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25 Mar 2003 : Column 265—continued

7.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mr. Wood) on securing this debate on the British victims of sectarian violence in Gujarat.

I welcome the opportunity that this debate provides to mark the fact that one year has passed since the tragic events took place and to set out the action that we have taken so far. My greatest sympathy goes to the families of the victims of this tragedy. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult this past year must have been for them.

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As my hon. Friend said, on 28 February last year four British nationals visiting India were attacked in their car during a period of intense violence in the state of Gujarat. I understand that the group of four British Muslims and one Indian Muslim were travelling from Jaipur to Surat in a seven-seater vehicle. The shocking events took place when it seems that about 50 Hindus ambushed their vehicle near Prantij. The driver of the vehicle, an Indian citizen, was pulled from the vehicle and attacked. The four other occupants fled the vehicle. Imran Salim Dawood, a British citizen, was injured but managed to escape and was hospitalised with minor injuries. We understand that he witnessed a British citizen, Mohammed Aswat Nallabhai, being killed by the mob. The other two occupants, British citizens Saeed Shafik Dawood and Sakil Abdul Dawood, were unaccounted for after the incident.

The British deputy high commission in Mumbai was notified of the incident on 1 March 2002. It immediately alerted the police in Prantij and asked them to investigate. On 8 March, consular staff in Mumbai accompanied Indian police officers and a member of the family to the area of the attack to try to establish what had happened to the two men who had disappeared. During the visit, the group found the burnt out remains of the car. They also examined a burnt out factory, which local people claimed they had seen the two men running towards before it was set on fire. They found human bones, most of which were regrettably little more than ash. Those were collected and sent to the Hyderabad laboratory for DNA testing. The DNA results were received on 8 May and identified some of the bones as belonging to Saeed Dawood.

Our consular staff have been in regular contact with the police, who have launched murder investigations into the deaths of both Mohammed Nallabhai and Saeed Dawood. Very sadly, there is still no indication of the whereabouts of Sakil Dawood. Given the horrific events that took place that day, the family believe that he is dead. The police arrested six people in connection with the incident. They were released on bail on 31 August. We are in regular contact with the Gujarat authorities to make clear our concern that those accused are brought to trial.

I share the families' view that justice should be done. I know that they would welcome UK police assistance in the investigation. However, any police force willing to assist in an investigation in another country can do so only at the invitation of the host Government. We have offered UK police assistance on several occasions at the highest level, but no request for such assistance has been received from the Indian Government. I assure my hon. Friend that the offer is still open and will remain so.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised the case with the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Vajpayee, on 12 October and wrote to him on 4 November. He raised concerns about the case and reiterated our offer of police assistance. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my hon. Friend met the families of the victims of the tragic events on 21 May. My right hon. Friend raised the case with the Indian Government no fewer than four times last year, asking about the progress of the police investigations, offering police assistance and raising the issue of compensation. I also raised those issues with Foreign Secretary Sibal on 16 October last year.

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The Indian Government agreed the principle of compensation, which is in the process of being paid. I understand that the issue of compensation is a sensitive and difficult one for the families. The amount offered is a relatively insignificant amount in this country and can in no way compensate for their terrible loss. Furthermore, the whereabouts of Sakil is still unknown. The family of Saeed and Sakil Dawood met the Foreign Office's consular directorate in January. The consular directorate, the high commission in New Delhi and the deputy high commission in Mumbai continue to have a strong interest in the case. They continue to pursue vigorously issues raised by the family and to help in any way that they can. Obviously, the longer that matters are drawn out, the more difficult any investigation becomes, but I reassure my hon. Friend that we remain alert to and will keep a close eye on any progress in the case and that we will continue to do all that we reasonably can to press the Indian authorities to ensure that they bring investigations to a conclusion, which we hope will result in justice for the families of the victims.

The backdrop to the tragic events was the violence that engulfed Gujarat between February and April 2002. It was the worst outbreak of religious-related violence that has occurred in India for at least 10 years. Muslims were the main victims. The deplorable attack by a Muslim mob on a train at Godhra on 27 February, in which 58 Hindus were killed, sparked horrendous violence for the next two months. According to official figures, the ensuing violence claimed more than 1,000 lives, including the three British citizens. Many reports suggest that the true figure is higher. Many women were raped. The large majority of victims were Muslim, and their businesses and homes were destroyed.

The Government of India have publicly condemned the violence, as my hon. Friend has said; Prime Minister Vajpayee called it a "blot on India". However, we are concerned at reports that the state Government of Gujarat did not do as much as they could to prevent and end the violence. We think that they could have acted more quickly and more decisively. The National Human Rights Commission in India has accused the Gujarat Government

Nevertheless, we welcome the Indian Government's quick response in October to prevent further violence after the terrorist attack on a Hindu temple in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) referred to the circumstances surrounding that and to the implications for his constituent. Obviously, we share his concern about that event.

We remain very concerned about the welfare of many in Gujarat, especially Muslims and Christians. The Government of India have given us assurances, which we welcome, that they will take action to bring to justice the perpetrators of the violence. Some 23,277 people have been arrested in connection with the violence so far, but we understand that, to date, there have been very few prosecutions and that many of those arrested have been released on bail.

Ministers and officials have raised our concerns with the Government of India on a number of occasions since the violence began in February last year. My right hon.

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Friend the Foreign Secretary has been in regular contact with senior members of the Indian Government about the situation in Gujarat. At the same time, he raised our wider concerns about all incidents of religious intolerance in India.

Most recently, on 17 October, I discussed our concerns about Gujarat with Mr I.D. Swami, the Indian Minister of State for Home Affairs. New Delhi high commission officials have followed developments closely, and also raised our concerns with the Government of India on several occasions last year. We have also offered practical help. The British Government provided immediate relief assistance to victims of the violence. We are now considering whether there are further practical measures that we can support under the human rights project fund to encourage reconciliation between the communities in Gujarat.

For all the justifiable concern that these incidents have caused, I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that there remain grounds for hope. The violence in Gujarat, awful as it was, did not spread to other Indian states. The vast majority of people in India were appalled by what happened there last year. The Government of India are always ready to listen to our concerns and consistently reiterate their commitment to religious equality, and we welcome that. Nevertheless, more and swifter action on the ground and in the courts to bring the perpetrators of the violence to justice would send a welcome signal that the Government's commitment is being translated from words into meaningful action. We shall continue to urge them to ensure that such a positive signal is sent. We will also continue to press them and the Gujarat authorities to bring those responsible for the murder of British nationals to justice.

Lady Hermon (North Down): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, particularly when he is about to conclude.

I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that over the many years of the appalling so-called troubles in Northern Ireland we lost a lot of people through sectarian violence. In fact, they disappeared without trace and no one has served any time at all or been convicted of their murder. In Northern Ireland, therefore, there is speculation and talk about a truth commission. Has the Minister, or human rights organisations in Gujarat and India, given any consideration to the need for a truth commission in Gujarat to address the problem of people who have disappeared and others who have been killed? Without such a commission, we may never get to the bottom of who was responsible.

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