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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 28 October 2009

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Death Penalty (Global Abolition)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. Watts.)

9.30 am

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. It is also a particular pleasure and something of a novelty-perhaps it is even the first time-that I have obtained an Adjournment debate on a topic on which I can speak almost entirely positively about Government policy.

The Minister for Europe (Chris Bryant): Come over here!

Mr. Carmichael: The Minister is very kind, but I shall resist the temptation.

It is a matter of some pride for me, as a British national, when I travel to different parts of the world, to be part of a country that has not used the death penalty for the past 40 years and whose policy today is to oppose its use wherever it happens in the world. That is a significant policy, and I commend the Government for their adherence to it and, as I have learned in recent years, promotion of it. I appreciate the assistance of embassy and consular staff in different parts of the world who are, as I have seen, active in promoting Government policy. Earlier in the year, I travelled to Seoul, where the embassy had organised a seminar or conference encouraging local politicians to abolish the death penalty, or at least to maintain the moratorium. The assistance that I received from staff there and in Tokyo, and most recently in Washington DC and from the consul general in Atlanta, was first rate and not to be faulted.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. Will he mark, in his speech, the passing a few days ago of Ludovic Kennedy, whose 1961 book, "10 Rillington Place", about the hanging of the backward, illiterate Timothy Evans for the murders that John Christie had committed, led ultimately, at least in part, to the 1965 abolition? Ludovic Kennedy played a major part in that, did he not?

Mr. Carmichael: Yes, the late Ludovic Kennedy did indeed play a leading role in the case for abolition. I was fortunate as a teenager to meet him a couple of times. I was trying to persuade him to stand for rector of the university of Glasgow. He had sufficient judgment not to rely on my campaigning skills and he politely declined the invitation, but he was a truly inspirational character. He took the view-I know because I heard him speak on the matter many times-that, in the terms that Amnesty International uses, the use of capital punishment is the ultimate denial of a human right. He was motivated
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ultimately by justice. Even after the abolition of capital punishment in this country, he maintained an active interest in the issue. He also maintained an interest in campaigning on other miscarriages of justice, especially in this country. I was most intimately familiar with his involvement with the Paddy Meehan case in Scotland, but he also took an active interest in the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six.

All those cases serve to remind us how right we are to have maintained our opposition to capital punishment in this country as an instrument of domestic policy. A thread running through the use of capital punishment, wherever it happens in the world, is the fact that criminal justice systems are fallible. They are run by people for people, and people can make mistakes, as happened recently in the state of Texas in the case of Todd Willingham. It is now accepted that an innocent man was executed.

Once we have accepted in this country that our system has got things wrong, as happened with the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, we can at least turn the key in the door and let those who have been wrongly imprisoned walk free. That cannot happen to Todd Willingham in Texas, where even now the government are not prepared to allow further ventilation of the issues. That is the one argument that those in favour of the death penalty can never refute: the opportunity for mistakes, and the finality of that. Whether one takes my view that it is morally wrong for the state to take a life, or a more pragmatic one, the case against the use of the death penalty is substantial and unanswerable.

I remind hon. Members of my entry in the Register of Members' Interests about various campaign visits that I have made on this subject. I am also a member of Amnesty International and a patron of an organisation called Amicus-a charity operating in this country to provide legal representation for people facing the death penalty in America. I want to mention my appreciation of the efforts of the campaigning and legal organisation Reprieve, with which I have also worked closely.

There are three headings on which I want to speak this morning. First, I want to mention a couple of specific current cases involving United Kingdom nationals. Then I will touch briefly on the question of countries where the death penalty is used for juveniles. Finally, I shall deal with a few bilateral issues-in particular, matters affecting our relations with Belarus, Japan and the United States of America.

Perhaps the most pressing-and indeed most publicly commented on-of the cases involving UK nationals at the moment is that of Akmal Shaikh. The Government are engaged in his case and some hon. Members may be aware that he is awaiting execution in China. He is a 53-year-old British man from London. His appeal before the Urumqi high court was denied in August, although I am told that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was not informed of that until earlier this month. His sentence is now to be reviewed by the People's Supreme Court, and if that is not successful, he will be executed.

The concerns that I and many others have about Akmal Shaikh's case include his apparent mental health difficulties. He has always maintained that he went to China to start a career as a pop star. He met a group of men in Poland who persuaded him to travel with them to China via Tajikistan. Upon arrival in the airport
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there, he was told that he would have to travel to China alone, as there was only one seat left on the flight. His companion gave him a bag to take with him and said that he would be on the next flight. He was then arrested with 4 kilograms of heroin at Urumqi airport. He told the officials that the suitcase did not belong to him and that he did not know anything about the drugs. We are told that no intimation of the death sentence was given to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office until some months after it had been passed. That is indicative of the extreme secrecy that shrouds the use of the death penalty in that country.

Reprieve is actively engaged in Akmal Shaikh's case and has sought permission for Dr. Peter Schaapveld-a clinical psychologist-to visit him and make a proper assessment. To date, Dr. Schaapveld has not been allowed access to see Akmal Shaikh, but there is already substantial evidence in the public domain that he suffers from significant mental health issues. I am told that, on the last appeal hearing on 26 May, he insisted on reading a long, rambling and often incoherent statement to the court, notwithstanding advice to the contrary from his legal representatives. Embassy staff at that hearing were not allowed to take notes, and Dr. Schaapveld was of course denied access to his patient. I am told that the Foreign Office produced a number of the e-mails that Akmal sent to the embassy in Poland while living there. It perhaps gives a flavour of the man's state of mind that they were written in a 72-point font, and they were described to me as being rambling and incoherent.

I have some questions for the Minister on Akmal Shaikh's case. For the benefit of hon. Members and those outside who are watching the case with interest, will the Minister outline how the Government plan to intervene in the People's Supreme Court? We know that it now automatically reviews every death sentence. However, we do not know the timings, so there is clearly an element of urgency about the representations that the Government should be making.

The Minister's Department was asked to file an amicus curiae brief with the People's Supreme Court outlining its opposition to the death penalty and, in particular, addressing the question of mental health. I am told that the Foreign Office replied that it would prefer to write to the court, rather than enter a formal amicus curiae brief. I would be interested to hear the Minister's explanation, not least because China has been known to use amicus curiae briefs when its nationals have been involved in legal proceedings in other parts of the world. It is difficult to see what objection there could have been to that more formal route being followed.

The other case to which I shall refer briefly is that of Naheem Hussain and Rehan Zaman-two British nationals facing execution in Pakistan. The background to their case is that they were subject to a significant degree of torture following their arrest. The history of the case is fairly well in the public domain. Early consular intervention could have made a significant difference. It is a matter of regret that early intervention was not as vigorous as it might have been. If the Pakistani authorities failed to make a meaningful investigation or to take other steps to rectify the situation in a reasonable time, what will the Government do to preserve their position? Will they
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consider instigating legal proceedings against the Pakistan Government pursuant to the UN convention against torture?

A number of issues relating to consular involvement have been raised with me, but I do not feel able to explore them today. However, I should be grateful if the Minister were to indicate a willingness to engage with me and other members of the all-party group on the death penalty and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), who is representing Hussein and Zaman and who has been vigorously involved in their case from the start.

On the question of juveniles being the subject of capital punishment, I have been campaigning with Amnesty International, most recently in the case of Delara Darabi. So far in 2009, six juvenile offenders have been executed, four of them in Iran and two in Saudi Arabia. Last year, Iran executed eight juveniles. It is clearly prohibited under international law, as stated in article 6.5 of the international covenant on civil and political rights and the convention on the rights of the child. Iran is a party to both treaties, Saudi Arabia to the latter only. Neither country should be executing children under the age of 18.

Will the Minister continue to urge the Iranian and Saudi Arabian authorities to uphold their international obligations, calling an immediate moratorium on the execution of juvenile offenders as a step towards the ultimate abolition of the death penalty in those two countries? Will the Government continue to make representations to the relevant authorities whenever a juvenile is scheduled for execution there?

The position of Belarus should concern the Government on a bilateral basis. It is the last country in Europe to continue to use the death penalty. We do not know much about the country's use of the penalty, but I understand that four people were executed there in 2008. Belarus is one of those countries-Japan is another-where condemned prisoners are given no warning that they are about to be executed; they are usually executed within minutes of being told that their appeal for clemency has been rejected. Their families are generally told days or weeks after the execution that it has been carried out.

In June, the Parliamentary Assembly to the Council of Europe voted to restore special guest status to the Belarusian Parliament, but under certain conditions. One was that it should instigate a moratorium on the death penalty. Notwithstanding that, two people there have been sentenced to death this year. Their appeals have been turned down by the Supreme Court and the prisoners are now appealing for clemency. On 12 October, the UN Human Rights Council called on the Belarusian Government not to execute Vasily Yuzepchuk until it had also considered the appeal of Andrei Zhuk.

Will the Government continue to call for the moratorium required under the Parliamentary Assembly's resolution No. 1671 of 23 June, which deals with the status of the Belarusian Parliament? Will the Government press the Belarusian Government to uphold their obligations as a party to the international covenant on civil and political rights and to respect the decisions and recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council? Will they continue to press for clemency in the other two cases to which I have referred?

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Japan is now one of the top 10 killing states in the world. Having been in Japan earlier this year, I formed the impression that the country is sensitive to its standing in the world. It is a global trading nation, and people understand that it does Japan no good to be in a position that puts them in the company of nations such as Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe.

David Taylor: One of the most egregious cases is that of Hakamada Iwao, who was sentenced to death in 1968 and has been on death row ever since. He has been in solitary confinement for 29 years, and is exhibiting symptoms of mental illness. He confessed under duress, but withdrew his confession at his trial. Could not the Minister urge the Japanese ambassador at the very least to offer the man a pardon or a retrial?

Mr. Carmichael: The hon. Gentleman anticipates what I was about to say. I, too, have been engaged in that case. When I was in Japan, I was privileged to meet a number of those campaigning in support of him. I also met his sister and one of the three trial judges that presided at Hakamada's trial. In my experience as a lawyer and politician, Hakamada's case is unique. In addition to all the compelling evidence to which the hon. Gentleman referred, one of the three judges who presided over the trial has now said that he was never persuaded that Hakamada was, in fact, guilty. If that is not what we in this country would regard as a reasonable doubt, I do not know what is. If our commitment to international standards of procedure in criminal justice means anything at all, the Minister should take on board the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. Hakamada has been in detention for 43 years, 29 of which were spent in solitary confinement. As a consequence, there are, unsurprisingly, substantial concerns about the mental health of Hakamada Iwao. To execute a man in such circumstances falls well below the standards of basic decency and humanity that we are entitled to expect of those countries that, along with us, are part of the international community of nations.

The one bright spot in relation to Japan is the recent change of Government. I understand that the new Justice Minister is an abolitionist, so we may have got to a position in which there is a de facto moratorium in Japan. That remains to be seen, but I hope that the Government here will take the opportunity to push the case for a moratorium in Japan, because the standard of care for those on death row in that country is probably among the worst in the world. When one considers some of the other countries involved in such a practice-China, North Korea and others-it is quite a damning indictment.

Finally, I should like to bring to the Minister's attention the position of the United States of America. The USA is one of the largest users of the death penalty in the worldwide community. It is one of those countries that is most frequently cited as the reason why countries such as Japan, Saudi Arabia, China and others feel that what they are doing cannot be that bad because they are only doing what the United States does. It frustrates me that there is real opportunity for the United States to give a positive lead, which would make a tremendous difference to its standing in the world community, but it refuses to do so.

I visited the United States last month. Along with members of Amnesty International, I visited Troy Anthony Davis, who is on death row in the state of Georgia. I
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could probably talk for 90 minutes about the experience of being on death row, which is a truly awful phenomenon. Anybody who thinks that death penalties are justifiable or in some way workable should experience it for themselves. The consulate in Atlanta was exceptionally helpful in its dealings with us. It was able to facilitate our visit to Mr. Davis on death row. Although this is not a case that involves a British national, it is one that should cause us concern.

There are substantial issues involving the apparent innocence of Troy Davis. Seven of the nine witnesses who gave evidence against him have subsequently revised or recanted that evidence, which brings me back to my earlier point about the fallibility of criminal justice systems. Had Troy Davis been prepared to roll over and let the system take its course, he would have been killed by now. He told me how, one day, he came within two hours of his execution. At one stage, he was taken into the room and made to stand no more than 2 feet away from the gurney to which he would, later that day, be strapped for the lethal injection to be administered.

Such an experience is a very chilling illustration of just why it is wrong to use the death penalty, and why it is right for our Government to speak against it wherever they see it. We should continue to promote the view that the British Government and the British people do not want to be associated with such a barbaric practice.

9.55 am

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): May I add to the comments made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and say what a pleasure it is, Mr. Benton, to serve under your wise leadership today?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland on bringing such an extraordinary combination of skills, abilities and personal qualities to this debate and to his parliamentary work. He is a lawyer, and a man of forensic intelligence and great humanity. The work that he undertook in the case of Samantha Orobator at very short notice might have saved-did save, in my opinion-the young woman's life. If any of us can look back on our parliamentary careers and say as much as that, we will have reason to be proud.

I should also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister, who has visited one of my constituents in Bangkok. As a Foreign Office Minister, he has been assiduous in visiting, assisting and advising, and prompting action throughout the world.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned something that goes to the very heart of our debate: if a miscarriage of justice occurs, a person can be released from prison-they may be broken, but they are free-but if a person is executed, there is no release or redemption. He mentioned the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. It is perhaps appropriate to remember that one of the Birmingham Six, Giuseppe Conlon, died in prison. He was not executed, but because he died in prison, there was no release for him. No one can say whether or not he would otherwise have died at that point, but I think that the facts suggest one interpretation.

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