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2 Nov 2004 : Column 47WH—continued

James Miller

3.30 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): My constituent, James Miller, was 34 when he was killed. During a 14-year career, he had already achieved more than many film-makers would achieve in a lifetime. Documentaries that he had shot had won three Emmys, a BAFTA, five Royal Television Society awards and a Golden Nymph. Had he lived, there is no doubt that he would have gone   on to be one of the pre-eminent directors of his generation. He worked in some of the world's most hostile environments, including Algeria, Bosnia, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Iraq. In 2001, he shot "Beneath the Veil" about the repression, terror and war of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. That film received an Emmy, and he has just won another award at the international film festival in Los Angeles for filming and directing "Armenia: the Betrayed", with Fergal Keane, about the Armenian genocide in 1915. It was screened by the BBC last year. "Death in Gaza", the film he was making when he was killed, has been seen on Channel 4, in the USA and at film festivals around the world, where it has collected several awards and is a candidate for more.

James Miller was shot by the Israel Defence Forces in Rafah, Gaza in the occupied territories on Friday 2 May 2003, exactly 18 months ago today. To date, no one has been charged with his killing and no admissions have been made as to civil liability.

James Miller arrived in Rafah on 16 April 2003. His crew included Saira Shah, his producer, Dan Edge, and others who had worked with him before. They were making a film about the lives of children in the occupied territories. Those who worked with James, often in very dangerous conditions, can testify that he always took a precautionary approach to the crew's security. Given his background and his experience on the ground during the three weeks before his death, the team, although they were working in dangerous territory, approached security in their customary manner. They spent the evening of 2 May 2003 filming in the home of the Al Shaer family. The area where the house is located had been largely bulldozed by the Israeli army during the previous months to clear a security zone between the Palestinian houses and the Egyptian border.

During the evening of 2 May, the crew were recording the response of Najla Al Shaer to the bulldozing of neighbouring houses by the IDF. In front of the house, two bulldozers were operating with two armoured personnel carriers providing security cover for the work. During the evening, the APC soldiers were well aware that the crew were filming at the house. The soldiers shouted over to them, often in a jocular fashion, on a number of occasions. Throughout the evening a light on the veranda of the Al Shaer house remained on, so that those observing could see a film crew there. At about 9 pm, the crew were joined by a cameraman from Associated Press Television News. Not far away, a group of peace activists had been shouting at the bulldozers through a megaphone. At around 9 pm, shots were fired in the direction of the activists, and at around 10 pm there was a small explosion in a nearby building and one of the armoured personnel carriers went briefly to investigate. Thereafter, both of them switched their lights off.
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By 11 pm, there having been no activity for an hour, the crew made plans to leave. They ruled out retracing their steps across the road, knowing of the danger of being shot at from an Israeli watchtower. Attracting the attention of the APCs was judged to be the safest way to leave, given that the APC crew knew that the television crew were there and had previously allowed the family to move around as long as they displayed a white flag.

James, with a torch, his colleague, Saira, and interpreter, Aboud, stepped off the veranda wearing press flak jackets and helmets with "TV" emblazoned on the front in fluorescent strips. They held a white flag with James's torch shining on it. The group was entirely visible to onlookers because of the light on the veranda behind them, and they shouted out to the APC soldiers that they were the British journalists. There were no other sounds at the time to drown their words. As they approached the APC, a single shot was fired. The crew froze so that they could be clearly identified, and continued to shout that they were British journalists.

The second, fatal shot was fired a full 13 seconds later. The pinpoint shot struck James in the only vulnerable area of his neck, between his helmet and his flak jacket. It is vital to stress that there was no fighting with Palestinians, no commotion, no noise, and really very little scope for confusion. As James Miller's mother described it to me last night:

He was pronounced dead at some point shortly after arrival at a military hospital, and according to Saira Shah, pressure was put on her to say, falsely, that at the time of the shooting there had been Palestinian gunfire.

The subsequent sequence of events is important. The next day, 3 May, the army issued a statement that they had been dealing with an arms smuggling ring in the locality, that they had come under fire, and that James had probably been shot by Palestinians. On 4 May 2003, the army issued a further statement that James had been hit in the back of the right shoulder when he was facing an Israeli tank. However, the pathologist, Yehuda Hiss, who conducted the post mortem a few days later, concluded that James had been shot in the front of his neck.

In the days that followed, a British expert, Chris Cobb Smith, flew to Gaza and conducted a preliminary forensic investigation on behalf of the family. This included, as far as he was able to do so, gathering photographic, ballistic and diagrammatic evidence, and staging a reconstruction of events. He passed the material to the Israeli authorities. However, the investigations carried out by the Israeli military had grave shortcomings. Not only was no forensic scene analysis conducted but the area in question was shortly afterwards reduced to rubble.

It is not known when and in what circumstances soldiers from the APCs were interviewed, if at all. The rifles used by the relevant soldiers were not immediately impounded for analysis. As a result of a ballistics examination, conducted on behalf of the family on 2 June 2003, it was established that the bullet came from an M-16 rifle of the kind issued to Israeli army personnel. Under pressure from the family, the Israeli authorities were forced to take steps to secure the rifles for analysis, but this was nine weeks after the killing and
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it took a further two weeks for the rifles to be produced. The family were informed that 15 rifles were to be produced, but only nine were.

It is worth noting that when a soldier joins the Israel Defence Forces, he is issued with a rifle that he retains throughout his service, but the butts of the nine rifles bore consecutive serial numbers. It seems inconceivable that nine soldiers who joined the army at exactly the same time were on duty in the same unit on the night in question. As a consequence, there is a real likelihood that the military investigation into the use of firearms on 2 May will not identify who was responsible for the fatal shot.

In November 2003, the Israeli authorities completed a general command inquiry report. Although the family were led to believe that they might be given disclosure of at least some of this document, none has been forthcoming. Somewhat inexplicably, the Israelis said that the various investigation materials previously compiled by the family's experts were not used by the army investigators.

By December 2003, the family were informed that a full conclusion would be sent imminently to the judge   advocate, and that he would consider possible prosecutions. In April they were told that the investigation was near completion, and in July they were told by Baroness Symons that a General Eiland had suggested a new line of inquiry which would take a few months. It is now November, but the family have still not been given an indication of the conclusions of the military police investigation, let alone access to it or to its underlying documentation. The Israeli Advocate-General has not so far co-operated with the British coroner, who is also investigating the incident.

James Miller's family have never sought to politicise the issues relating to his death, but we must understand the context. A month or so before, in much the same area, an unarmed British peace activist, Tom Hurndall, was shot by members of an IDF unit operating a security watchtower. It is to the credit of the Israeli authorities that the officer responsible for Mr. Hurndall's death has been charged with the equivalent of manslaughter. Perhaps the charge should have been murder, but charging him is, at least, progress. He and other officers have been charged with perverting the course of justice, having initially claimed that they were fighting with Palestinians.

In the view of many observers, the Israeli military is overstretched, has morale and discipline problems and is in some respects out of control. Some of the biggest problems are with Bedouin soldiers, who were those involved in James Miller's case. They are sometimes the least disciplined and some say that they are not infrequent users of hashish.

As recently as 21 October 2004, The Guardian reported that a 13-year-old schoolgirl wearing her school uniform while walking into Israel's forbidden zone at the bottom of her street carrying her satchel was shot. The schoolgirl was several hundred metres from the Israeli watchtower. Two shots caught her in the leg. She dropped her bag, tried to hobble away and fell. Even   some Israeli soldiers described the platoon
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commander moving in closer to put two bullets in the child's head. An Israeli soldier told the newspaper:

Other soldiers said that they would not serve unless the officer was dismissed. That shows that, in some units, Israeli army commanders are out of control.

In May 2003, our Foreign Secretary pledged to push the Israelis for a full, thorough and transparent investigation. What progress can the Government report into the investigation of the murder of James Miller? Has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office been given any tangible assurance from the Israelis that a full, thorough and transparent investigation is under way? Are the Government committed to assisting the Miller family and the coroner in achieving a thorough and exhaustive inquiry into the murder of James Miller?

We understand that the Israeli authorities have a prime suspect, whom they have interviewed six times. Does the Minister know whether that suspect and the other soldiers under suspicion are still serving in that troublesome area of Gaza or are suspended from duty? Can he give us any indication of when that investigation will be concluded and, specifically, whether it will be concluded within the two-year limit in which the Miller family must institute private legal proceedings, if that is the only course left to them?

It is 18 months to the day since the killing of this fine young journalist. The initial response of the Israeli authorities—first issuing misleading accounts of the cause of James's death, then failing to collect or secure evidence while it still existed—left the family, me and many others in a state of deep despair. Since then, one must acknowledge that some progress has been made. At least investigations of some sort have taken place.

This has gone on for too long. The findings of the investigations have not been disclosed and time is running out. The prosecution in Tom Hurndall's case has given hope—in my case, at least, unexpected hope—and a renewed belief that Israel listens to international opinion. However, for more than 18 months, James Miller's family have put their faith in Israel to pursue justice on their behalf. They continue to do so. Justice needs to be done and it needs to be seen to be done. Time is ticking on—particularly, as I said, in terms of that two-year deadline for a private prosecution. We all understand the difficulties and the horror of the situation in Gaza and understand that there are two sides to that question, but if Israel is to maintain any sort of international reputation or any credibility, it simply must investigate and deal with these issues of grave misconduct. I look to the Minister for an assurance that the Foreign Office, having entered into dialogue with the family over a considerable period, continues to do all that it possibly can to ensure that the Israelis come to a conclusion in a timely fashion.

3.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Chris Mullin) : I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) for securing this debate. James Miller's
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death was a terrible tragedy, not least because, as the hon. Gentleman said, he was a brave and talented journalist.

The hon. Gentleman graphically described the events surrounding the shooting on 2 May last year, so I shall not go over them again. I share his view that justice must not only be done but be seen to be done, and I know how important it is to Mr. Miller's family and friends that the Israeli authorities carry out a full and transparent investigation into the shooting, and that the family be given access to the evidence in that investigation.

The Government have repeatedly made it clear to the Israelis that we expect them to conduct a full inquiry into the events surrounding Mr. Miller's death and to share the results with the family and us. We continue to press them on that. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, and other Foreign Office Ministers have raised the case on numerous occasions with senior Israeli Ministers, officials and members of the Israel Defence Forces. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is currently visiting Israel. Earlier today, he raised the cases of James Miller and Tom Hurndall in detail with the Israeli military Advocate-General. He pressed for a rapid and thorough conclusion and stressed the need for accountability and co-operation with the British coroner.

Our ambassador in Tel Aviv and other Foreign Office officials have also continued to put pressure on the Israeli authorities. I will send the hon. Gentleman a summary of all those contacts, and place copies in the Libraries of both Houses. I hope that he will agree that we have left no stone unturned in this unhappy case. By my reckoning, the matter has been raised with the Israelis on more than 25 occasions, the latest occasion being today, and at all levels in the Government from the Prime Minister downwards.

The Israeli Government have assured us that they take seriously the investigation into the shooting. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the military general command inquiry into the tragedy was completed in autumn last year, but the Israel Defence Forces have authorised a fuller, more detailed investigation by the military police. That investigation is still under way, and we are pressing for an indication of when it might be concluded.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Miller family have made available to the Israeli authorities all the evidence that they themselves have collected, including ballistics   and pathology reports. The Government have continued to press the Israeli authorities to ensure that the military police investigation is full and thorough, and we also continue to press for access by the Miller family to the evidence considered by the inquiry.

The Government have striven at every stage to keep James Miller's family fully informed of our efforts. Our embassy in Tel Aviv facilitated two visits by family members to Israel. During their most recent visit this April, officials from our embassy joined them in meetings with an adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister and with officials from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Israel Defence Forces. The family have used their visits to press the Israeli authorities again for a full investigation.
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My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the Miller family in June last year to discuss the Israeli investigation and followed up that meeting with a letter to his Israeli counterpart urging further progress. My colleague Baroness Symons has also spoken regularly to the family to update them on progress and to discuss other possible avenues for urging the Israelis to bring the investigation to a proper conclusion. I discussed the case with her last night, and she asked me to pass on her assurance that she will not let the matter drop.

The hon. Gentleman raised several points. On the Israeli soldiers who have been interviewed in the course of the investigation, the conduct of the investigation is a matter for the Israeli authorities and they remain unwilling to divulge details until it is concluded. We have not had any recent indication of when the investigation will be concluded. Last autumn, the Israelis said that the investigation would be concluded by the end of 2003. Nearly a year on, we share the hon. Gentleman's disappointment at the apparent lack of progress.

I appreciate the Miller family's concern that they are running out of time to bring a private prosecution under Israeli law. I know that the family have taken Israeli and UK legal advice on the matter. We shall continue to press the Israeli Government at every opportunity and at the most senior levels for an early conclusion. I am not in a position to comment on the coroner's process, but I understand that the coroner will likely want to wait for the outcome of the military police investigation.

Nick Harvey : The coroner in this country has been somewhat frustrated in his efforts to conduct any investigation on his own account, because inquiries that he has made of the authorities in Israel have not been answered, and indeed have been given short shrift. Is there anything that the Government can do, perhaps through the Minister's office or any other office, to encourage the Israeli authorities to co-operate with him? He has every right, and indeed a duty in international law, to conduct an investigation into the death of a British subject, and it would be wrong for the Israelis to stand in the way of such an investigation and not afford him full co-operation.

Mr. Mullin : I certainly accept that. It is likely that the coroner will be able to proceed once the results of the inquiry are available. I am sure that he would want to wait for the results of the inquiry, frustrating though that is. I understand that Lord Goldsmith, who, as I mentioned, is in Israel today, raised precisely that question of co-operation with the UK coroner with his Israeli opposite number. It remains to be seen, of course, with what result.

Let me conclude by paying tribute to the dignified way in which the Miller family have coped with James's tragic death. I appreciate that this has been a most difficult 18 months for them. Despite their loss, they have worked with courage and determination to secure from the Israeli authorities a full and transparent investigation, and access to the evidence. The Government will continue to work with them to that end.

3.53 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
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