Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kemp.]

6:09 pm
Photo of Mr David Amess

Mr David Amess (Southend West, Conservative)

Maajid Nawaz, Ian Nisbet and Reza Pankhurst, together with their families, are very grateful to Mr. Speaker for giving me the opportunity of raising in the House their imprisonment in Cairo for the last two and a half years.

Constituents constantly bring their problems to Members of Parliament and it is not usually the role of an MP to decide whether a constituent is right or wrong on the issue they raise. I see the role of a Member of Parliament as enabling fair play—to ensure that the issues constituents bring to our attention are dealt with fairly. That is what my parliamentary colleagues and I are trying to do.

There are two fundamental issues in this case. First, are the three men guilty or innocent? I believe that they are innocent. Secondly, if they are guilty, is the five-year prison sentence that they have been given a fair one? On every conceivable analysis, that sentence is not fair.

Mrs. Abi Nawaz, the mother of my constituent, first came to see me in April 2002. Since then, I and my hon. Friend Mr. Boswell, Mr. Banks and the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services, Mr. Timms, have done everything we possibly could to support our constituents and obtain justice for them.

Maajid was in Egypt as part of his university course, because he was required to spend a year in either Egypt or Syria. It is ironic that he chose Egypt because he thought it would be the safer of the two countries. How wrong he was.

My colleagues and I have raised the plight of the men detained in Egypt on several occasions in the House. We held an Adjournment debate on 5 November 2002. We have put questions to the Prime Minister and to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. We held meetings with Baroness Amos, when she had responsibility for middle eastern affairs, and with her successor Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean. We also held a meeting with the Egyptian ambassador. I am especially pleased that Mr. Speaker selected this subject for debate this evening, because on Tuesday my colleagues and I will meet the Foreign Secretary, when we shall outline why we want the Prime Minister to make a plea for clemency to President Mubarak.

Time has certainly run out for those men. The three were arrested on 1 April 2002, accused of belonging to the Islamic Liberation Movement. Maajid is a member of the Islamic Liberation party, which is not proscribed and, as I said in 2002, that is at the heart of the problem. After a long trial and a delay in delivering the verdict—the verdict was delayed twice, which was cruel beyond belief—on 25 March they were sentenced to five years in prison.

Maajid was arrested at 3 am on 1 April 2002, without a warrant. He was taken from his house at gunpoint, an experience that was extremely frightening, as anyone can understand. His wife was left at the house with their child and had no way of getting in touch with the outside world. Maajid's mother could not be contacted, as her telephone had been disconnected. Furthermore, his wife could not speak Egyptian so she was in complete isolation and very frightened. That in itself is an issue for the Government to address.

On 18 December 2003—shortly before the original date for the delivery of the verdict, which was Christmas day—I visited Maajid and his fellow detainees in prison in Cairo. The Egyptian authorities were extremely accommodating to the visit, and I praise the way that the embassy dealt with the situation. I was given full access. We had a full and frank discussion about what had taken place since April 2002, and I make no complaint about their treatment then.

After the arrest on 1 April, however, the men, along with a fourth Briton, Hassan Rizvi, who was later released, were held for 10 days at the state security intelligence premises—this is the real issue—where torture is commonplace. They were threatened, blindfolded, tied up with rope and deprived of sleep. They had to share blankets to keep warm, and they ate with their hands tied in front of them. I do not think that they were lying to me; I think that that is the truth, and I believe that they were treated like dogs.

The rub for the Government in terms of my asking for a plea for clemency is that their confessions were extracted under duress. Maajid was then denied access to the British consul for roughly a week, and he was denied access to lawyers for a month and a half, so I believe that Egypt was in direct contravention of the Vienna convention on consular relations.

The three men were found guilty on three charges. Bizarrely, the three men were not all found guilty on all three charges, but they were all given the same sentence—five years. Again, that is extraordinary. On the first charge, they were found guilty of

"promoting by speech or writing the goals of a group founded in violation of the provision of the law—the Islamic Liberation Party, which calls for dispensing with the constitution and laws, preventing the state institutions from performing their work, promoting among themselves and others the group's call for considering the ruling regime as oppressive and rising against it, with a view to destabilising a state based on Islamic teachings."

On the second charge, two of the men were found guilty of

"possessing printed literature promoting the Islamic Liberation Movement's message and of distributing the literature and showing it to others."

On the third charge, one was found guilty of

"possessing a printing instrument, a computer, which would be used for propagating the Islamic Liberation Movement's message."

I believe their total innocence in this matter, but even if they were guilty—I do not believe that they are guilty—to sentence them to five years in prison is totally outrageous and, again, a further reason why a plea for clemency should be made.

The trial was heard by the Emergency Supreme State Security Court in Cairo. The whole trial was absolutely bizarre, with 24 men brought into the court in a cage. Refreshments were served during the trial. Some of the detainees were ill. It did not compare to the way that trials are held in this country. That is an exceptional court, and I believe that it violates international fair trial standards and denies defendants the right to appeal against a verdict. During the trial, the men were not allowed interpreters or bail. The prosecution failed to disclose evidence and had to be ordered to do so by the judge.

After visiting Maajid in prison in Cairo and being in regular contact with his mother, a huge campaign has been mounted to support the plea for clemency, which must be made in a short time. I have received letters from the headmasters of the school that Maajid attended—Westcliff high school for boys—and support from Westcliff high school for girls. I have been inundated with letters supporting a plea for clemency. Chalkwell Group of Churches and Churches Together in Southend have assisted me in getting religious ministers to write to President Mubarak to support the plea for clemency.

I have also received support from Amnesty International, which recognises that Maajid Nawaz, Ian Nisbet and Reza Pankhurst are prisoners of conscience, convicted solely for their peacefully held views. Amnesty International is calling for them to be set free without conditions. I also pray in aid the Jubilee Campaign, which also supports the plea for clemency. According to the human rights annual report 2003, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has supported 11 appeals for clemency. The Minister for Trade and Investment, who will respond to this debate, will be aware that about 2,500 British subjects are held in prisons throughout the world. It would be irresponsible of the Government to support every Member of Parliament who wanted a clemency plea to be made on behalf of a constituent, but my parliamentary colleagues and I would not have spent two and a half years constantly raising this case if we did not fundamentally believe that our constituents are innocent. The criteria for clemency were established for 2001, and the grounds on which Maajid and his fellow detainees qualify are compassion and medical reasons. Other criteria are prima facie evidence of a miscarriage of justice and cases where the prisoner is a minor. Our constituents qualify for clemency on each of those criteria.

I had an opportunity to speak to Maajid's mother before this debate, and she told me in great detail how he and his fellow detainees felt about the present situation. It appears that their mail is being tampered with, and it takes a long time for them to receive any. However, I would like to share with the House a tiny extract of a letter from Maajid to his mother:

"I have finally met Rabia and Ammaar"—

his wife and child—

"I can't describe all the emotions that I felt, and continue to feel upon seeing them. Initially, I was overwhelmed by the whole experience, as if it wasn't real. I'd finally got to see my wife and child after two years of separation, it was almost surreal. Then, I felt absolute joy at being able to sit and talk with them, something that is usually taken for granted, and being in their company made all my troubles seem to go away."

Maajid and his two fellow detainees are very emotional about their present situation, as everyone in the House can understand. They have suffered a terrible ordeal, and I urge the Minister to take action, as time is running out for these young men with young families. The only person who can help now is our Prime Minister. We have excellent relations with Egypt. As responsible parliamentarians, we want terrorism to be defeated in all its many forms. That is not a trivial matter, but it would be a huge miscarriage of justice if those three British subjects became innocent victims and were unfairly used as an example. I therefore urge the Minister to reflect on the situation, talk to the Foreign Secretary before our meeting on Tuesday and support the request from my parliamentary colleagues and myself for the Prime Minister to make a plea for clemency on behalf of our constituents so that we can ensure that justice is done and they are released from prison in Cairo as soon as possible.

6:24 pm
Photo of Mr Mike O'Brien

Mr Mike O'Brien (Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry; North Warwickshire, Labour)

I congratulate Mr. Amess on securing this debate on Maajid Nawaz, a British national detained in Egypt. I welcome the opportunity once again to set out the assistance that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has provided to Maajid Nawaz and the other two British nationals who remain in detention in connection with this case.

On 1 April 2002, Maajid Nawaz, a student at the university of Alexandria, was arrested along with three other British nationals. The men had been arrested under emergency laws and were accused, along with a number of Egyptian nationals, of being involved in the revival of the Islamic Liberation party, also known as Hizb ut-Tahrir. British embassy officials in Cairo immediately sought confirmation of the arrests from the local authorities and sought consular access.

Our consul and vice-consul were allowed to visit Maajid Nawaz and the other detainees on 11 April 2002. Every effort was made to secure information on the judicial process under which the men would be prosecuted. Our ambassador met senior Government officials to seek information. My right hon. Friend Baroness Amos, the then Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for consular matters, met the Egyptian ambassador to London to raise our concerns. Subsequently I made representations on a visit to Egypt and met senior Government representatives there. From April 2002 we pressed at various levels, including at a high level, for the Egyptians to charge or release the men. On 4 August 2002 it was announced that Maajid and the others were to face charges, and that Hassan Rizvi was to be released.

The trial was held in an emergency high state security court. There were a number of delays and adjournments throughout the trial process. In July 2003 the judge adjourned proceedings and said that he would announce the verdict on 25 December 2003. However, on 25 December 2003 the judge announced a further adjournment until 25 March 2004.

I should make it clear that we do not normally interfere with the judicial processes of another country. The courts are an independent body, or ought to be, and adjournments are a judge's decision. However, we have sympathy with the deep frustration and disappointment of the men and their families at the delays and adjournments in this case. Ministers and senior embassy officials in Cairo made our concerns clear to the Egyptian authorities and urged that the trial be brought to a conclusion as soon as possible.

My right hon. Friend Baroness Symons wrote to the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Maher, in January 2004 to express her concern at the length of time it was taking to conclude the case and to seek some reassurance that a verdict would be given at the next court hearing on 25 March. We also made it clear that there were Members of our Parliament who took a keen interest in the case and were determined to ensure that the concerns of their constituents were brought to the notice of the British Government, and that we did our duty in bringing them to the notice of the Egyptian Government. I congratulate the hon. Gentlemen and others who have made the case so forcefully on behalf of their constituents.

Our ambassador in Cairo listed our concerns with Ahmed Maher and emphasised the importance that we attached to a decision at the next court hearing. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary also raised our concerns during a telephone conversation with Ahmed Maher in January 2004. On 25 March 2004 the judge delivered his verdict. Maajid Nawaz, Ian Nisbet and Reza Pankhurst were sentenced to five years. That includes time already served. Under the Egyptian legal system we understand that the men are eligible for release in or about December 2005.

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's request for the Government to campaign for Maajid Nawaz's release and for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make representations to the Egyptian President. We have considered that. Our view remains that it would be inappropriate for the Government to consider raising concerns that we may have about the verdict until we have a clear understanding of the judge's summation. We need to know the legal and factual basis upon which the men were convicted in order to put a considered argument to the Egyptian authorities.

We understand that the judge has now issued a summation of his verdict, which has been passed to the President for ratification, and that the men are considering their options in consultation with their Egyptian lawyer. One of the issues that it would be helpful to explore at next week's meeting is whether the families plan to appeal to the President, whether it is appropriate for the British Government to make representations on the back of that appeal or whether it is appropriate for the British Government to make representations and for the families to decide separately how they should deal with their legal rights. Those matters need clarification, and I understand that the families are currently taking legal advice, which they should obviously do.

I now want to turn to the allegations of mistreatment and torture. During the first visit by consular officials, we were concerned to learn that Maajid and the other men alleged that they were mistreated and tortured in the initial days of their detention. We take all allegations of torture and mistreatment seriously and raised our concerns about the allegations as soon as we learned of them, and we have continued to raise our concerns at a high level within the Egyptian Government. Ministers and senior officials asked for an investigation into the allegations and for the men to be allowed access to an independent medical examination.

In September 2002, the Egyptian prosecutor general told our ambassador in Cairo that he had been asked to conduct an investigation into the allegations. During a court session in October 2002, the judge read out a statement from a forensic medical examiner, which said that there was no evidence apparent on Reza Pankhurst's body to support the allegations that he had been tortured. In November 2002, the Egyptian Foreign Minister informed my noble Friend Baroness Amos that the authorities had concluded that there was no medical evidence to support the allegations. We considered that response to be unsatisfactory. Ministers and officials continue to raise concerns that this issue has still not been fully addressed or satisfactorily investigated.

Throughout the men's detention, we have been active in trying to ensure their welfare. Since their arrest, the men and their relatives have raised concerns about prison conditions. Through representations by Ministers, senior officials and consular staff, and by working with the families, we have succeeded in getting more benefits for the men than would normally be allowed in the Egyptian system, including access to reading material, radio and television. The men can also make phone calls to their relatives during consular visits, which is usually strictly against rules. The men are due to be moved to newly refurbished cells in the near future, and we also achieved significant improvement in the transport conditions from the prison to the courts. We have made regular consular visits to the men, kept in close touch with their families in the UK and in Egypt, and have helped facilitate family visits on a number of occasions.

In conclusion, I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who have constituency interests in the matter that Ministers in London and senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials in Cairo have taken a close personal interest in this case and have been actively involved since the men were first detained. The case has received considerable ministerial and senior official attention, and senior Ministers in the Egyptian Government and their officials can be in no doubt about the seriousness with which we regard this case.

Consular staff in Cairo have worked extremely hard to ensure that we have done all that we properly can to assist Mr. Nawaz and the other men since their detention on 1 April 2002. We have raised the case at every possible opportunity and will continue to do so. In London, our consular directorate has tried to maintain close relationships with the families. The meeting on 11 May will involve hon. Members, the families and other representatives, and we hope that it will be an opportunity to discuss how we can move forward given the verdicts.

The matter is difficult because we need to seek the co-operation and assistance of the Egyptian authorities, but we have also made clear our particular concerns about how the matter was dealt with. Our public comments have therefore been balanced, and I know that the hon. Gentleman understands that point. We will continue to press the Egyptian authorities for a full and satisfactory response on the allegations of torture and mistreatment. We have done quite a lot for those men, which is right in view of the nature of the case. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to do all that we properly can for Maajid Nawaz and the other two men who have been detained.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Seven o'clock.