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Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): I have listened carefully, because Graham Sankey is my constituent. While I am equivocal about the case concerning Sankey, if only because of the inadequacy of the personality, I am overwhelmed by the case that my hon. Friend has described, which I have some knowledge of, and which demands a fair retrial for Michael Shields. Will she accept my humble support in her endeavours to ensure that he gets that retrial?

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Mrs. Ellman: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I accept his support, because the case that I am making is indeed for a retrial.

I thank the Minister and the Foreign Secretary for the assistance that they and their staff have given following the meeting in the Foreign Office and, indeed, before that. It has taken many forms and it is much appreciated, but more needs to be done as we address the complexities of a potential miscarriage of justice involving a British citizen imprisoned under another jurisdiction. I recognise that Ministers cannot interfere in the Bulgarian judicial process, but I ask them to exert their influence on the Bulgarian authorities and to urge them to conduct an inquiry, or to order a retrial, into what happened to Michael Shields. That influence is considerable and I have suggested how it might be exerted. It is a matter of justice.

6.13 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) on securing a debate on the case of Michael Shields, who, as she has reminded us, has been detained in Bulgaria since May. I welcome the opportunity to set out our position clearly in relation to that case. I pay tribute to the tireless efforts that she has made and continues to make on behalf of Michael and the Shields family.

Before concentrating on the specifics of the case, it is worth noting the close ties that the United Kingdom has with Bulgaria, which is soon to be a fellow member of the European Union. Every year, 200,000 British visitors visit Bulgaria, enjoying the Black sea coastal resorts and the country's rich cultural heritage. The majority of those visits are trouble free for British visitors and it is important to recognise that the arrest of British nationals remains, I am thankful to say, a rare occurrence. The number of visitors is also set to rise with the increasing popularity of package holidays to the Bulgarian coastal resorts in summer and to the ski resorts in winter.

My hon. Friend spoke about the background of Mr. Shields's case and the events surrounding the serious injury sustained by Martin Georgiev, who will always bear the scars from this incident. I sympathise with the Shields family and will ensure that we continue to do all that we properly can to assist them.

Our consular staff were informed on 30 May of the arrest of Michael Shields and three other British nationals, Graham Sankey, Bradley Thompson and Anthony Wilson, following a stone-throwing incident in the Golden Sands resort in Varna, Bulgaria, in which a Bulgarian national was seriously injured. Our consular staff visited the detainees at the arrest ward of the investigation centre in Varna on 31 May. None of the detainees complained about their treatment by the Bulgarian authorities. If they had done so, we would have raised those concerns immediately with the local authorities. Since their arrest, our staff have been present at key subsequent court appearances.
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As my hon. Friend is aware, the result of Mr. Shields's appeal was released on 9 November. The judges ruled that Mr. Shields's conviction and sentence for attempted murder and hooliganism should stand, but agreed to a reduction of the civil claim amount to 120,000 leva. I understand how disappointing this must be for Mr. Shields and his family. There remains the possibility of appeal to the Cassation Court and I understand that Mr. Shields, his family and his legal team are discussing appealing to that court. My hon. Friend will understand—indeed, she confirmed as much this evening—that Ministers cannot interfere in the legal process of another sovereign country.

My hon. Friend asked what the Foreign Office can do to persuade the Bulgarian authorities to interview Mr. Sankey and to examine the evidence of a new witness. I understand that, prior to his appeal, Mr. Shields's legal team lodged a separate application to the court that requested that the court call Graham Sankey as a witness. The Appeal Court judge dismissed that request, stating that Mr. Sankey had already been removed from the list of witnesses, with the agreement of the defence. Mr. Sankey's confession was raised at the original trial, but was considered insufficient to create doubts with the court about Mr. Shields's guilt. I understand that the court questioned the confession's relevance and credibility. As my hon. Friend is aware, we are unable to interfere in the judicial processes of other countries, just as other countries are unable to interfere in our judicial processes. We have been advised by the Bulgarian authorities that new evidence will be examined only if the Cassation Court rules that the case should be returned to the Court of First Instance. That is a matter for Mr. Shields's legal team to pursue.

While we cannot interfere in the legal process, I assure my hon. Friend that we remain committed to doing all that we properly can to ensure for Mr Shields's welfare. Consular staff have assisted the Shields family with their
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visits on numerous occasions. We have maintained close contact with the family whenever they have been in Bulgaria and our staff have provided them with extensive consular support.

The Shields family have raised concerns over Michael's health and welfare. Our consul visited Mr. Shields on 10 November to discuss those concerns, and Mr. Shields said that he did not require any medical assistance. We will, of course, continue to monitor Mr. Shields's welfare, raising his concerns with the relevant authorities where necessary.

As I hope my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I made clear at our meeting with my hon. Friend and the Shields family on 13 September, we take Mr. Shields's case very seriously and we are committed to providing him with all appropriate consular assistance. Since that meeting, my right hon. Friend and I have both raised Mr. Shields's case with, respectively, the Bulgarian Foreign Minister and the Europe Minister.

I appreciate that this is a difficult and distressing time for the Shields family. In only a few days time, we will have a further opportunity to discuss the accession to the European Union of Romania and Bulgaria, and that will no doubt afford a further opportunity for discussion of this matter. However, my hon. Friend should be assured that we will continue to take a close interest in Mr. Shields and will continue to do all that we properly can to assist the Shields family at this difficult and distressing time. I am aware that we have already had one useful and constructive meeting on the subject in the Foreign Office and, in the light of the ongoing discussions my hon. Friend and I have had, I would be willing to consider a further meeting if that would be of assistance to her, as the elected representative, or to the Shields family, given what a difficult and distressing time this must be for them.

Question put and agreed to.

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