Palestine: Alan Johnston

– in the House of Lords at 11:35 am on 26th April 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 11:35 am, 26th April 2007

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What further steps they are taking to secure the release of the BBC journalist Alan Johnston, and to obtain information about his detention.

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, we are extremely concerned by the kidnap of Alan Johnston in Gaza on 12 March. We have called for Alan's unconditional release, and continue to do so. We are working closely with the Palestinian Authority. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have spoken to Palestinian President Abbas, and our consul-general in Jerusalem has met President Abbas and Prime Minister Haniya.

We remain actively engaged. We are in close touch with the BBC and Alan's family. Our thoughts are with them at this difficult time.

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the efforts clearly being made. Does he agree that the situation is a triple tragedy—for the Johnston family, for the Palestinians, and for efforts to maintain balanced reporting in the Middle East, given the misplaced response of the National Union of Journalists to boycott Israeli goods?

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, the abduction of Alan Johnston has done no favours whatever to the people of Gaza. He produced, reliably, and on the basis of staying in a very dangerous environment, extremely high-quality and objective reporting. That was what was needed. It is a tragedy for everybody concerned and I hope that people, whether in trade unions or not, will give the most careful consideration to whether they are helping others to move in a constructive direction.

Photo of Lord Dykes Lord Dykes Spokesperson in the Lords (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Cap Reform), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this abduction is totally unacceptable for such a distinguished and hard-working journalist? We thank the Government for the work they are doing in trying to secure his release. Gaza is a hotbed of turbulent rumours; is the Minister aware of the rumours that recur from time to time of some bizarre connection between this and the attempt by Palestinian militants and others to secure the release of a large number of Palestinian refugees held, mostly without trial, by the Israeli authorities? The number is about 8,000, which, pro-rated, is equal to twice the entire prison population of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, I hope the House will bear with me. In these very delicate circumstances, in which we are trying to ensure the safe release of a distinguished journalist, I really do not want to speculate on the issues. Almost anything said in this House will be read by those whom we believe may hold Alan Johnston. I do not want to forearm them at this difficult time.

Photo of Baroness Billingham Baroness Billingham Labour

My Lords, is it not the case that, even as we speak, Members of the European Parliament, from all parties and countries, are voting to support the urgent call for the release of Alan Johnston? That, surely, is a practical and tangible way of showing support. What opportunity do we have in this Chamber, where there is clearly enormous support, for sending a similar message of support to Alan Johnston and his family and of our hope for his speedy release?

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, I thank my noble friend. I am quite sure that that is needed and desired on all sides of the House. I will ensure that the sentiments of the House are conveyed to the Palestinian Authority and all others in the region, if that is acceptable to your Lordships. I applaud all those in the international community, including those in the European Parliament today who are making their voices heard, and the journalists from all parts of the Middle East who, irrespective of their views about the peace process, have added their voices. That is constructive: speculation on the precise nature of any discussions is not.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Leader, Parliament, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, we join the Minister in the concerns that he expressed and the sympathies that he extended to both the family of Alan Johnston and all his colleagues in the BBC and elsewhere. Will he throw light on one aspect? A sinister report came from an obscure terrorist group—I think that it was the Brigades of Tawhid and Jihad—that Mr Johnston had been executed and that further evidence of it would be provided. No further evidence has appeared and the story seems to have vanished from the press. What is his assessment of that story?

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, I will try to answer with the greatest circumspection, for all the reasons that I have given. We are all aware of the reports that Alan had been killed, and of President Abbas's more recent suggestion that he is still alive. We are unable to verify this in either direction.

Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that this is yet another terrible example of the deteriorating situation in the Occupied Territories. Has he had discussions or contact with the Israeli Government about the proposals recently put forward by 22 Arab nations, led by Jordan?

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, I can confirm that the quartet has taken up those suggestions and they are being played into the discussions with the Israeli Government. It is essential that those discussions lead towards a two-state solution and to real security for each of the peoples involved. A new dynamic was added, and we need to capture it.