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24 Oct 2002 : Column 512—continued



Post Office Closures

7 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): This petition is from the residents of Chesham and Amersham, and in particular the residents of Chesham Bois. The petition is presented by more than 500 people from Chesham Bois.

24 Oct 2002 : Column 513

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Health Choices

Mrs. Gillan: I wish to present a petition from more than 300 constituents in Chesham and Amersham about the health choices of consumers in the constituency.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

24 Oct 2002 : Column 514

Indonesia (Detention of Dr Lesley McCulloch)

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

7.2 pm

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute): I wish to start by thanking Mr. Speaker for selecting the important issue of the detention of Lesley McCulloch in Indonesia as the subject for this Adjournment debate. Lesley's parents are also grateful to Mr. Speaker and are present in the Public Gallery tonight. I would also like to thank the Minister for responding to the debate tonight and for agreeing to meet Lesley's parents later.

Lesley has been held in detention in the province of Aceh since 10 September. The only charge brought so far has been one of visa violation. Six weeks detention in terrible conditions is out of all proportion to the charge.

Aceh was an independent state for centuries prior to the Dutch invasion of 1873, and its people fiercely resisted the Dutch forces. When the Dutch left in 1945, the province was incorporated into the Indonesian state. Since then, the Acehnese people have suffered terribly at the hands of the Indonesian army and police, and that has served to reinforce their demand for the restoration of their independence. There is an armed conflict going on between the GAM—the Acehnese independence movement—and the Indonesian army and police.

Dr. Lesley McCulloch works at the University of Tasmania. She is an academic specialising in the politics of the province of Aceh. She currently holds the position of principal researcher for a project on Aceh sponsored by the Honolulu-based East-West Centre as part of its series on internal conflicts in Asia. Her articles on the situation in Aceh have been published extensively in the Australian press. The articles have attracted extreme criticism from the Indonesian Government. In part, that was caused by a public seminar that Lesley gave at the Australian national university on 24 July. As part of the presentation, Lesley showed a map that revealed all the military checkpoints in Aceh and explained how they were used by the military for the purpose of extortion.

The Indonesian embassy officials at the seminar were furious. In particular, their chargé d'affaires in Australia has made a number of public statements condemning Lesley and her work. Lesley, an American nurse named Joy Lee Sadler and an Acehnese student acting as their interpreter were detained at a military checkpoint in south Aceh on 10 September. They were originally held by the military. During that time, they were beaten and subjected to sexual harassment and to long interrogations, during which a knife was held at Lesley's throat. The purpose of that treatment was to try to coerce them into signing false confessions.

I have been told by Lesley's friends that they informed the Foreign Office of her arrest on 12 September. They also provided contact numbers for the police station where Lesley was being held and information about her whereabouts as she was moved. Despite that, no British consular official visited Lesley until 17 September. I hope that the Minister will explain to the House why there was that long delay while Lesley was being held in very dangerous circumstances. Also, what actions were the Government taking during that time to make contact with Lesley and to make known their concerns for her safety to the Indonesian Government?

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Lesley's parents live in my constituency. They telephoned the Foreign Office repeatedly over the weekend of 13 to 15 September to try to speak to an official who had knowledge of Lesley's case. However, although they left their telephone number with the duty officer, no contact was made with them over that weekend.

The Foreign Office switchboard played a recorded message saying that it was only open from 9.30 am to 4 pm on Mondays to Fridays. When Mrs. McCulloch called on the morning of Monday 16 September, all the lines were engaged—presumably because everyone who tried to call over the weekend was trying to get through at the same time. Eventually, Mrs. McCulloch got through and was given some information, but will the Minister explain why no attempt was made to give her information over the previous weekend?

Subsequently, Lesley and Joy were transferred to police custody in Banda Aceh. On 16 September they were charged with misuse of a tourist visa, allegedly through carrying out research. That charge carries a penalty of up to five years' imprisonment or a fine of #2,000. Lesley and Joy maintain that they are innocent of the charge. All the research and academic materials found on Lesley's laptop computer were from previous trips, which had been carried out under an appropriate research visa. Much more worrying than the visa violation charges are statements from the Indonesian military that they want Lesley and Joy to be charged with espionage. That is clearly ludicrous, as there is absolutely no evidence for it.

Lesley is in poor health. She suffers from acute back pain, but the only exercise that she is allowed is in a small courtyard. The Indonesian authorities are not giving her enough food, but perhaps most difficult to bear is the psychological pressure. Lesley has been subjected to long interrogations. On a daily basis, she has to listen to the screams of local Acehnese prisoners being tortured for confessions. Lesley's lawyers in Jakarta raised the possibility of requesting house arrest for her and Joy, but decided not to go through with the request as the police were concerned that the military would try to assassinate the pair if they were out of police custody.

Lesley received a consular visit on 17 and 18 September, and another two-day visit in early October. However, that compares very poorly with the actions of the US embassy, which has sent consular officials to see their citizen on four occasions, and for up to four days at a time. The contrast between what our consular staff are doing for Lesley and what the US consular staff are doing for their citizen is striking. While in Banda Aceh, US consular officials have lobbied the police commander for their citizen's immediate release. They have brought medical supplies and food. They have arranged for all of Joy Sadler's personal luggage to be sent home. Much more importantly, however, they have helped to arrange for adequate legal representation. UK consular officials have lagged far behind. On his last visit on 10 October, a consular official brought medication for Lesley's back pain but it only lasted a fortnight. The fortnight is now up, Lesley has run out of medication, and we do not know how she will get any more because no other consular visit has been scheduled.

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Even more worrying is the lack of help with legal assistance. The British Foreign Office appears to take the view that it is unable to recommend lawyers and perform checks on any lawyers to verify their competence or independence from the Indonesian Government. Can the Minister tell the House why the UK Government take this view? If one is imprisoned in a foreign country, surely access to competent and reliable legal advice is of extreme importance. Surely our Government should help their citizens in foreign jails to get legal assistance instead of leaving it up to the prisoner and her friends to arrange it. The lack of consular advice is also sending the wrong signal to Lesley's jailers. The soldiers guarding Lesley keep telling her that they can do what they like to her because the lack of consular visits indicates that her Government do not care.

Lesley's life is clearly in danger. The Indonesian army clearly regard her as a supporter of the Aceh rebel movement and could at any time take the law into their own hands and have her assassinated. In view of that, I ask the Minister to ensure that Lesley receives more consular visits in future and is given the same level of support that the US Government are giving to their citizen.

Lesley managed to send out some text messages giving brief details of the abuse to which she has been subjected and the conditions in which she is confined. However, I am concerned that our consular officials in Jakarta rely too much on the word of Lesley's lawyers and interpreters in Aceh, who tell them that the conditions are not as bad as she claims. Those local lawyers and interpreters cannot be considered independent; they have to live in Aceh and could well be scared of the consequences if they tell the truth.

Many reports have circulated about the abuse that Lesley has suffered and the poor conditions in which she is being held. Friends of hers are naturally concerned when they hear these reports. It is clearly difficult for her friends to find out whether the reports are true or exaggerated. They naturally get in touch with the Foreign Office, but are rebuffed with a statement along the lines of, XSorry, we can't tell you anything, it's all confidential." I understand that the Foreign Office has to work within the data protection legislation, in the same way as everybody else, but surely the details of the conditions in which Lesley is being held are not confidential. By not revealing accurate information, the Foreign Office has caused Lesley's friends to believe that the worst rumours are true. I think that the Foreign Office needs to revise its policy and give out more information to friends and relatives of detained persons about the conditions under which they are being held. A lot of stress and worry could be avoided if they did.

I hope that the Minister will take advantage of this debate to tell us about the conditions of Lesley's confinement that the consular staff found when they visited her earlier this month. What protests have the Government made to the Indonesian Government about Lesley's treatment, particularly concerning the beatings that she received in the early days of her imprisonment? What are the Government doing to try to persuade the Indonesian Government to improve these conditions?

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The Foreign Office's standard response to requests from Lesley's parents that it should be doing more to persuade the Indonesian authorities to release Lesley is generally a bland statement that the British Government cannot interfere in the legal process of another country. However, it is patently obvious that the rules of independence of government and judiciary which apply in the UK do not apply in Indonesia.

A fair trial is clearly impossible. The Indonesian Government have already issued press releases stating that Lesley is guilty. These can be found on Indonesian Government websites. It is clear that any trial will be a political show trial. How can it be otherwise, when the Indonesian Government have already declared Lesley guilty? I hope that the Government will put in the strongest protest about the Indonesian Government finding Lesley guilty without a trial. It is clear that the Indonesian Government want to punish Lesley not for any alleged visa violation, but for the earlier articles that she wrote for the Australian press about the Indonesian suppression of the people of Aceh.

I have noted that the website of our Department for International Development contains a paper stating that the Indonesian judiciary is corrupt. As any trial will be political, political pressure is needed from the United Kingdom Government to help Lesley. If our Government show no interest, the Indonesian authorities, like their soldiers in Aceh, will assume that the British Government do not care about Lesley and that they can do what they like to her. British Government pressure is Lesley's only hope of an early release. Our Government should be making it clear to the Indonesian Government that if Indonesia wants to be part of the international community certain standards of behaviour are expected, and those do not include beating up suspects and declaring them guilty before the trial.

I do not understand why the Government have taken the attitude that they cannot exert pressure on the Indonesian Government. Certain people have suggested to me that the Government are soft-pedalling because they want to maintain good trade relations with Indonesia, particularly with regard to arms sales. I sincerely hope that that is not the case and that the Minister will take the opportunity to refute such suggestions.

I hope that now the Minister is fully aware of Lesley's dire situation he will tonight commit the Government to exert pressure on the Indonesian Government, first, to improve the conditions of Lesley's detention; secondly, to ensure her safety; and thirdly, to release her quickly and allow her to return home. I hope that the Government will act promptly and decisively. Lesley's life may well depend on it.

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