During the whole of Advent, from 30 November until Christmas eve, Athanasius Hart, an iconographer and lay reader in the Orthodox Church, lived in a tiny cage in St. Sepulchre's church in London. He was on a complete fast. He was attempting to draw the attention of the world to the plight of Alexander Ogorodnikov, imprisoned in a Soviet prison camp since 1978 for founding and running a Christian discussion group.
On 16 December, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) and for Basildon (Mr. Amess), and the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), I went to St. Sepulchre's church to take part in a lunchtime Bible reading and thereby show my support for Mr. Hart's action and for Alexander Ogorodnikov. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) drew the attention of the House to the case of Alexander on 15 December, and tonight I welcome the opportunity to reinforce what he said then in this Adjournment debate.
Alexander Ogorodnikov, who is 36, grew up in an atheist family. His interest in Christianity began when he saw the film "The Gospel According to St. Matthew." In 1973, soon after his conversion, he was expelled from the Cinematograph Institute in Moscow at which he was studying, despite obtaining excellent marks. His persecution had begun. He wished to learn more about his faith and share it with others, so he organised, with like-minded Christians, a discussion and study group, the Christian Seminar. It was an informal gathering of friends, which met in private, without seeking publicity for its activities. Despite this, members of the group started to attract the attention of the authorities. Alexander himself experienced difficulties both at work and in private life. He was dismissed from a variety of menial jobs and forced to move house. Two other members of the seminar were incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals, and 31 members were interrogated, searched and pressurised.
The seminar continued to meet. The members had lectures and discussions on theology, theosophy, sociology, philosophy and the history of religion. On 20 November 1978 Alexander was arrested on charges of parasitism—it is illegal to be out of work in the Soviet Union—even though he was on his way to an interview at the time. He was tried and sentenced in January 1979. He was not allowed to call defence witnesses, and was sentenced to one year's imprisonment and sent to a labour camp. In transit he was beaten up when he asked to see a priest.
In September 1980 Alexander was tried on charges of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda, for publishing and publicising the seminar's official journal. He was sentenced to six years in a strict regime labour camp, followed by five years' internal exile. In January 1981 he began a hunger strike to protest about the taking away of his Bible. His attempts to have his Bible returned were unsuccessful. He was particularly harshly treated in prison. He was forbidden to pray and his cross was torn from around his neck on numerous occasions. In six years he spent a total of 659 days in protest hunger strikes to back up his demands for the return of his Bible, 411 days in the camp's internal prison and three days in the severe conditions of the punishment cell.
From December 1983 until February 1984 he was in a cell, the walls of which were entirely covered with ice, and on one occasion his cell was deliberately flooded with sewage. In November 1985, when he was due to complete the camp part of his sentence and go into internal exile, he was rearrested in camp, charged with violating camp discipline and re-sentenced.
He is in a desperate condition, having lost all his teeth and become almost blind. In eight years his wife has been allowed only one visit. In a letter to his mother, he pleaded that she appeal to the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet to show him a measure of mercy by ordering his execution by firing squad, thus putting an end to the prospect of a lifelong, painfully slow torture by deprivation of living conditions fit for a human being, by imprisonment in punishment cells, by humiliations, by beatings, by a total lack of rights.
One of the worst aspects of his imprisonment was the feeling that he was alone. He could not draw comfort from the knowledge that Christians in Russia and in the West knew about him and were working and praying for his release, because news did not reach him. Thankfully, as a result of the growing, worldwide interest, the signing of petitions, letters to the Soviet authorities and the efforts of Athanasius Hart, Alexander was, around Christmas time, allowed a visit from his mother and from a priest, who was able to give him holy communion.
We are grateful to the Soviet authorities for allowing those visits, but this courageous man, who is setting such a splendid example to those of us who are free to practise our religion and who often take our freedom for granted, needs our continued support. His treatment and the reasons why he received it clearly contravene not only the Helsinki agreement on human rights but Soviet law. We must continue to press for his release and also draw attention to his many fellow countrymen who are facing similar difficulties.
I am pleased to be able to participate in this debate. I congratulate my good friend the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) on his speech. His comments on the case of Alexander Ogorodnikov in the light of the Helsinki accord on human rights were extremely informative and expressed powerfully.
In this country, as my hon. Friend said, we take our freedom for granted. The opportunity to vote, to express our views and to worship as we wish are fundamental to our way of life. In Russia, however, despite that country's signature of the Helsinki accord, the authorities blatantly fail to allow their citizens such human rights. I deplore the Soviet regime and distrust the word of its leadership. That is one reason why I strongly support the British Government's defence policies, particularly the retention of our nuclear deterrent, to ensure that our freedom is safeguarded.
We are all aware of the plight of many of Christian and of Jewish faith in the Soviet Union. They are oppressed, victimised and in many cases harassed, imprisoned and mistreated. However, the newsworthiness of the sufferings of ordinary people in Russia has diminished in the West. Regrettably, the stories of the dissidents and the oppressed in Russia no longer command the newspaper headlines or get the media coverage that they deserve, yet the sufferings of individuals, their families and their friends go on. We in the West have a duty to ensure that the torch of freedom continues to burn and let those suffering in Russian gaols know that they are not forgotten. To that end, I was delighted to visit Mr. Athanasius Hart during his recent vigil at St. Sepulchre's church for Mr. Ogorodnikov, not only to support Mr. Hart but, I hope, to help to obtain freedom for Alexander Ogorodnikov.
In 1977, the Soviet Union, along with the United Kingdom, the United States of America and other countries, signed the Helsinki accord. In part VII of that agreement those signing agreed
to respect human rights, freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, religion or belief.
They agreed also
to recognise and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practise alone or in community with others, religion or belief in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience.
The cruel and inhumane treatment received by many in the Soviet Union is at variance with the undertakings given when the Helsinki agreement was signed. Alexander Ogorodnikov is but one case in an unhappy line.
The story of Alexander Ogorodnikov has touched many of us deeply. His position is heartrending, as we have heard. He has committed no crime, nor harmed his country. He is neither a politician nor a political activist. He merely wants the freedom to worship God in his own way with other Christians and live a Christian life with his wife and child. For such a limited demand, he has been starved, imprisoned in inhumane conditions, denied all rights, separated from his family and friends and caged like a wild animal. For the activity of organising Bible studies, he is imprisoned and treated badly. This is the Russian way of implementing human rights post-Helsinki 1977.
We must remember that Alexander Ogorodnikov is not an isolated case. Altogether there are some 10,000 prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union of whom some 2,000 are religious believers. Soviet law states that believers may hold worship services only in a building registered for that purpose, but even members of registered churches are not allowed to discuss their beliefs outside the building registered for worship. Meanwhile, Christians who encourage others in the faith stand to lose their jobs.
The 1977 Helsinki accord on human rights, signed amid a fanfare of trumpets and loudly acclaimed, has turned out to be an absolute farce. The record of the USSR on the important issue of human rights is deplorable and has not shown any appreciable improvement since Helsinki. The suffering regrettably continues and the hard men of the Kremlin remain unconcerned, unmoved and unchanging.
The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) has done a great service in bringing this matter to the attention of the House, and I warmly commend him for doing so.
Alexander Ogorodnikov has suffered the most appalling privations because he wishes to profess the Christian faith, to further his own spiritual pilgrimage in that faith and to discuss that faith with others. For that he has had the most appalling penalties which go far beyond anything that Soviet law, restrictive as it is, prescribes for someone who takes such actions. It is right that the attention of the world should be focused upon it. A total of 60,000 people have added their names to petitions in support of him and there have been many other petitions about others who have suffered similarly.
There is a lot of change going on in the Soviet Union at the moment. General Secretary Gorbachev has a lot of change on his plate as he embarks on economic reforms, but of crucial importance to the perception of the Soviet Union in the West is whether these attitudes towards religious dissidents will change. If they do not, no amount of glossy propaganda or overtures on wider issues like disarmament will convince people in the West that the necesssary changes have taken place.
Mr. Gorbachev put his name to a declaration alongside Rajiv Ghandi in Delhi at the end of his visit, on 27 November. That declaration said:
Philosophies and policies based on violence and intimidation, inequality and oppression, and discrimination on the base of race, religion or colour, are immoral and impermissible. They spread intolerance, destroy man's noble aspirations and negate all human values.
I suspect that that sentence owes more to Indian than to Soviet drafting, but Mr. Gorbachev signed it with his name, and now is the time for him to demonstrate that he believes what he signed.
We all welcome the release of Irina Ratushinskaya. Whether or not that was influenced by the potential propaganda effect is immaterial to those of us whose concern was that she should be released. We want to see Alexander Ogorodnikov and others released. I hope that the Government will continue to add their voice, as they have already done, to campaigns for people such as this.
Like my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) and for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) and the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), I felt privileged to show my support for Alexander Ogorodnikov by taking part in the Bible readings at St. Sepulchre's church.
My colleagues have set out in detail the history of this sad case and have shown quite clearly that the cruel and inhuman treatment which Alexander Ogorodnikov has received contravenes the Helsinki agreement on human rights. I believe that his treatment also shows many instances of violations of the Soviet Union's own laws. Article 124 of the constitution of the USSR provides that
freedom of religious worship and freedom of anti-religious propaganda is recognised for all citizens.
Article 125 says:
in conformity with the interests of working people and in order to strengthen the socialist system the citizens of the USSR are guaranteed by law, (a) freedom of speech; (b) freedom of the press; (c) freedom of assembly".
Clearly, from what has been said about the arrest of Alexander Ogorodnikov and the publication of the seminar's magazine "Community" he has not been allowed free speech, freedom of the press or freedom of assembly. The Christian seminar was simply a small group of people wishing to discuss and strengthen their belief. There does not appear to be any legal basis for the Soviet Government to take action against them. In addition, practices and conditions in the camp often do not meet legal requirements. There is overcrowding and illegal detention, whilst punishment cells are built smaller than is specified by law.
The treatment of Alexander Ogorodnikov needs dealing with urgently at the highest level. Along with my colleagues, I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to make representations to the Soviet authorities and to press for the immediate release of Alexander. We ask that the Prime Minister take up the case with Mr. Gorbachev, along with the whole question of human rights, when she goes to Moscow. We ask that she emphasises to him that people in the West cannot understand how people such as Alexander can be treated in such a way in a supposedly civilised society. My right hon. Friend needs to explain to Mr. Gorbachev that people in the West are extremely worried by the obvious failure of the Soviet Union to implement the Helsinki agreement. Such examples of its blatant contraventions make many people wonder whether the Soviet Union, if it cannot be trusted in this respect, can be trusted to abide by other agreements that it seeks to make.
When the Prime Minister met Mr. Gorbachev, she said that she thought that she could do business with him. I met him briefly myself and I agree with my right hon. Friend's judgment. That being so, I hope that in March, when my right hon. Friend goes to Moscow, she will do business successfully with Mr. Gorbachev on this important issue of human rights.
The issues before us in this evening's debate are important, and I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargeaves) for raising them. I am grateful also to my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) and for Basildon (Mr. Amess), and to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for contributing to the debate.
Alexander Ogorodnikov, who is the subject of our debate, is about 36 years old. He is a Christian. The suffering that he has had to undergo because of his faith has been movingly recounted by my hon. Friends and the hon. Gentleman. I do not wish to detain the House at length by recounting those sufferings, because the House is aware of them.
Alexander Ogorodnikov's story is well known to Foreign Office Ministers and officials. It has caused us concern for a considerable time, for a number of reasons. First, Alexander should not have been arrested. The organisation of a discussion group should not be considered a crime merely because the opinions that the members express are not those of the Government. Secondly, once arrested, he should have been given a fair trial and allowed to conduct a proper defence. Thirdly, once imprisoned, he should never have been subjected to the sort of treatment that he has received. One would not wish such treatment to be meted out to anyone, irrespective of his crime.
Sadly, Alexander's story is far from unique. There are many others languishing in prisons or labour camps for their faith. There are Baptists, Pentecostalists, Catholics, Moslems and, of course, many members of the Soviet Jewish community. In the short time that is available to me tonight I do not wish to spend more time detailing the tragic facts. Instead, I want to address what the Government can do and are doing on behalf of these people.
The Soviet Union has no monopoly of inhumanity and injustice. Eleven years ago in Helsinki, however, the Soviet Union, together with 35 other European Governments, put its signature to the Helsinki Final Act. In doing so it solemnly committed itself to a number of important undertakings. The one which particularly concerns us tonight is known as principle VIII. It is frequently quoted and I think that it bears repetition. It commits all those who signed it to
recognise and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practise, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience".
One has only to reflect upon what that principle states to realise that the Soviet Union is in direct breach of it. We cannot allow it to continue to get away with it. That is why the British Government continue to return to the subject again and again in all out bilateral contacts with the Soviet Union, both directly an in multilateral forums such as the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, and we shall continue to do that for as long as it is necessary. For example, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary raises human rights issues regularly in his meetings with Mr. Shevardnadze. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) is at this moment in Moscow, where he is consulting Mr. Kovalev, the Soviet First Deputy Foreign Minister. I know that he intends to raise human rights issues and will have the case of Alexander Ogorodnikov in mind.
I went to Vienna just before Christmas to address the CSCE review meeting on behalf of the European Community. I drew the attention of delegates to the harassment of religious believers and the many other ways in which citizens in certain countries were being deprived of their basic human right. I warned that we and our partners in the European Community would continue to speak out for as long as the injustices persisted.
Our delegation in Vienna has ensured that human rights issues have been at the forefront of the meeting's attention throughout this first session, and it has pointed specifically to the case of Alexander Ogorodnikov as an example of the sort of behaviour that cannot be reconciled with the commitments contained in the Helsinki Final Act.
If those representations are to have their full effect, the Russians need to be convinced that the Government are not engaging in political point scoring but are representing the deeply felt concerns of the British public. That is why the debate tonight, together with the numerous pressure groups, organisations such as Keston college and many individuals who selflessly devote time and energy to bringing cases such as that of Alexander Ogorodnikov to public attention, have such a vital role to play. On behalf of the Government I should like to pay a warm tribute to them.
Public statements of condemnation, whether by private groups and individuals or by the Government, are not enough. Of course, we must make such statements, but for maximum effect they must be mixed with a good measure of quiet behind the scenes persuasion, or we risk producing only stubborn resistance. Quiet persuasion requires a certain element of confidentiality. That is why the Foreign Office sometimes prefers not to give full details of exchanges with the Soviet Government or other Governments on human rights issues. That is also one of the reasons why, although we regularly raise individual cases, we avoid giving categorical commitments in public.
We cannot "force" the Soviet Union to behave better. Experience suggests that in practice threats to cancel trade deals, and cultural events, or to refuse to talk to the Soviet Government until they mend their ways, carry little weight. Sadly, such tactics are unlikely to do anything to help Alexander Ogorodnikov and his fellow sufferers, and our general principle must he to try to expand contacts, not cut back on them. Cultural contacts, trade contacts, contacts in any area are one of the means that we have of influencing the Russians toward more civilised behaviour. The Vienna CSCE meeting was one such attempt, semipublicly and privately, to raise issues such as we have been discussing tonight. As I have already said, we raised the case of Alexander.
It might be of interest to the House to say that at the Vienna meeting the Soviet delegation tabled a proposal for a conference of all 35 participating states to be held in Moscow to discuss the so-called Basket III subjects—human contacts, information, culture and education. As yet we do not know much about the proposal. We have only the bare outline of it. It will be discussed along with proposals in the same area from other CSCE participating states in the next session of the meeting. Then we will want to know more about what is proposed. We will want to know specifically whether it is envisaged that human rights as well as human contacts will be on the agenda. We will want to know what arrangements are to be made for attendance by interest groups of various types from abroad, and from interests groups from within the country concerned, especially Helsinki monitors. We will also want to know about publicity arrangements.
We believe that any country offering to host such meetings will need to have its own performance scrupulously examined. In the case of the Moscow conference proposal, for example, it would be difficult to conceive that agreement would be reached to hold such a meeting if foreign broadcasts were still jammed or Helsinki monitors still imprisoned. But, as I have already explained, the main thing that we will be looking for in considering this and other proposals in this area will be a mechanism to increase the incentive for participating states to match their implementation record to the brave words that they signed at Helsinki 11 years ago.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we cannot be anything but gravely disappointed with the progress that has been made during the past 11 years. The cruel death of Anatoly Marchenko a few weeks ago, at a time when his release was being widely forecast, is a reminder of how much progress we have to make.
As the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said, there have been some encouraging signs. These recent developments demonstrate that the Soviet Government are at times prepared to respond to sustained western pressure. Shcharansky, Orlov and others who have come to the West have all stressed the importance for the human rights movement in the Soviet Union of continued support from Western Governments, both public and behind the scenes. Their voices are voices that we should listen to.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred to the Gorbachev policy of greater openness. That policy has struck a chord with many, both in his own country and abroad. But those who wish to believe that the Soviet Union has turned the corner will come up against the sad fact that in reality the breath of fresh air creeping into some areas of Soviet society has not yet been heard or felt by those who run human rights policies. We have much progress to make.
Our aim must be to persuade the Soviet Government to question their own attitudes—to put themselves under the microscope. Sometimes repressive practices can become institutionalised to the extent that Governments no longer believe that they are wrong. We must try to bring the Soviet Government to understand that a country of such stature as theirs, a superpower, should not feel threatened by handfulls of brave individuals who refuse to conform and insist on thinking for themselves. The Soviet Government should also understand that lessons of history suggest that in the long run such persecution does not succeed in stamping out non-comformist thinking—often the reverse; it encourages it.
We also have to try to get across to the Soviet Union the extent to which their failure to meet their CSCE obligations damages their reputation in the West and undermines the "charm offensive" to which Mr. Gorbachev and others in the Soviet leadership have been devoting so much energy in recent months.
In a letter smuggled out from his prison in May 1986, Ogorodnikov appealed to the Soviet Government for his own execution. There can be no more heartrending evidence of the suffering that he is undergoing. I appeal to the Soviet Government—and I am sure that all my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will join me in saying this—to consider whether his suffering is really necessary and to set him free before it is too late. I also ask the Soviet Government to ask themselves again whether it is in their own interests that the hundreds of prisoners of conscience still incarcerated in labour camps need to remain there. The answer from this House must be no. The answer must go out clearly, and I believe it has done so tonight.