§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jon Owen Jones.]
§ 10.1 pm
§ Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin)
I begin by warmly congratulating the Minister of State his appointment. He will know that I predicted high office for him when I served under him as a humble foot soldier on an obscure Bill in Committee, which was considered in a room along the Committee Corridor some years ago. My hon. Friend has not disappointed me. With his progressive record and his deep and genuine commitment to liberty around the world, he will form part of a Labour Foreign Office which I believe will be a beacon of hope for the powerless and the downtrodden in all countries.
The Government have started in such an inspiring way on the domestic as well as the international scene and nothing that I shall say this evening should be taken by my hon. Friend as any kind of criticism. Rather, I want to probe the way in which the Government intend to practise in their policy towards Bahrain what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary so eloquently preached in the Foreign Office mission statement, which has resounded to this country's credit throughout the world.
I am well aware that no country's foreign policy can afford to be entirely selfless, and the first priority of any Government is the well-being of their own citizens, their own economy and their own strategic interests. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary rightly said, however, we all of us are citizens of the world and misery and turmoil in one place inevitably have consequences for the rest of us.
One such area is Bahrain. Since the emir ordered the suspension of the constitution in August 1975 and closed down the Parliament, extreme instability has enveloped the island, with repression, arbitrary arrests, torture, forceable exile and the shooting down of peaceful demonstrators demanding nothing more than the restoration of their Parliament.
In 1994, a petition signed by more than 25,000 people—Sunni and Shi'ite, men and women, people of the left, right and centre—was to be presented to the emir. One might think that that was routine, but the response of the Bahrain Government was far from routine. The leaders of the popular movement were arrested, as were thousands of others. That was followed by more oppression, more deaths under torture and further exile.
Bahrain became the first country in the world to deport its own citizens and demand that other countries refuse to give them asylum. In January 1995, I met three of that unique class of deportees in the Palace of Westminster, where I hosted a press conference for them. The last person to speak to them as they boarded the plane into exile was a British security agent, who was working under Colonel Ian Henderson: a man at the very heart of the darkness in Bahrain.
No sooner had those deportees arrived in this country than the Bahraini Foreign Minister flew to London to demand—successfully to date—that the three be denied political asylum. I know that the Minister is aware that those interested in human rights in this country and the Bahraini people are watching closely to see the outcome of the claims for asylum by Sheikh Ali Salman, Sheikh 299 Hamza al-Dairi and Sayed Haidar al-Sitri. My first request is that the Minister draws to the attention of our right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the keen interest that there is in that asylum application and the need for its fair and swift adjudication.
Torture is commonplace in Bahrain—of that there can be no doubt. The Minister's predecessor, the former right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes, said several times in response to questions from me and other hon. Members that he had raised the issue of the abuse of prisoners with the Bahraini authorities. The United States State Department, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organisations have produced veritable mountains of documentary evidence of such abuse and torture.
My hon. Friend the Minister has raised those concerns with the Bahrainis in the past and more recently, but I must ask him an obvious question. If, in the teeth of all that evidence, of international opprobrium and expressions of concern from my hon. Friend and his predecessor, the Bahraini people are still being shot like dogs in the streets by security forces led by British mercenaries and are still being abused on the torture tables in the dungeons of the regime, has not the time come when merely raising concerns is not enough?
Thanks to the new Labour Foreign Office mission statement, we have an opportunity to move beyond mere rhetoric towards practical, internationally co-ordinated measures to bring pressure to bear on persistent and unheeding offenders against basic human rights, of whom Bahrain is undoubtedly one.
It is clear that the Bahraini dictatorship is nervous about the Foreign Secretary's mission statement. That can be measured by the intensification of contacts sought by the Bahrainis. It will not have escaped my hon. Friend's notice that the very first visitor from the Arabian Gulf to arrive on his doorstep was the Bahraini Minister of Transport. Nor will he have missed seeing in the respected Arabic daily Al-Hayat the photograph of the son of the crown prince, grandson of the emir—it is not so much a one-party state, more a family business—with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence at their meeting last week. The report has the Bahraini Minister reviewing the deep relations between this country and Bahrain, and in particular our security and defence co-operation.
I am sure that I would not be the only person to be grateful if the Minister were to elaborate on the precise security and defence arrangements between our two countries. How deep are they, and how are they affected by the arrogant refusal of the Bahraini dictators to listen to their friends in Britain? I am not alone in wanting to know what safeguards have been built into that co-operation to ensure that no equipment, no training and no British personnel are used in any way against the civilian population of Bahrain. After all, even the previous Government, whose mission statement was deafening in its silence about human rights, had very clear safeguards on the sale of Hawk trainer aircraft to the Indonesian Government.
I am not asking for the cancellation of British-Bahraini defence co-operation; nor, for that matter, are the leaders of the Bahrain opposition in London, one of whose 300 distinguishing characteristics is their moderation. However, despite their moderate and peaceful character, it has been brought to my attention and, I suspect, to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister that the movements of the London-based opposition are now being monitored by agents of the regime. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to take this opportunity to assure the House of the Government's commitment to the well-being of those opposition leaders while they are here in exile.
The Bahraini opposition are not asking for a change of government in Bahrain; they are not asking for the overthrow of the emir; they are not asking to form a Government in Bahrain; they are not even asking for full Westminster-style parliamentary democracy. All that they are asking is for the emir to restore the Bahraini constitution that he suspended in 1975.
My next request to my hon. Friend the Minister is that he place clearly on record this evening that it is the wish of Her Majesty's Government—Her Majesty's Labour Government—that the suspended constitution be reinstated in Bahrain. I believe that, as an interim measure, we should impress on the regime the urgent need to begin dialogue with the opposition. The political leaders must be released, in particular Sheikh Al-Jumri, without whom no such dialogue could possibly be achieved. I believe that my hon. Friend should cause our ambassador in Bahrain himself to meet the opposition, both as a sign of our support for human rights and constitutional government and to send a clear message to the Bahraini Government that we mean business when we raise our concerns with them.
There is ample precedent. In dictatorships all over the world, past and present, our officials maintain regular contact and dialogue—if only for information purposes—with those who are struggling for basic human rights in their own countries. What reason would there be for not doing the same in Bahrain?
Yesterday, while preparing for the debate, I had the doubtful—because distressing—privilege of a visit from one of the victims of the repression to my office in Westminster. I shall call him Mohammed. He is 19 years old, and in another time or another place he would have been a normal young student. In my office, he took off his shirt to display a body hideously pock-marked by gunshot. All over his back and down his left arm, pieces of shrapnel nestled under his agonised skin. What was his crime? To be in a demonstration by school students who were protesting at the emir's refusal to receive the petition that I mentioned earlier.
Mohammed, however, is merely one in thousands. More than 5,000 people on that tiny island have been detained just in the past three years, and at least 1,500 such detainees remain in gaol without trial, undergoing or fearing torture. Many are held under the infamous state security law, which empowers the Minister of the Interior to order the detention of political suspects for up to three years without charge.
Such trials as have been held are frequently taken by the state security court, often in camera. In those trials, evidence usually rests solely on confessions extracted from defendants under torture. No appeal is allowed against its rulings, and, more important, death sentences passed by the court are subject to no appeal.
The Bahraini Government promised the last British Government that they would cease to use the state security court for such trials. They have broken that promise, 301 and continue to use the SSC to date. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister agrees that Bahrain's state security court is an affront to all international norms of justice, and should be suspended immediately.
According to a report in The Guardian on 13 May, a detainee was tortured in Bahrain in a dungeon fitted with British-supplied torture equipment. Have the Government had time to investigate that allegation, and if not, will my hon. Friend undertake to do so? If it transpires that that torture equipment originated in this country will the Minister refer the matter to the Attorney-General with a view to prosecuting the British companies that are involved?
The Bahraini Government refuse all requests by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for permission to visit Bahrain and investigate reports of the ill-treatment of detainees. I am sure that the Minister will join me in demanding that reputable and respected human rights organisations should be allowed access to Bahrain.
I said that I would return to the person who is at the heart of the darkness of the Bahraini regime. I am sad to say that he is a British citizen and sadder still to say that he is a Scotsman, Colonel Ian Henderson. Henderson might have walked from the fevered pages of a Graham Greene novel. He was an interrogator of the Mau Mau during colonial rule in Kenya in the bitter struggle for independence. So brutally efficient were his methods that, on obtaining independence for Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta tried to re-engage him in his own security apparatus. So notorious was Henderson that a demonstration was mounted by his victims and the whole affair became so scandalous that Kenyatta was forced to deport him. Via Ian Smith's Rhodesia, he ended up as the right hand man of the Al-Khalifa.
In the Gulf, Henderson is known as the butcher of Bahrain. He is the head of the security services and director of intelligence and has gathered around him the kind of British dogs of war, mercenaries, whose guns and electric shock equipment are for hire to anyone who will pay the price.
It has been commonplace for previous Ministers to brush off criticism of Henderson with the claim that they have no responsibility for his actions, but I do not think that that is entirely true. After all, the House rightly made it possible to pursue, try and punish the British sex tourists who pollute the Philippines and Thailand with their paedophile proclivities. How much more have we responsibility similarly to pursue people who torture and murder for money and who carry Her Majesty's passports?
The House rightly made it possible to try people in this country for war crimes that had been committed in Ukraine or Belorussia more than 50 years ago. I have legal advice which says that the United Nations convention against torture places an obligation on Britain to arrest or attempt to extradite Henderson. Lord Avebury said in another place that, should Henderson return here, having eaten his fill at the trough of the dictatorship, he will face a battery of civil actions for damages from victims of his crimes.
That is not enough. Ian Henderson is Britain's Klaus Barbie. The European Parliament has called Britain to prosecute Henderson and there is another fundamental point that cannot be gainsaid about Henderson's provenance. Britain's relations with the island of Bahrain 302 have been warm, close and special for 150 years. Ian Henderson was appointed as deputy director of security on the island in 1966, which was five years before the British left and the territory became independent. Therefore, he was appointed by a British Government, I regret to say by a British Labour Government, to his position in the secret state apparatus of Bahrain.
Of course, the Minister would be right to say that Ian Henderson is not an employee of ours and has nothing to do with us. That is true up to a point, but the Minister must know that that is not how it looks to the man on the torture table looking up at Henderson. It is not how it looks to the demonstrators who are falling in the streets in a hail of gunfire that is directed by him, and it is not how it looks to the wailing families as they bury their dead, people who have been killed by Henderson's forces for the crime of demanding democratic reform.
We as a people have a clear duty to repudiate the conduct of one of our citizens in the service of a foreign power who stands condemned of crimes against humanity. I hope that I have done enough in the debate to make the case that, while of course we must continue to do business with Bahrain and engage constructively in the process of offering its people help and assistance to build out of that autocracy, it cannot be business on the same basis as before. The Bahraini Government must know that Britain now has a Minister and a Government who mean what they say and say what they mean, a Government who really believe in human rights and democracy.
§ The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Derek Fatchett)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) on introducing this short but important debate on human rights and the specific question of Bahrain. His interest not just in Bahrain but in the broader topic of human rights is well known. He has raised some specific issues. If my hon. Friend is agreeable to this, I should like to make a few general points about human rights, deal with his specific questions and, I hope, sum up by talking about our approach to Bahrain in the future.
There has been much interest in the House and elsewhere on the issue of human rights. My hon. Friend is right to point out that on a number of occasions, both in written and oral questions, I have raised my concerns about the human rights regime in Bahrain. I did that in opposition and it is natural and important that what we have said in opposition should colour and shape our policies in government. Let me therefore give the first commitment to my hon. Friend: there will be continuity in terms of the values and approach that we adopt.
I remind my hon. Friend that in his speech on 12 May my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made it clear that this Government value an ethical dimension in their foreign policy and that we shall give substantial priority to human rights and try to pursue that agenda through international forums, bilateral relationships and other means available to us.
In relation specifically to Bahrain, I have already had the opportunity to meet the Bahraini ambassador. My hon. Friend referred to one or two items already in my diary and I suspect that he may have some predictions as to future meetings. I took the opportunity of that meeting to raise our concern about human rights. I stressed a number 303 of issues. Our discussion was frank and the atmosphere was one in which it was possible for me to engage in a constructive dialogue, which I was keen to do.
I welcomed recent visits to Bahrain by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, but I also strongly emphasised to the Bahraini ambassador that transparency in human rights is crucial. I emphasised the need for Amnesty International or any similar organisation to be involved in monitoring the situation closely. I shall continue to take up that commitment and I have suggested to the ambassador that it might be a sensible approach for him and his Government to get in touch with Amnesty International.
I give a clear commitment to my hon. Friend and to others who have taken a keen interest in the matter that when we feel that there is a need to address these issues with the Bahraini authorities we shall not hesitate to do so constructively. I will talk about our overall approach in relation to human rights, but I can say to my hon. Friend that our commitments are clear and our style and approach will be clear, not just on this issue, but on others as well.
Last week, when I was in the middle east, I was asked about the Government's approach to human rights. I said at that stage that our approach would not be a la carte: it is a universal principle that we are trying to promote and we will promote it in each case and take each opportunity.
May I raise one issue that I thought my hon. Friend might raise and did not? As he knows, there has been much publicity with regard to the treatment received by Sheikh Abdul Amir Al Jamri, a senior Shia cleric and spiritual leader who has remained in detention in Bahrain since January 1996. The Government of Bahrain have always stated that allegations such as those about the lack of family visits and the sheikh's maltreatment were unfounded. In my recent meetings with the Bahraini ambassador, I addressed that question. I have been assured that Al Jamri was in good health, that there was access to medical attention whenever he needed it and that he was visited by his family on a regular basis. This is an area on which I pressed for openness and transparency because the best way for the Bahraini authorities to remove fears about Al Jamri and others is to have independent international monitoring of the human rights regime. Amnesty International or any other organisation with a similar reputation could play a valuable part in that.
My hon. Friend raised some important specific issues and I shall try to address the six main points raised in his speech.
I can assure my hon. Friend that the asylum applications are under consideration. Naturally, they are confidential between the parties concerned. In the circumstances, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the details, but I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is aware of the views expressed by my hon. Friend.
There was also the question whether defence equipment exports would be used in internal repression in Bahrain. I remind the House that on 22 May my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced the initiation of an urgent review of the detailed criteria used in licence applications for the export of conventional weapons. New criteria will be made available to the House as soon as 304 that review is completed. We will then look closely at any evidence that British companies within our jurisdiction may be involved in supplying materials or expertise for the purposes of torture or any other human rights violations. I give my hon. Friend that clear commitment.
That clear commitment applies also to the points that my hon. Friend made about the article in The Guardianon 13 May. He will appreciate that I am not in a position to comment on the specific allegations, simply because we do not have the material on those allegations. However, if my hon. Friend or anyone else is able to provide that material, we will look into the points made. We shall certainly investigate the matter further on the basis of the article in The Guardian. I assure my hon. Friend that I shall be writing to him in the near future with our response to the points made.
My hon. Friend also raised the question of the safety of Bahraini exiles in the United Kingdom. Over the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to meet some of the Bahraini exiles and some of those leading the Bahraini opposition. I share my hon. Friend's view that those responsible for the opposition in this country are moderate people with a moderate set of demands. Therefore, we would be concerned about the safety of any individual exile. We would view with the utmost concern any suggestion of a specific threat against anyone in the United Kingdom. Where specific complaints are brought to our attention or to the attention of any hon. Member, we will investigate them further. If there is any specific evidence in that respect, we will pursue the matter. We will give the utmost priority to the safety of those in exile here.
My hon. Friend referred to the state security court. One of the points that we have already stressed and will continue to stress to the Bahraini authorities is the need for due process of law in all criminal cases. That is an important element in any human rights regime and we shall continue to make that argument.
My hon. Friend referred in some detail to the case of Mr. Ian Henderson and made a number of disturbing allegations in relation to the activities of Mr. Henderson. If those allegations are true, they would be viewed with great concern and dismay by Her Majesty's Government. My hon. Friend talked about the possibility of legal action being taken against Mr. Henderson on his return. That is a matter for others. However, I wish to make it clear that the Government would take a strong negative view of any action along the lines suggested in relation to Mr. Henderson. We deplore those actions if the allegations are true.
In the two minutes remaining to me, I want to consider Bahrain and the human rights points raised by my hon. Friend within the context of a more general view of the Government's principles and the way in which we intend to promote human rights.
This country is entering a new period of foreign policy. Wherever I have travelled, and with whomsoever I have engaged in debate, there has been a tremendous interest in the Foreign Secretary's remark that there should be an ethical dimension to foreign policy. That involves important tactical questions about how we pursue that 305 ethical dimension. In the vast majority of cases, we will strive for a constructive engagement. We will do that with Bahrain. Putting it crudely, there are sticks and carrots and there are difficult tactical choices to be made. We will engage with Bahrain over a range of commercial, political and regional issues. That was the policy of the previous Government and we intend to continue it. Within that framework of engagement, we are keen to ensure that, as an important agenda item, there will be discussion of human rights.
We have had a short but important debate tonight. It has been the first opportunity for this Government to talk about the new ethical dimension in foreign policy. I hope 306 that my hon. Friend will see that there is a difference and that there are changes. I have attempted, in a way that I have not always noticed in Adjournment debates, to answer the specific questions raised—
§ Mr. Fatchett
Indeed, it may never have happened before. I hope that, in that sense, I have set two precedents—the moral dimension to foreign policy and answering questions in an Adjournment debate.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.