to as a British citizen.’
Labour MP Afzal Khan made a similar point that many of his constituents visit India and are concerned for their safety following the case of Jagtar Singh: ‘They want to make sure that proper protection is available,’ which he said was grounds for the government to assign a higher priority to this case.
Foreign Office minister Mark Field responded on behalf of the government, explaining that the usual minister with departmental responsibility for this area (Harriett Baldwin) was before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
He struck a cautious tone for the duration of his remarks, opening with the warning that ‘contrary to a common misconception, the government does not have a legal duty of care for British nationals abroad.’ This particular statement raised eyebrows and prompted tweets of concern from the Sikh community.
Mark Field went on to emphasise the responsibility of the traveller, saying that ‘rightly, the FCO expects and advises individuals to take sensible steps before they travel,’ including having sufficient travel insurance and reading the Foreign Office travel advice, neither of which applied to Jagtar Singh’s case.
Furthermore, he added: ‘We do not, and must not, as it has been pointed out, interfere in the civil or criminal court proceedings. It is right that we do respect the legal systems of other countries, just as we expect foreign nationals to respect our laws and legal processes when they’re here in the UK.’
Addressing the fact that Jagtar Singh had been denied private consular access, Mark Field replied: ‘It is a matter of great frustration I have to say. We did request private consular access frequently with Mr Johal [when he] was first detained. However, he has since been moved, as the honourable lady will know, to the Nabha prison, a maximum security jail, where private visits are not permitted for security reasons.’ Yet, as Preet Gill noted earlier in the debate, Jagtar Singh has been transferred back and forth between police and judicial custody, so only a portion of his 130-day detention has been at Nabha jail.
Speaking about torture allegations, the minister replied: ‘If a British national tells us they’ve been mistreated or tortured, with their permission, our consular staff will do its best to raise concerns with the authorities and to seek an investigation.’ However, the lack of private consular access to Jagtar Singh means that he has not been able to tell the Foreign Office directly of his torture without the Indian authorise being aware of this.
No specific reply was given by the minister regarding the government’s efforts to secure an independent medical examination of Jagtar Singh. The minister only said that the government’s priority ‘is always the welfare of UK nationals, to ensure they are receiving food, water and medical treatment as required.’
Nor was the issue of trial by media addressed. In fact, the minister said he thought ‘it is important to put on the record that India, as a partner in the Commonwealth but also as a partner in many other ways, has a strong democratic framework which is designed to guarantee human rights,’ despite concerns raised by Preet Gill that footage of Jagtar Singh in custody had been leaked to Indian media.
The minister did not say whether the Foreign Secretary would meet with the family of Jagtar Singh, but did note that he has met Jagtar’s brother Gurpreet twice in the past six months.
When pressed later in the debate on whether the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary would raise the case of Jagtar Singh with Narendra Modi, the minister cautiously replied ‘I will try to ensure that is done […] these things often have to be done, and are righty done, on a private basis, rather than through megaphone diplomacy.’ He also said that he would write directly to MPs about the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, which Jagtar Singh’s constituency MP Martin Docherty-Hughes called a ‘‘prime opportunity for the government to tackle head on the Indian government in terms of claims of torture against my constituent.’ Mark Field also told the debate that he would write to MPs directly regarding the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.
He did seek to reassure the House that the government was taking the matter seriously, saying that ‘various officials in our High Commission have continued to raise concerns at the highest level, and there are some very major concerns as a number of members have pointed out. As I say, most recently our High Commissioner spoke to the Indian Foreign Secretary as recently as 7th March.’ The basis of that conversation was relayed to Martin Docherty Hughes yesterday morning. The minister further added: ‘We shall, I can assure the House, continue to raise this case at senior levels with the Indian authorities until the allegations raised by Mr Johal – the most serious allegations – have been properly investigated.’
A video of the entire debate can be found here. For more information and Sikh community reaction, email Media@SikhPA.com.