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27 Nov 2002 : Column 113WHcontinued
Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): I am glad to have the opportunity to raise a matter this morning. These Adjournment debates provide a unique opportunity for hon. Members to raise matters about which they feel strongly. We enjoy that, but I am always sympathetic to Ministers, because I know that Foreign Office Ministers are extremely busy and have to work morning, afternoon and evening, so it must be a problem for them to have to come to these debates. However, in Parliament it is important that if we feel strongly about a matter, we should have the opportunity of raising it and seeking guidance from Ministers.
I want to discuss the case of Mr. Peter Bleach. I apologise to the Minister for the massive volume of correspondence I have sent to the Foreign Office and the many questions I have asked about him. The reason is simply that I believe that a great injustice has been done, and I am seriously concerned and alarmed about the health and security problems which Peter is having in prison in Calcutta. My object in raising the matter in this debate is to try to persuade the Minister and his Department to do all they can to secure Mr. Bleach's release.
In fairness, I would like to express my gratitude for the way in which Ministers have endeavoured to assist so far. As I was writing this short speech yesterday, a letter was delivered to me from the Prime MinisterI am sure that the Minister has seen itsaying that he has written to the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Vajpayee, raising his concerns about Mr. Bleach's poor health and continued detention. He added that he had also asked Mr. Vajpayee to intervene and recommend that Mr. Bleach be released in the near future.
That is not the only initiative that has been taken, and I should mention that the Foreign Secretary raised the case with the Indian Deputy Prime Minister on 22 August. I was also advised that another Foreign Office MinisterI believe that it was the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien)had discussed the matter with the Indian Foreign Secretary on 16 October. To that extent, I cannot complain about Government inaction. They seem to have gone out of their way to try to persuade the Indian Government that there is an injustice and something needs to be done. It is rather unusual for the Prime Minister to take so much trouble over the case of one individual in prison, and I am very grateful that he has done so.
In short, the Government have taken a major initiative to secure the release of Mr. Bleach, but sadly, the Government of Indiawho, in fairness, I must say I have always found to be more responsive and responsible than most foreign Governmentshave so far declined to respond. I hope that the Prime Minister's latest initiative will persuade them to respond meaningfully, but in view of the seriousness of Mr. Bleach's health problem, I thought it right to raise the case today.
My first point is that Peter Bleach is a person with a record of high standards. When he was living in Southend, I always found him to be a person of honesty and integrity. When he advised me of the complex and
I emphasise that Mr. Bleach has advised me time and time again that everything he did in relation to the dropping of arms in Bengal, from the first approach that he received, was notified to the authorities. To protect himself during the preparations for the arms drop, he prudently recorded every word said to him on the telephone by officials. However, as I reported to the House on 2 March 1999, his home and that of a disabled lady in London were raided, and all but one of the tapes disappeared. One of the raids involved 10 constables. Over many years, I have tried to find out the reason why the constables seized the tapes and the evidence was removed. I have never been given a proper explanation. However, it happened: there is no denying that. I do not want to bore the Chamber with the many complaints that have been made about the unusual events of which the raids are just a part, or with details of the unusual activities of Sergeant Etlock. The Minister is well aware that I have given full details of the evidence that that gentleman gave, and the ways in which it seemed to be adjusted.
It would save a lot of time if the Government would simply confirm that officials were advised by Mr. Bleach of the issues relating to the arms drop and it would help even more if they would confirm that the Government of India were advised, too. Mr. Bleach was advised not to get involved. That is the usual practice in such matters. However, the plain fact is that someone who tries to do something of this order and gives all the information about all the events to the Government is rather different from someone who seeks to do the same thing in a secret or malicious way.
Another significant issue relates to the seizure of Mr. Bleach and his five colleagues from Latvia after the Indian air force obliged them to bring down their plane following the arms drop. The Indian authorities carried out that seizure with their usual efficiency, and Peter and his colleagues were seized as they came down the steps of the plane. However, there was one astonishing omission: Mr. Kim Daveyalso known by his proper name of Mr. Niels Nielsenwho is a citizen of Denmark, and was the acknowledged and clear leader and organiser of the venture, was permitted to walk away from the plane. He succeeded in travelling out of India and back to Denmark. Of course, I would fully understand someone escaping if they were coming out of a train or a lorry, but when it is case of a plane coming down in an airfield, it is difficult to comprehend how one of the passengers could escape being seized. I have tried to find out from the Indian Government why that happened. Why was that person permitted to get away, particularly as he was the leader of the outfit? I have never been given any explanation at all. The matter seems to get more and more mysterious.
Obviously, I do not expect the Minister to comment on these unusual events, but I would like him to say whether the Government regard Mr. Kim Davey as a person who should be seized and questioned by the authorities, and whether approaches have been made to the Danish Government. The issue is of some significance. It seems unusual that although everyone says that they want to seize this gentleman, nothing seems to happen and he travels around doing rather interesting things.
I would also be grateful if the Minister would raise with the authorities in India the clear injustice of their having agreed to the release of the group of Latvians who were on the plane, although they were all charged with the same offence as Peter Bleach and were all given the same sentence as him. That seems unfair and unjust. There were a number of people on that plane: Mr. Kim Davey, who somehow walked away, even though he was in charge of the whole operation, the Latvians and Peter Bleach. When Mr. Putin, the President of Russia, made representations, the Indian authorities gladly released the Latvians, but Peter Bleach is still in prison.
Will the Minister comment on Peter Bleach's health? I have received many letters from Peter, which I can show the Minister. Peter told me that he had contracted tuberculosis, and that that serious disease had had a severe impact on his health. It is sometimes possible to receive a host of reports from a foreign jail that are misleading and contradictory. However, I know that the high commission staff have kept in close touch. Is the situation serious and have the Government of India been fully advised of the situation? I get the impression from Peter that he is a seriously ill man and that the matter deserves attention. The facts are crucial, and if the Minister can tell us whether Peter Bleach is an ill man, that will help.
I also want advice from the Minister about the alarming reports that I have received from Mr. Bleach, and several of his friends who visited him, about his being viciously attacked and injured in the prison. I know that things are rather difficult in India, but I get the impression that its prisons are pretty well managed compared with those of other countries in the area. None the less, there seems to have been a nasty incident in this specific case. It should be relatively easy to establish whether the reports are true. Mr. Bleach is in the high security block of the jail in Calcutta. There is a group of single cells in the block, numbered 1 to 23. Peter is in cell No. 11, which is in the exact middle of the row. The cells on either side are occupied by people who are accused of the American Centre attack. It is alleged that Mr. Bleach was assaulted seriously in an especially vicious attack at the beginning of this month. Has the Foreign Office heard about the problem, and can it secure any assurances for the future?
I believe that the case of Peter Bleach is a great tragedy. If he were simply a rascal who had conspired with others to create strife and suffering by arms dropping, I would have no sympathy for him whatever. However, his case is totally different, for the reasons that I have explained to the Foreign Office time and time again. I am sure that the Minister is aware of all the circumstances. I thank the Minister and Foreign Office for their endeavours, but I ask them to keep up their pressure and to try to persuade the Indian authorities to put right a great injustice.
If the Foreign Office pursues a case too rigorously or too toughly, I know that that can sometimes interfere with relationships between the two countries involved. The Minister is aware that India has been a special case over the years. It has preserved democracy as other nations have not. It has managed to keep such issues as theft and corruption down to a minimum, while other countries appear to be full of such problems. India is a country that has high standards, good education and high principles.
I understand the Indian point of viewthat India wants to do something about a person who has been accused of a crime. However, I believe that there has been an injustice in this case. There was an injustice in the original claim, it is an injustice that Peter is kept there although the others were released, and it is an injustice that a person who is suffering severe illness seems to be neglected, and has apparently been attacked in prison in unusual circumstances.
I apologise again to the Foreign Office for the fact that I seem to be harping on this issue time and time again. I am well aware that it has tried hard and put its resources behind the operation. I simply say that the cause is good. I hope that the Foreign Office will keep at it, and manage to persuade the Government of India to put right a grave injustice. I am glad to have had the opportunity to raise the issue. I was told that I had been allocated 15 minutes, but I have used only 14 of them, so I am pleased to give the Minister the bonus of an extra minute for what I hope will be his good reply.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) on securing this debate on the case of Peter Bleach, who has been imprisoned in India since 1995. I also congratulate him on the assiduousness with which he has pursued this case. We share a historical county boundary, and although it is no longer a local government boundary, I know the way in which the hon. Gentleman normally pursues issues of constituency concern. I pay tribute to him for that.
For the record, I should say that my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) has also made strong representations to me about this case and expressed his concerns, as Mr. Bleach's mother resides in his constituency. In response to those representations, and to the comments of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East, I shall set out in detail the actions that we have taken thus far.
As the hon. Gentleman made clear, Peter Bleach was arrested for his involvement in an illegal arms drop over the Purulia district of West Bengal in India in December 1995. As a result, he was arrested on 22 December, along with five Latvianswho subsequently became Russian citizensafter the Indian authorities had forced their plane to land in Bombay. Peter Bleach has consistently alleged that the principal organiser of the arms drop, Kim Davey, managed to evade arrest. The hon. Gentleman referred to that in some detail.
Mr. Bleach was convicted, along with his five Russian co-accused, on 31 January 2000. He was convicted of conspiracy to commit offences against the state of India and offences under the Explosives Act, the Explosive Substances Act and the Arms Act. All six individualsthe five Russians and Mr. Bleachwere given the same sentence of life imprisonment. All six lodged appeals against their conviction in February 2000. Subsequently, the Indian President authorised the release of the Russian nationals in July 2000 following diplomatic pressure from the Russian Government. Since the release of the Russians, we have made strong representations to the Indian Government, questioning what we believe to be the discriminatory treatment of Mr. Bleach. We believe that he should have been released, on the grounds of fair and equal treatment with his Russian co-accused. In court each case was presented and dealt with in exactly the same way, and the charges were the same. I therefore feel that there is a very strong case, based on the need for fair and equal treatment, that Mr. Bleach should be treated in exactly the same way as the five Russians.
Having said that, I would like to make it clear that we are not contesting Mr. Bleach's conviction. However, we believe that we have a duty to ensure that he is not being discriminated against. We are also worried, as the hon. Gentleman is, about Mr. Bleach's health. He was diagnosed in February as having tuberculosis. He is very ill, and I understand that he is at risk of developing the drug-resistant strain of the disease, which has the potential to kill him. We have raised our concerns about Mr. Bleach's health with the Indian Government, asking them to take it into account when considering his case.
The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that we have been extremely active in Mr. Bleach's case. Over the past 18 months we have raised it repeatedly with the Indian Government. It has been raised at every available opportunity at the highest levelsby my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, and by my ministerial colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien). Unfortunately, my hon. Friend cannot be here today, but he would have wanted me to make his involvement clear. Since January, the case has been raised with Indian Ministers on no fewer than 10 separate occasions.
Let me give hon. Members some details about those representations. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has raised the case four times this year with the Indian Government. He raised our concerns about Mr. Bleachincluding concerns about his poor healthwith the Indian Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Advani, on 17 February and 29 May. He also wrote to Mr. Advani on 8 July and, when he visited India on 19 July, he raised
Despite all those efforts, and although we have been working hard on Mr. Bleach's case, the Indian Government have given no indication that they will release him. They have given a number of reasons for their stance; one is that his release will undermine their case against the alleged ringleader of the arms drop, Kim Davey. We understand that the Indian Government are currently trying to extradite Mr. Davey from Denmark, but that the Danish Government have thus far refused that request. We have, however, made it clear to the Indian Government that the investigation of Kim Davey does not affect our strong argument that Mr. Bleach is being discriminated against. The key, fundamental point is that equal judgment by the court must necessarily imply equal treatment for Mr. Bleach and his Russian co-accused. That is the point that we have been making from the beginning of the process, and we will continue to make it.
As I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech, I was also interested to hear that he thought that one of his constituents had met Mr. Davey recently in a hotel in the United Kingdom. We have looked into that matter. Interpol in London has advised us that it has received no indication that Mr. Davey is in the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman's constituent should report the incident to the police and request that the information be forwarded to the Interpol bureau in London. That body will notify the appropriate United Kingdom department that deals with extradition matters. For the record, we have not made approaches to the Danish Government concerning the extradition of Kim Davey. That is clearly a matter for the Danish and Indian Governments.
Mr. Bleach has also been pursuing his discrimination case with the Indian courts. He filed a discrimination petition with the Calcutta high court on 5 October 2001, which was dismissed on 20 September 2001. However, his appeal against his conviction and the legality of the charges against him, which began in September 2001, continues. Our deputy high commission in Calcutta has sent representatives to the court hearings and we are monitoring those court hearings and developments very closely indeed.
Mr. Bleach is representing himself at his appeal. I should make it clear that we offered him the services of a British lawyer from our pro bono panel of lawyers to assist him, as is our normal practice. We put prisoners in touch with such lawyers if we have concerns about their access to legal advice, or if there are particular human rights concerns about their cases. Mr. Bleach, however, decided not to accept our offer. That is why he is pursuing his own case. I take this opportunity to comment on the circumstances surrounding the raid on
We are aware of Mr. Bleach's concerns about the evidence that was provided by a North Yorkshire police officer during his trial. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, in his former capacity as Home Secretary, met the hon. Gentleman to discuss this and other allegations against North Yorkshire police. As Foreign Secretary he wrote to the hon. Gentleman on 5 December 2001 concerning the matter. The actions of the police officers during the course of their duties is, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware, the operational responsibility of the chief officer of the force concerned. North Yorkshire police and the officer concerned have been aware for some time about the allegations that have been made by Mr. Bleach and they completely refute them. For the record, Mr. Bleach has been advised on several occasions that he can make a complaint if he is unhappy with the conduct of police officers, and he has been notified of the procedures for so doing. That course is also open to the hon. Gentleman. However, no such formal complaint has been received, and we have yet to see any evidence of wrongdoing by the North Yorkshire police.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether Mr. Bleach advised officials of issues relating to the arms drop. I can confirm that he provided details to North Yorkshire police about the arms drop during interviews on three separate occasionson 14 September, 22 September and 8 December 1995. On 22 September and 8 December the police strongly advised Mr. Bleach to withdraw from the deal and not to go to India. The information given by Mr. Bleach was passed on to the Indian authorities on three separate occasions10 November, 17 November and 15 December 1995.
We remain very concerned about Mr. Bleach's health. Our deputy high commission in Calcutta is providing full consular support to Mr. Bleach and is doing all that it can to ensure that prison authorities meet his welfare requirements. On learning that his health had deteriorated in February this year, it arranged for an independent doctor to visit him. The tests recommended by the doctor confirmed that Mr. Bleach was suffering from tuberculosis, and as a result, consular staff in Calcutta have visited him more regularly since Februaryusually twice a monthto monitor his condition. They have also arranged for further visits by an independent doctor.
Consular staff in London have sought advice on Mr. Bleach's treatment from a tuberculosis specialist in the United Kingdom. They have discussed the doctor's recommendations with the prison authorities and have done their utmost to try to ensure that Mr. Bleach receives the medication that he needs. In addition to regular visits by consular staff in Calcutta, Mr. Bleach has also been visited by our high commissioner to India on 3 September this year.
Mr. Bleach has, understandably, become increasingly frustrated about his continued detention, and went on hunger strike for approximately 36 hours in August. We were also concerned to learn at the beginning of October that he had decided to stop taking his medication in protest at the Indian authorities' handling of his case.
A consular representative from our high commission in Calcutta was concerned to learn during a visit on 8 November that, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, other inmates had tried to attack Mr. Bleach, and that he had not received his fruit and vegetable ration. The representative immediately reported the problem to the superintendent of the prison, in the presence of Mr. Bleach, and the superintendent said that he would investigate the matter and guarantee Mr. Bleach's safety.
Mr. Bleach contacted our deputy high commission in Calcutta on 14 November to request a further urgent consular visit, and a representative visited him that afternoon. Mr. Bleach reported that the prisoners who had tried to attack him had been put in charge of his yard, and he feared that his life was at risk. We naturally took his concerns seriously. Our deputy high commissioner visited the prison and met the superintendent to discuss the matter again on 21 November. He also handed him a letter expressing our concern about Mr. Bleach's safety, and the non-receipt of some of his food rations. Our deputy high commissioner visited Mr. Bleach the same day to check on his welfare and keep him informed of our actions in his case. He also subsequently raised the matter with the West Bengal Chief Secretary.
We will continue to do all that we can to help Mr. Bleach and are in close contact with his family in the UK. We will also raise our concerns about his health with the Indian Government, and ask for his release on the grounds of fair and equal treatment with the Russian co-accused. As a result of the Prime Minister's letter of 4 November to Prime Minister Vajpayee, we hope that Mr. Bleach will be released in the near future. Finally, I again pay tribute to the way in which the hon. Gentleman has put forward his concerns.