The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) on securing a debate on the case of Russell Clamp, whoas she has reminded uswas detained with seven other British nationals in the United Arab Emirates in 2001. I welcome the opportunity to set out our position clearly in relation to that unfortunate case and to remind the right hon. Lady of some of the options available to Mr. Clamp to take forward his claims.
Before concentrating on the specifics of the case, it is worth noting the ever closer ties between Britain and the UAE. I am sure that the right hon. Lady will welcome those ties. I hope that some of the abuses that she mentioned will be the subject of discussion and debate between our two countries as we grow closer.
The UK and the Emirates enjoy a close bilateral relationship, reflected in strong mutual flows of trade, investment and people. Our two countries have many
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shared interests, and I am pleased to say that there is shared commitment, at the highest levels, to strengthen our co-operation. The UAE has become an increasingly popular destination for British tourists; there were about 650,000 British visitors to the United Arab Emirates in 2004. It is also a growing market for British trade. The volume of new companies with British interests continues to increase and, of course, as many as 100,000 British nationals are resident in the UAE.
Despite those large numbers, the vast majority of visits to the UAE are trouble-free. It is important to recognise that the arrest of British nationals remains, I am thankful to say, a rare event, although I take the right hon. Lady's point that, nevertheless, issues arise. When a British national, such as Mr. Clamp, gets into difficulties, we are committed to giving all the practicable consular assistance we can.
I would like to add to the description of the case put to the House by the right hon. Lady and, if I may, place it in its wider context. As she reminded us, Russell Clamp was one of eight British nationals, from four Dubai and Abu Dhabi-based companies, who were arrested and detained at Dubai police headquarters on 26 June 2001. The police told our embassies in Abu Dhabi and Dubai that they were being held in connection with the possession of illegal surveillance equipment.
Russell Clamp worked for Leisure International and assisted SSS Corporate Research, a subsidiary of International Corporate Research, based in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. ICR stated that its role was that of a commercial investigator, specifically providing information on companies, markets and competition in the region.
Consular staff visited the detainees on 2 July. None had any complaints and all appeared to be in very good spirits. Mr. Clamp did not raise concerns about his detention or about the treatment he had received from the authorities. If he had done so, we would have raised those concerns immediately with the local authorities. On 3 July, the eight detainees were released on bail while the UAE authorities continued their investigations. Our embassy in Dubai had no further contact with Mr. Clamp after his release.
Following Mr. Clamp's release in Dubai, a warrant was issued for his arrest in Abu Dhabi. His company, Leisure International, had offices in two emiratesDubai and Abu Dhabimeaning that he had to follow a separate judicial process in each. As the right hon. Lady reminded us, he was arrested for a second time in Abu Dhabi on 14 July and detained until 3 September, when he was once again released on bail. The account of his detention that the right hon. Lady gave us was extremely distressing and I shall certainly attempt to pursue the details. However, I have to tell her that I am informed that consular officials visited Mr. Clamp regularly during his second period of detention. Again, at no point did he mention any mistreatment and our staff saw no evidence to support such claims during their visits.
Our embassies in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi were satisfied that all the usual arrest procedures were followed. We take allegations of human rights abuses seriously and we are certainly committed to investigating any allegations quickly and without delay. However, Mr. Clamp did not make allegations about
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mistreatment at any time during his detention, although he had the opportunity to do so during the visits from our consular staff, who maintained regular contact with him following his release on bail on 3 September.
On 9 October 2001, the British vice-consul accompanied Mr. Clamp to a meeting with the chief prosecutor in Abu Dhabi. Mr. Clamp told the chief prosecutor that he had visited his old office to retrieve some personal items to sell them. He said that his office was totally bare and asked if his personal possessions had been taken for safe keeping when the office was raideda perfectly sensible question to ask. The chief prosecutor checked the inventory of items removed from Leisure International, but there was no record of those items that Mr. Clamp claimed were missing. The chief prosecutor suggested that Mr. Clamp take out a civil claim against the police who had been guarding the premises. Mr. Clamp chose not to act on that advice.
On 18 November 2001, Mr. Clamp and Andrew Collier both had their passports returned by the authorities in Abu Dhabi. On 24 June 2002, the other detainees had their passports returned by the authorities in Dubai. No formal charges were ever brought against the detainees. Our consular staff in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai had continued to offer all appropriate assistance throughout that difficult period.
I shall deal for a moment with our efforts with the UAE authorities throughout the process. We raised our concerns at the lack of progress on the case at a high level with the UAE authorities and expressed our desire for a quick judicial conclusion to the case on several occasions. In January 2002, Baroness Amos wrote a letter to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, expressing our wish that the case be concluded without further delay. Similar concerns were conveyed by Baroness Symons in early June 2002.
We fully sympathise with Mr. Clamp's wish to see the return of any missing property. However, we cannot get directly involved in such a claim on Mr. Clamp's behalf. Our ambassador has consulted our honorary legal advisor in the UAE who has clearly explained our position. As the local authorities allegedly impounded personal items belonging to Mr. Clamp, it would be appropriate for Mr. Clamp to appoint a lawyer in an attempt to retrieve any belongings and assets. I understand full well the right hon. Lady's explanation of why he has not done that, but that was the advice received. If it becomes clear that the authorities cannot establish the whereabouts of his belongings, Mr. Clamp has the option of pursuing a case for compensation against the local authorities. Any claim for compensation must be made through a local lawyer, who would take the matter to the courts.
I appreciate that there are all sorts of legal avenues open to my constituent, but the Minister will be aware that, in that country, all sorts of legal avenues can be open to someone that, in practice, can never be pursued. Mr. Clamp could not pursue a legal action against the authorities in the Emirates, either at this stage or when he was there, because, as the Minister will be aware, he was not allowed to leave the
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country, he could not work in the country and there is no welfare system in the Emirates. Against that background, how on earth was he to pursue a legal case?
Dr. Howells: I certainly take the point that the right hon. Lady makesit is a difficult issuebut I hope that she can take the point that it is impossible for our consular officials to become involved in the way that I sense she feels that they should become involved in taking the case forward. There is a big difference between diplomatic pressureif the House would accept that phraseand becoming involved in a civil case against the police. I do not think that we can possibly do that.
Miss Widdecombe: That is absolutely true, and I am not such a child that I would ask the Minister to take up my constituent's case and pursue it with the authorities. What I want taken up with the authorities is the process and the assistance that could be made available there for Mr. Clamp to pursue his case. Let me simply summarise thus: this was a man who went to the Emirates and had a successful company. As a result of being arrested for an offence with which he was never charged, he has lost everything from his company and all his personal possessions there, but there seems to be no route through which he can easily go to secure justice. That is the point that I am making.
I take the point that the right hon. Lady makes and I do not underestimate the great difficulties that Mr. Clamp faces. I hope that I will bring her a little bit of good news towards the end of my speech.
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Should Mr. Clamp find some means of pursuing a claim, our embassy in Abu Dhabi can certainly discuss the worth and status of local lawyers with him. I believe that there are good lawyers there, but that could probably be discussed another time. We have certainly offered all appropriate consular assistance to both Mr. Clamp and the other British nationals following his unfortunate detention. We are unable to interfere in the judicial process of other countries and firmly believe that interventions at this late stage in the UAE would probably have a negative impact on the more proximate cases that are under way at the moment, to which the right hon. Lady referred.
I fully understand the right hon. Lady's concerns about the circumstances of the case, but think that it is important to highlight the huge effort and commitment shown by our consular staff throughout its duration. Our staff have to work within the laws of the UAE and continue to do an excellent job in ensuring that the welfare concerns of all British nationals are addressed.
Our ambassador in Abu Dhabi is returning to the UK on 14 June 2005 and has offered to discuss Mr. Clamp's case with the right hon. Lady. He can provide extensive local knowledge and explain the political and judicial considerations that he and his staff must follow during their work in the United Arab Emirates. I am certain that he could offer far better advice to her than I because he has the local knowledge, knows the situation on the ground and is familiar with the details of the case. I hope that she will welcome the opportunity to discuss the case and the limitations of our role in it to try to find any possible amicable solution.