Previous SectionIndexHome Page

17 Nov 2004 : Column 461WH—continued

17 Nov 2004 : Column 462WH

Guantanamo Bay (UK Detainees)

3.23 pm

Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab): First, I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). I am particularly pleased that he is here. It has been a long time since we crossed swords—in fact, I believe it was in the early 1980s, when my good friend was at the forefront of the Bennite crusade for socialism in the Labour party while I was on the side of sanity. Since then I have watched with interest his progress along the road to ministerial office, moving from Bennite to born-again Blairite. I make those points because I hope that in this debate my hon. Friend will revert to his old self and show some of the campaigning principles that he showed when fighting the case of the Birmingham Six, who were unjustly imprisoned on charges that subsequently proved to be totally false. He played an honourable role in that fight.

Sadly, there are many hundreds of prisoners of different nationalities currently detained at Guantanamo Bay, including four British citizens: Feroz Abbasi, Martin Mubanga, Richard Belmar and my constituent Moazzam Begg. Let me say at the start that I have consistently supported action by the international community against international terrorism, which is a threat to us all; the civilised values that we stand for must be upheld and fought for. The perpetrators of 9/11, the Bali bombings and the Madrid outrages have to be pursued and destroyed, but we stand for bringing people accused of such crimes before courts of law, for democracy, for freedom of speech and for the rule of law. If we not prepared to offer those rights to people who are accused of such serious crimes, we bring ourselves down to the same level as international terrorists.

I first raised the incarceration of my constituent, Moazzam Begg, nearly three years ago. Had anybody told me then that three years later I would still be raising his case, I would not have believed it; nor would I have believed that he would still be imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. Although the process is currently suspended, Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abbasi still face the possibility of being brought before a US-style military commission, where the military personnel acting as interrogators, prosecutors, defence counsel, judges and—in cases where the death penalty is imposed—executioners are all appointed by the US Defence Secretary.

Three years ago, I would not have believed that Moazzam Begg and other British citizens could remain in the legal, physical and mental black hole of Guantanamo Bay, even though no charges that are recognisable in international law have been laid against any of them, no evidence has been presented of their guilt, and no access to independent legal counsel has been provided for them. I would not have believed that we could have a US Government who make no pretence that Guantanamo Bay is covered by the Geneva conventions—the men are designated enemy combatants, not prisoners of war. Equally, I would not have believed that representatives of the US judiciary have, almost unanimously, had to petition courts in America, including the Supreme Court, to make it clearly known that Guantanamo Bay is unconstitutional.
17 Nov 2004 : Column 463WH

Each person who is detained in Guantanamo Bay is kept in a wire-mesh cell 6 ft 8 in by 8 ft and allowed out for 20 minutes solitary exercise three times a day. There is growing evidence that torture has been used at the camp. The simplest considerations that any detainee should have—for example, the right to be visited by members of his or her family—have been denied to the four British citizens in Guantanamo Bay, including my constituent.

Originally, I went along with the Foreign Office viewpoint that publicising Moazzam Begg's case could damage his long-term prospects. The Foreign Office suggested that if I raised the profile of the case, it could impede any future visits to Mr. Begg by his family, when such visits were allowed, and the flow of news about their son that the family so desperately needed. However, that was before the true nature of what has been happening in Guantanamo Bay came out—and that was more than three years ago.

Freedom is something we in the House seek to uphold as democrats. A former American Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Wilkie, who stood just after the second world war, once said:

Let me add to that the first paragraph of an editorial from the The Mail on Sunday on 6 July 2003. I do not wish to be disrespectful, but that paper is not noted for its libertarian attitude towards civil rights. None the less, the editorial stated:

It is certainly the belief of the wider Muslim community in this country that double standards are being applied in respect of the British Government's attempt to get those four British citizens returned to the United Kingdom.

It appears that the Prime Minister—

3.30 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.37 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Godsiff : As I was saying, it would seem that the Government's position as enunciated by the Prime Minister, who is a lawyer, as is his good wife, is that the British detainees should be either tried fairly in accordance with international standards or returned to the United Kingdom. I welcome that. The Government have expressed strong reservations to the US Administration about the use of military commissions and legal proceedings against two British detainees have been suspended. I welcome that, too. The Government requested that nine British detainees be returned to the UK, and five were returned in March. All British
17 Nov 2004 : Column 464WH
detainees have now been informed of the combatant status review tribunals and of their right to challenge in United States courts the legality of their detention with regard to their status as enemy combatants and not as prisoners of war. I welcome all those things—I welcome all the work done by the Government and the Foreign Office to try to resolve the situation—but is it enough? Was it ever enough? How much longer will the process run? For months? For years?

Last weekend, the Prime Minister went to the United States to renew our special relationship with the new Administration. I would like to know whether the four British detainees, including Moazzam Begg, were discussed while he was there. The clear perception of the community in Birmingham is that the Government are feeding off crumbs from the American Administration. In the meantime, the family of Moazzam Begg have to survive on welfare reports passed on by the Foreign Office.

My constituent and those other British citizens still live under threat of being tried by a military commission, so I ask the Minister to state for the record what the British Government will do if the Bush Administration decide to continue with the commissions. Will the Government deem that the process has been a failure? Will the Prime Minister refuse to accept his congressional medal of honour? Will the FCO continue to deliver welfare reports to the Begg family when Moazzam faces possible execution, or a life sentence with no prospect of early release? In short, do the Government have a plan B. and if so, would the Minister like to tell us what it is?

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Last week, I had the privilege of meeting the families of Richard Belmar and Martin Mubanga. The lives of those men and their families are the small change of international diplomacy, but, as my hon. Friend said, two or three years after these events started, the families remain desperate. They do not understand why a Prime Minister who is supposedly the Bush Administration's best friend in the world cannot secure a charge and a proper trial for the men. It may be that Ministers, as in the Birmingham Six case, have given a nod and a wink and asked, "What were the men doing out there anyway, to get picked up?" but I would argue that, as British citizens, the men are entitled to be charged and subjected to a fair trial.

Mr. Godsiff : I entirely concur with my hon. Friend. Again, I make it plain that we must pursue international terrorists who carry out evil atrocities. As an individual MP, I consistently supported the war against international terrorism and the invasion of Afghanistan in pursuit of the al-Qaeda organisation. I opposed the invasion of Iraq because I believed that it was a distraction in the war against international terrorism. However, what separates us from the international terrorists is the fact that we respect the rule of law that underpins our democratic society. When we catch people who we believe are involved in international terrorism, we undermine our own values unless we try them in accordance with our laws.
17 Nov 2004 : Column 465WH

I return to the editorial in The Mail on Sunday, to which I referred earlier. It begins:

The basic rights that were written into the American constitution are being denied to four British citizens who are incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay. I end by quoting the words of Moazzam Begg himself. In a letter written by him and published recently, he states:

Is not that the least that we can give him?

3.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Chris Mullin) : Let me say at the outset that I share the frustration of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) at the circumstances in which his constituent and others have been detained. I assure him that the Government have been doing everything in their power to resolve the matter—in fact, I would go so far as to say that no Government with citizens detained at Guantanamo Bay have worked harder to try to resolve the situation.

Since the first British national was transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2002, we have repeatedly and persistently pursued the issue with the United States authorities including, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, at the highest level. The Prime Minister has raised it with President Bush; the Foreign Secretary has raised it with the Secretary of State, Colin Powell; the Attorney-General has led talks with the US Government; and Ministers, senior officials and lawyers have pursued the matter relentlessly and will continue to do so.

We have achieved some success. The release of five of the nine detainees earlier this year was the result of representations by the British Government. We have blocked the trial by military commission of two of the remaining four detainees and, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, we have secured improvements in the conditions in which the detainees have been held. The most recent example of that is the removal of Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abbasi from a form of solitary confinement and into the main detention camp. That was a response to our concerns about their isolation and lack of access to daylight.

The UK's overall position in relation to British nationals at Guantanamo Bay has been made clear from the outset. It is more or less the same as the one enunciated a moment ago by my hon. Friend: British detainees should either be tried fairly, in accordance with international standards, or they should be returned to the UK. With regard to the four remaining detainees,
17 Nov 2004 : Column 466WH
discussions at official level explored whether there was any prospect of providing an alternative trial process to the military commissions, but it has not proved possible to reach an agreement. In June, the Prime Minister personally repeated our request that the four be returned to the UK, and he raised Guantanamo again with President Bush during their talks in Washington last week. The United States Government has expressed its reluctance to return the remaining detainees because of security concerns. Our discussions with the US are continuing and we are seeking to address their concerns in the hope that the four might be returned.

It might be helpful if I explain the various legal proceedings surrounding the detainees. My hon. Friend will be aware of the habeas corpus cases in the US district court, one of which has been brought on behalf of his constituent. The cases follow the Supreme Court's June ruling that detainees have the right to challenge the legality of their detention. US lawyers have now visited those involved in those cases, including Mr. Begg, and we welcome that. The Government have been asked to submit an amicus curii brief in one of the cases, and we are now examining the petition. My hon. Friend will also be aware of the ruling last week in a US district court in the case of Guantanamo detainee Salim Hamdan. The court rejected the US Government's argument that the third Geneva convention did not apply to al-Qaeda detainees captured in Afghanistan. It decided that a detainee must be afforded prisoner of war status until a competent tribunal decides otherwise, and stated that neither a combatant status review tribunal nor the US President is a competent tribunal for those purposes.

Ms Abbott : Is the Minister able to say that the Government are confident that there is no substance to the allegations of physical torture at Guantanamo Bay?

Mr. Mullin : I shall come to those allegations, but at the moment I am dealing with the ruling of the US district court last week, which I think is relevant to the situation of the detainees. The court held that trial by military commission would be unlawful as long as the rules of procedure allowed for the use of secret evidence and the exclusion of the accused from proceedings for reasons unconnected with his conduct. The US Government has indicated that it will appeal the court's ruling, and we are, of course, following the case.

Following the Supreme Court ruling, combatant status review tribunals have been established by the US to determine whether Guantanamo Bay detainees are properly classified as enemy combatants and to permit each detainee the opportunity to contest that classification. The Government are not a party to the tribunals, but we are following their progress and monitoring the case of the British detainees. I understand that Mr. Abbasi's tribunal has been completed with the conclusion that he is an enemy combatant, and his family have been informed of the decision.

From the outset, the welfare of the detainees has been a priority for the Government. We were the first to visit our nationals in Guantanamo Bay, and British officials have made nine welfare visits to the British detainees, the most recent of which was between 2 and 5 October.
17 Nov 2004 : Column 467WH
As on all other occasions, a written statement on the visit was made to Parliament, and it might be helpful if I repeat the key points:

As well as providing a written statement to Parliament, the Government have given the families of the detainees a detailed report on their condition, and we shall continue to keep them informed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) raised the allegations of mistreatment at Guantanamo Bay. I covered the issue in the previous Adjournment debate on the subject in July, but I want to take this opportunity to update hon. Members.

My hon. Friends will be aware that the British detainees who returned to the UK this year subsequently made a number of allegations of mistreatment. Despite the opportunity to do so during our repeated welfare visits to Guantanamo Bay, none of the men alleged to us while they were detained there that they were systematically abused. Furthermore, none of them has raised the allegations of mistreatment with the Government since their return to the UK. We have, however, taken up a number of their allegations with the US authorities. In response, they have said that the men were treated humanely, but they are continuing to investigate some of the other allegations made by former British detainees.

There is particular concern about the treatment of Moazzam Begg, who is a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath, so perhaps I should address that case specifically. My hon. Friend will be aware of a letter written by Mr. Begg from Guantanamo Bay, which was recently made public. He has never alleged to us that he has been systematically abused at Guantanamo Bay in the way that is now being suggested; on the contrary, he said that he had been treated well, and he confirmed that to a British official who saw him in Guantanamo a few days after the letter was reported in the media. However, Mr. Begg has said that he was mistreated when he was detained at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, and we asked the American authorities to investigate. They have told us that they can find no information to support that claim, and we have asked them to carry out a second, more detailed investigation.

My hon. Friend will be aware of a request by Azmat Begg, Mr. Begg's father, that he, Dr. James MacKeith and Lord Rea visit Moazzam at Guantanamo Bay to carry out an independent psychiatric assessment.
17 Nov 2004 : Column 468WH
Baroness Symons has supported that request. We have written to the US authorities to make the request and we continue to pursue it. We await a US response.

Ms Abbott : What is being done to secure family visits for the other British detainees, particularly Martin Mubanga and Richard Belmar?

Mr. Mullin : As I said, we have repeatedly made representations to the Americans on the subject of visits for families, but so far those requests have been denied.

Throughout the past two or three years, the Government have sought to meet the twin objectives of pursuing the fight against international terrorism and safeguarding the interests of British citizens detained overseas. It is important to remember the context in which the detentions at Guantanamo took place: 11 September was the most appalling terrorist attack ever—more than 3,000 people, including 67 British nationals, died on the US mainland. Following the attack, thousands of individuals who were believed to be al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters or their supporters were detained. The majority were released in Afghanistan, but the US sent those whom it deemed to pose a substantial risk to Guantanamo Bay for detention and questioning about their knowledge of al-Qaeda. As a result, valuable information has been gained, which has helped the international community fight terrorism.

Mr. Godsiff : Does the Minister not agree that any organisation that detains people, even the Birmingham Six—he had experience of that miscarriage of justice—should not keep them incommunicado for three years?

Mr. Mullin : Yes, the British Government and I agree with everything that my hon. Friend said about the need to treat suspects according to the rule of law. There is no difference between us on that.

I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend about the Government's commitment to work for the release of the remaining detainees and to ensure their well-being while they remain detained at Guantanamo Bay. Our discussions with the US authorities continue in relation to both issues. As I said at the outset, I understand the frustration of my hon. Friend and his constituents' relatives, but the Government are doing all in their power to bring an end to the unhappy situation and we will continue to do so.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: In order to protect the last Adjournment debate and bearing in mind that there will be a Division in the House at one minute past 4 at the latest, I suspend the sitting until a quarter past four.

3.56 pm

Sitting suspended.

4.14 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. It appears to me that there is going to be a run of votes in the House—perhaps as many as 12, although that is unlikely. I am therefore
17 Nov 2004 : Column 469WH
going to suspend until five minutes after the last of those votes, when it becomes clear that there are not going to be any more. We shall then all assemble here and see whether we can get the debate in before we get interrupted again.

4.15 pm

Sitting suspended.

Next Section IndexHome Page