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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the case of Andy Tsege and other UK nationals imprisoned abroad.
It is a pleasure to see so many hon. Members here today. I will try to limit my remarks to 20 minutes. I was informed yesterday that only three Members had put their names in to speak, so I do not know how many Members present intend to do so. Clearly, I welcome the opportunity for the debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for it.
During this festive period, hundreds of thousands of British citizens will be travelling home to their families or going on holiday for a break. People would expect such a trip to be uneventful. Why would anything go wrong? However, for some British citizens, what happened while they were travelling abroad has turned their lives upside down in a way that many of us could not begin to comprehend.
Two prominent examples of that are Andy Tsege and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Both are British—Nazanin is a dual national—and were arrested by foreign authorities and imprisoned without access to a fair trial. Andy was kidnapped by Ethiopian agents at Sana’a International airport in Yemen, with the Yemeni authorities stating that his detention had not occurred pursuant to any judicial process. Nazanin, whose two-year-old daughter was with her, was arrested while leaving Iran. The ordeal that both Andy and Nazanin have since faced is truly shocking, and on top of the injustice of their detention, their daily lives have been subjected to gross human rights violations.
In the time permitted, I will concentrate on the cases of Andy and Nazanin. A longer debate would of course have allowed the cases of prisoners of conscience of all nationalities, held around the world, to be raised, and many organisations have contacted me since this debate was allowed in order to draw attention to such cases. For instance, Ali al-Nimr is spending his 22nd birthday in prison in Saudi Arabia. His crimes were participating in a demonstration,
“explaining how to give first aid to protestors” and using his BlackBerry to invite others to join him at the protest.
There is also the case of Nabeel Rajab, whose trial has been delayed for the fifth time and who is expected now to be sentenced on 28th December. That is perhaps a diversionary tactic because there may be less attention on his case as festive celebrations get under way. He is a Bahraini human rights activist and opposition leader. That case is of particular interest to the UK, because of the funding from the UK that is going into training and supporting the security and justice systems in Bahrain.
There is also the case, drawn to my attention just yesterday, of a dual UK-Lebanese citizen detained in Israel. The release of Mr Faiz Mahmoud Ahmed Sherari has been ordered by a military court in Israel, but as far as I am aware he has not been released.
I would also like to use this opportunity to raise the case of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. I know that many hon. Members here today have raised concerns about the pressures that that community are under in different countries around the world—perhaps most prominently in Pakistan, but also, I understand, in Algeria.
Today, however, I will concentrate on Andy and Nazanin. This will be the third Christmas that Andy has spent alone in a prison—he is now in a prison notorious for being Ethiopia’s gulag. He has not been able to speak to his partner and children in London for two years and has had no private access to British consular officials, leaving him unable to describe freely the treatment that he has received at the hands of his jailers.
Nazanin has been held, mostly in solitary confinement, for more than nine months. Her husband has campaigned tirelessly back in London for the UK Government to call for her release. It is still unclear whether the Government have done that. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will be able to clarify that. Have the Government actually called for her release? Her husband says that she has been at breaking point. She is currently allowed to see her daughter only for one hour each week in prison. Her daughter remains trapped in Iran, unable to see her father. Furthermore, representatives of both Andy and Nazanin have repeatedly raised serious concerns about their health.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. He raises the point about what our Government have done. In the case of Andy Tsege, I do not think it is in dispute that he was rendered unlawfully and was tried in absentia, and we would not recognise those processes. Does the right hon. Gentleman not think it extraordinary, therefore, that the Government have not even requested his release?
I do indeed. What the Government are trying to initiate, which I will come on to shortly, is providing Andy Tsege with a lawyer, but as I understand it, he has no right of appeal in Ethiopia, and therefore providing him with a lawyer does not seem to be of great use.
The mistreatment of British citizens imprisoned abroad is unacceptable in all cases, regardless of what crime has been committed, yet in these cases the astounding truth is that it is clear that Andy and Nazanin are being held unlawfully. Attached to Andy’s name was a conviction and death sentence, after a trial in absentia, which was condemned throughout the world. Although Andy was previously prominent in Ethiopian politics, no country other than Ethiopia had found evidence, at the time of his kidnapping, that the political organisation with which he was involved had conspired to commit acts of terrorism.
Nazanin was recently sentenced on charges that remain secret, despite her previous employment in Iran as an aid worker. The simple fact is that if these British citizens are not going to be charged with an offence recognised internationally, they should be released immediately so that they can spend Christmas at home, safe with their families, who want nothing more than for them to be at home and for their lives to return to normality.
Yesterday, a representative of Reprieve and I met the Ethiopian ambassador about Andy’s case. We are grateful to His Excellency and the Minister responsible for public diplomacy for their time. We are aware that last Thursday—
“assess his options under the Ethiopian legal system.”
Unfortunately, that does not, in my view, demonstrate progress on his case. First, the UK Government’s approach to this case appears to ignore the fact that Andy is the victim of a series of crimes and is not a criminal. The UK Government’s failure to condemn the series of abuses that Andy has suffered and continues to suffer at the hands of the Ethiopian regime signals that foreign Governments can ignore international law and kidnap British citizens at will.
I declare an interest as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Ethiopia and Djibouti. The right hon. Gentleman has repeatedly referred to Mr Tsege’s “kidnapping”. Does he have any evidence that that was a kidnapping? Does he have any statements provided by the Yemeni Government to that effect? I ask because obviously that is not what the Ethiopians are saying. If the right hon. Gentleman does have such evidence, I am happy to help him with the case as far as that goes.
My understanding is that the Yemenis have stated that the process of getting Mr Tsege from Yemen to Ethiopia did not follow a judicial process that they recognised. Furthermore, as the hon. Gentleman may be aware, the UK Government have repeatedly asked for a copy of the extradition treaty that apparently exists between Yemen and Ethiopia and, as far as I am aware, that has not been provided. I hope that that might provide sufficient evidence for him to want to investigate the matter further.
In addition, the UK Government’s strategy of focusing on access to a lawyer in this case is unworkable for a number of practical reasons. There is no legal conviction and sentence to appeal. Andy was convicted and sentenced to death illegally in 2009, while living in London with his family. The trial was described by a representative from the US embassy in Addis Ababa as “political retaliation” and
“lacking in basic elements of due process”.
I maintain that Andy was abducted in 2014 amid a sweeping crackdown on opposition voices. There was no lawful basis for Andy’s rendition from Yemen to Ethiopia, and he has not been charged with any new offence.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I am slightly confused by this. Do the Yemeni Government accept that they knew that Andy was being removed from their territory, or do they say that it was done secretly without their knowledge?
At the risk of repeating myself, the information I have is that the Yemeni authorities clearly know that he was taken from there but have stated that they believe that no judicial process was followed to extract him in that way. That would imply that if there was an extradition treaty in place between Yemen and Ethiopia, it was not actually used as a means of extracting him from that country. Perhaps when the Minister responds he will give us some more detail on what he believes the position to be.
The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way, and is laying out his case carefully and strongly. I congratulate him on securing this important debate. May I pursue this question? He has already stated that Mr Tsege may quite possibly have been the victim of a crime or of several crimes. If no judicial process was applied in the rendition from the airport in Yemen, does that imply that there could have been an official but non-judicial process? Could there have been some sort of official complicity among Yemeni authorities as well, in which case should we be aiming fire at their potentially having committed crimes against Mr Tsege?
That is a very helpful intervention, and the hon. Gentleman has highlighted an area that requires pursuing. When we had the meeting with the Ethiopian ambassador yesterday, he implied that in the past there have been arrangements between the Yemenis and the Ethiopians and that perhaps those arrangements were used, as opposed to there being a formal extradition process. Yes, we might well want to question the involvement of the Yemeni authorities.
What is clear is that had the Ethiopian Government wanted to extradite Andy lawfully, they could have made a request for his extradition from the UK authorities—although I understand that there is currently no formal extradition agreement between the UK and Ethiopia. I believe that no such request was made and, as far as I am aware, the UK Government have been provided with no evidence of Andy’s so-called terrorist activities. I understand that the UK Government are apparently being encouraged to follow—this is the description from the Ethiopian ambassador—the open trial process that found Andy guilty in absentia as their means of obtaining information, rather than necessarily expecting it from the Ethiopian Government directly.
The Ethiopian Government have publicly confirmed, on a number of occasions, that there are no legal options open to Andy. Most recently, at the meeting yesterday it was confirmed that he cannot appeal his sentence because he was absent from his trial. A plea for clemency to the Ethiopian President may be possible, and I look forward to some information that we were offered at that meeting about how such a plea could be initiated.
I maintain that access to a lawyer will not achieve justice for Andy. By continuing to pursue an unworkable strategy, the UK Government are not living up to their duty to protect British citizens facing the death penalty overseas. On that point, we got a degree of reassurance from the Ethiopian ambassador that Ethiopia does not apply capital punishment, although he did set out a couple of exceptions to that rule, so it was half reassuring and half not.
Andy’s most recent consular visit also highlighted continued failures by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in handling his case. For instance, although the FCO has continuously claimed, and represented to a UK court, that Andy could call his partner and children whenever he wanted to, the prison director informed the ambassador at the latest visit that
“prisoners cannot make phone calls.”
That, too, was confirmed in the meeting with the Ethiopian ambassador yesterday. Thus Andy is not—and, as far as I am aware, never was—able to call his family, so his children face the third Christmas in a row without any contact with their father. He does not even have a pen and paper to write them a Christmas card. Given the fairly significant failures in this case and the way that it has been managed, I hope that the Minister will be willing to conduct a meaningful review of the Government’s approach, because I do not think that approach is delivering.
What more can be done to help Andy and Nazanin? Although hundreds of thousands of people have supported petitions and campaigns, in partnership with the tireless advocacy work of groups such as Reprieve and Amnesty International, ultimately it is the Ethiopian Government, the Iranian Government and our Government who have the most influence and leverage. To the Ethiopian authorities, I make a simple plea: let Andy make that call before Christmas. He has had two years without contact with his wife or children, and that can stop very easily if the Ethiopian authorities permit it.
To the Iranian authorities, pending Nazanin’s release, which I hope will be soon, I say: allow for visits for her young daughter involving extended contact, and in a suitable environment, taking account of the best interests of the child in line with the provisions of the convention on the rights of the child, which I am pleased that Iran has ratified. There is not time to raise the case of Kamal Foroughi in any detail, but I hope that other Members may refer to his case as well.
What should the UK Government do at this point? They need to call openly and loudly for Iran and Ethiopia to free Nazanin and Andy respectively. I believe that the weight of the Prime Minister calling for their release would be significant and set a strong tone that the UK does not stand by and lets its citizens face appalling treatment, trapped in prisons, thousands of miles from their homes. We have seen the US and Canada—and the UK previously—secure the release of their citizens after publicly raising calls for the release of their nationals imprisoned unlawfully abroad. Yet the UK Government appear reluctant to do the same now.
The FCO stresses the work that it does for the families of Andy and Nazanin, and says that it repeatedly raises their cases with the respective Governments. However, all it appears to be doing is acquiescing in the dubious charges imposed on them by saying that it will not get involved in the legal system of another state, despite those legal systems being grossly, and so obviously, unfair. I am familiar with that argument—all too familiar with it—in relation to the constituency case of Neil Juwaheer, whose parents believe was murdered by Brazilian police in a Brazilian police station.
If we were to get just one official public statement from our Prime Minister unequivocally calling for Andy’s and Nazanin’s release, and for the release of other British nationals imprisoned unlawfully abroad, that would convince the public that our Government will stand up for their citizens and would send a strong and unequivocal message to foreign Governments. My call is for the Prime Minister, the Government and the Minister to give Andy and Nazanin’s families some seasonal comfort over the next week—pick up the phone, issue a statement and call for their release.
I congratulate Tom Brake on securing this debate. As we have heard today, Mr Tsege, who was a prominent figure in Ethiopian opposition politics, has experienced terrible difficulties. He has undergone experiences that give many colleagues in this House cause for concern, which is evidenced by the number of Members of Parliament, from many different parties, who are in their places today.
I am here today because a member of my staff recently met Mr Tsege’s partner, Ms Hailemariam, at her request here in Parliament, was deeply moved by the family’s plight and referred Mr Tsege’s case to me. I pay tribute to Ms Hailemariam for her tenacity and perseverance in championing her partner’s case; as I said, that is why I am here today.
I will focus on one aspect of Mr Tsege’s case—that is, the apparent absence of the appropriate due judicial process. Judicial process under law is not apparent from his situation, and we in the UK Parliament should defend the right of all our fellow citizens, wherever they are in the world, to have the benefit of due process under law, whatever they might be suspected or accused of. We should not tolerate without challenge a UK citizen being subject to peremptory abduction, rendition, imprisonment and the lack of a fair trial, as appears to have happened in Andy Tsege’s case. That is why so many of us are here today.
I am so sorry to interrupt again. Is Andy now under sentence of death, having been tried in absentia, so he is there permanently? Is there any chance of a review of his case by the judicial authorities in Ethiopia? In other words, are we down to political, international and diplomatic pressure to get him out?
As far as I understand it, in Ethiopia there is no right of appeal from a death sentence. I stand to be corrected if other hon. Members understand the situation differently, but I see some nodding in the Chamber.
I do not want to interrogate the veracity of the claims against Mr Tsege, but whatever the intricacies of his particular case, we cannot avoid the fact that a UK citizen has, by all accounts, been kidnapped, arrested, rendered and imprisoned, and then tried, convicted and sentenced to death in absentia, in flagrant contravention of the due process of law.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and I congratulate Tom Brake on securing the debate. Is it not material to this matter for the international community that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention described Mr Tsege’s detention as “illegal” and concluded that an “adequate remedy” would be to release him and afford him “adequate compensation”?
That is right. As we have heard, Mr Tsege was convicted in absentia in 2009 while he was at home with his family in London. He was not formally notified of the proceedings brought against him, nor of his ultimate sentence. Obviously, he was not given any opportunity to defend himself and the US State Department has described his 2009 trial as an act of “political retaliation” that was
“lacking in basic elements of due process”.
Mr Tsege was sentenced under Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009—a statute that the Foreign Office has noted has been used to
“restrict…opposition and dissent” by targeting
“members of opposition groups, journalists” and
Mr Tsege was tried alongside scores of other political prisoners including his 82-year-old father. What is very concerning is that the anti-terrorism proclamation under which he was convicted was not introduced until a month after his in absentia trial began in June 2009. I know that many hon. Members share my concern about retrospective legislation, particularly in the case of criminal charges.
During the proceedings, the prosecution amended the charges against Mr Tsege, dropping the initial allegation that he was involved in plotting a coup d’état and introducing instead charges of conspiring to dismantle the constitutional order. I understand that UK authorities have noted that at no point have they been presented with any evidence against Mr Tsege from the Ethiopian authorities that would stand up in a British court, despite the requests made of the Ethiopian Government.
The civil liberties group, Reprieve, which I commend on highlighting the case, said that Mr Tsege was bound, hooded and bundled onto a plane headed for Ethiopia. It should be noted that the circumstances of his abduction, which have been widely publicised, have not been disputed by Ethiopian officials. The fact remains that the Ethiopian Government did not request his lawful extradition while he was living in London, nor have they produced any evidence to back up the claim of an extradition arrangement with Yemen. His kidnap at an overseas airport is a clear breach of the established international legal extradition process.
Further, the UN special rapporteur on torture reported to the United Nations Human Rights Council that Ethiopia’s treatment of Mr Tsege has violated the convention against torture. In addition to the marked difference in Mr Tsege’s physical appearance before and after abduction in his television appearances—it is clearly discernible—a British psychiatrist commissioned by Reprieve, who has assessed his case, has noted his deteriorating mental state. I understand that Ethiopia has not allowed the British Government to have a private consular visit, making it impossible for Mr Tsege to report directly instances of suspected mistreatment.
There have been some consular visits, albeit not private. When Mr Tsege was with the UK ambassador to Ethiopia he stressed that he only ever advocated the conduct of politics “by peaceful means.” That echoes his testimony before the European Parliament in 2006 in which he encouraged Members of the European Parliament to back the
“peaceful, just and fair struggle of the people of Ethiopia for freedom and democracy”.
In the years before his abduction, Mr Tsege mounted a global campaign to draw worldwide attention to concerning developments in Ethiopia. He testified before the European Parliament and the United States Congress, encouraging the latter to introduce legislation to encourage Ethiopia to engage in “democratisation and economic liberalisation”.
Some organisations, such as the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which has investigated the case, have concluded that the only proper solution is for Mr Tsege to be immediately released and returned home. It could well be argued that the UK Government should demand that. If, following his release, the Ethiopian Government then wish to pursue a case against him, they should do so legitimately by seeking his extradition and observing the norms of legal process. What is the Minister’s response to that and what steps have the UK Government taken in that regard? Have they pushed for Mr Tsege’s release from Ethiopia, or have diplomatic efforts been limited, as has been reported, to efforts to try to convince the Ethiopian Government to grant him access to a lawyer, which, as we have heard, will be of limited benefit at this stage? Perhaps the UK Government are aware of information that is not in the public domain; what can the Minister tell us to help us to understand the otherwise inexplicable treatment of Mr Tsege?
“Britain does not interfere in the legal systems of other countries”, but it is interesting to note that in recent years, two UK citizens who were arbitrarily detained have been released: Lee Po in China and Karl Andree in Saudi Arabia. I understand that, in both cases, their release came about following intervention by the UK.
The question is whether we believe that the circumstances of Mr Tsege’s arrest and subsequent treatment are acceptable. Surely they are not.
It is my understanding that no UK aid actually goes to Governments these days. Certainly, it does not go to the Ethiopian Government. I think that it goes much further down the line.
It is now often the case that aid is not paid bilaterally to many countries. None the less, UK aid money is being spent in Ethiopia, as has been indicated by my hon. Friend Dr Mathias.
While the hon. Lady is on the subject of aid, I wonder whether she had an opportunity on her visit to look at the MSc in security sector management. I understand it was initially funded through a DFID programme and it appears that some of the people who were responsible for Mr Tsege’s detention had taken part.
Thank you, Mr Flello. I did not have an opportunity to see the project to which Steve McCabe referred.
In conclusion, disrespect for basic human rights continues to be widespread throughout the globe. I see that all too frequently as chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. It is in that capacity, as well as in my capacity as a Member of Parliament, that I raise concerns about Mr Tsege today. As the Secretary-General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, so eloquently stated:
“Upholding human rights is in the interest of all. Respect for human rights advances well-being for every individual, stability for every society, and harmony for our interconnected world.”
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Flello. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for this opportunity to discuss Andy Tsege’s case, which my speech will be focused on. Over the past year or so, I have been contacted by a lot of constituents who are concerned about the British Government’s apparent failure to support a British citizen with a partner and three children in London. I have met with Reprieve to talk about the case and I pay tribute to that organisation, not just for representing Andy, but for its work over many years in challenging the use of the death penalty across the world.
As we have heard—I will recap briefly—Mr Tsege was sentenced to death in absentia in 2009. He was at home in the UK at the time and had received no notification of the proceedings against him. He was convicted under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, legislation that was not even introduced until a month after his trial began, and there are reports that the prosecution frequently amended the charges against him. The trial was described by a representative from the US embassy in Addis Ababa as “political retaliation” and
“lacking in basic elements of due process”.
As we have heard, rather than the Ethiopian Government approaching the UK to see whether Mr Tsege could be extradited, he was kidnapped at a Yemen airport, bound, hooded, and taken on a plane to Ethiopia in breach of international legal extradition processes. For a while, no one knew where he was being detained, but he eventually surfaced at a prison that has been described as “Ethiopia’s gulag”. His partner is not permitted to travel to Ethiopia and neither she, nor their three children, have spoken to him in two years. He has been shown on state television, where he apparently appeared exhausted and to have lost a lot of weight. The UN special rapporteur on torture has reported to the Human Rights Council that Mr Tsege’s treatment has violated the convention against torture, and a British psychiatrist has reported that his mental state is deteriorating.
While Mr Tsege has been detained, he has been allowed only brief and irregular visits from British consular officials, and none of those visits has been private. I understand that the most recent visit was last Thursday, in which he was told that a lawyer may have been found for him to assess his options under the Ethiopian legal system. I am sure that the Minister will tell us that this is a positive step forward, but it will be small comfort given that Mr Tsege was illegally convicted and sentenced to death, that there was no lawful basis for his rendition from Yemen to Ethiopia, and that the Ethiopian ambassador has confirmed to Reprieve and to Tom Brake that there is no right of appeal. Will the Minister explain what he believes legal representation for Mr Tsege would actually achieve and why the Foreign Office has not done much more to support him?
The Foreign Office, in seeking to explain its reluctance to help Mr Tsege, said that the UK does not intervene in other countries’ legal systems. Yet Reprieve points out that the UK has frequently requested and secured the release of British nationals who have been arbitrarily detained in other countries. It also points to President Obama’s successful request, before his visit to Ethiopia, for the release of bloggers sentenced to death under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation as evidence that the Ethiopian Government will respond positively to international pressure. The UN’s working group on arbitrary detention has also called for Mr Tsege’s immediate release.
I can understand why the UK would not wish, as a general rule, to intervene in other countries’ judicial systems, but surely that should apply only when we have confidence that the rule of law, due process and the independence of the judiciary from political interference—basic principles that should be at the heart of any legal system—are being upheld. Surely we have a responsibility to speak out where freedom of expression is under threat, and a duty to challenge torture and oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. The Minister must see that Mr Tsege’s case highlights concerns on all those fronts, and he knows that there are wider concerns about Ethiopia’s human rights record. The Foreign Office has expressed concern that, in an attempt to restrict dissent:
Amnesty International’s annual report highlights how members of opposition parties and protesters have been extra-judicially executed, and that the elections took place
“against a backdrop of restrictions on civil society, the media and the political opposition, including excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators...and the harassment of election observers”.
It also reports that the ATP was used to “suppress freedom of expression” and detain journalists in the run-up to the election, and that many journalists have been forced to flee the country. Amnesty has condemned the recent arrest of the Ethiopian opposition leader as
“an outrageous assault on the right to freedom of expression and should sound alarm bells for anyone with an interest in ending the deadly protests that have rocked Ethiopia over the past year.”
The Human Rights Watch report on Ethiopia also makes for disturbing reading, with evidence of
“harassment, arbitrary arrest, and politically motivated prosecutions.”
It says that the media “remained under government stranglehold” and that security personnel have tortured political detainees. Human Rights Watch also describes Mr Tsege’s removal from Yemen as “unlawful”.
Even if the Foreign Office thought that Mr Tsege’s trial and detention complied with international law—a very big if, given what we have heard this morning—surely the Government would still have an obligation to challenge the death sentence given that the UK unequivocally opposes the death sentence in all circumstances. That used to be a human rights priority for the Foreign Office, but those priorities have now been abandoned in a shameful sign that the Government’s human rights work has been downgraded.
The Government chose not to renew their strategy for the abolition of the death penalty when it ran out last year. I would be grateful if the Minister would tell us why, and what the Government are doing to ensure that the international community does not interpret this as a weakening commitment to global abolition, because that is what it looks like. Will the Minister tell us whether FCO resources for challenging the death penalty have also been downgraded? The Minister will no doubt tell us that the Foreign Office has replaced its six human rights priorities with its three pillars. I would appreciate an update on how the Foreign Office is working to support those pillars overseas. I urge the Minister to consider the questions that Mr Tsege’s case raises about Ethiopia’s commitments to democratic values, the rule of law and the rules-based international system.
The UK’s support for human rights—domestically and internationally—should be robust and categorical. Too often, the issue appears to be an afterthought for Ministers when abroad and to be seen as a nuisance at home. I ask the Minister to reflect on what Mr Tsege and his family have been through over the last few years and to consider whether he deserves better from this Government. It is shameful and indefensible to treat a British citizen in this way. I hope we hear a firm commitment from the Minister to do absolutely everything he can, using the considerable leverage at the Government’s disposal, to secure justice and freedom for Mr Tsege.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I congratulate Tom Brake on securing it. The Library background information shows that he has done a lot of extremely good work for the gentleman in question.
As the human rights spokesperson for the Democratic Unionist party at Westminster, it is incumbent on me to raise the plight of a gentleman who has been the beneficiary of political asylum here in the UK since 1979. We are all aware of how the asylum system works and the fact that asylum is not easily granted. I recently dealt with a gentleman seeking asylum whose brother was murdered in Zimbabwe due to his political affiliation, and it has been a long battle to have the Home Office recognise his status. As we all know, Zimbabwe will shortly hold elections, but it is an authoritarian regime. I can but hope that true democracy will happen and the dictator, Mugabe, will be ousted so that my constituent and his family can return home to the country he loves and where he wants to be.
The fact that Andy was granted political asylum shows that he has a valid case. Our asylum rules state that, to stay in the UK as a refugee, a person must be unable to live safely in any part of their own country because they fear persecution, as Andy clearly does. Such persecution must be because of a person’s race, religion, nationality, political opinion—as in this case—or anything else that puts them at risk because of the social, cultural, religious or political situation in their country, such as their gender, gender identity or sexual orientation. A claimant must have failed to receive protection from authorities in their own country.
We are aware of many other cases across the world, and the right hon. Gentleman referred to some of them in his introduction. I asked a parliamentary question in July in which I asked the Minister to urge
The Minister replied that
“Mr Foroughi’s lawyers would be welcome to have contact with the Iranian Judicial authorities.”
Has the Foreign Office had any opportunity to assist Kamal Foroughi’s lawyers?
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has also been mentioned. Human rights abuses are rampant in Iran, and this lady has been abused and had her personal liberty taken from her. There have been petitions, and MPs, including me and many others in this room, have joined the campaign—we are all here to make the case.
Andy, who was born in Ethiopia, was granted asylum because he is a well-known and respected critic of the Ethiopian Government. In recent years he has appeared before the US Congress and the European Parliament’s sub-committee on human rights to speak about the current regime’s poor human rights record. Andy fled Ethiopia in the 1970s after facing serious threats from the then Government because of his democratic political beliefs. His younger brother had already been murdered by Government security forces.
Andy’s safety in prison has been questioned, as have his cell and the people he is with. What has been done about that? We did not send him home, because we accepted that his life was at risk. His life is now at risk, and we have not secured his release and have perhaps not given the right help. Is that right? Surely we can and should apply diplomatic pressure to bring this British citizen, and father of British children, home to his family. The Foreign Secretary secured legal representation for Andy in June 2016, and he said:
“I have now received a commitment”.
What commitment did he receive, and what is he doing in relation to that commitment? It is important that we find out.
Since being kidnapped in June 2014, Andy has not been allowed access to his family, a lawyer or British consular officials throughout his ordeal. He has not been charged with any crime, and he has not been subjected to any legal process. In July 2014, Ethiopian state TV aired a heavily edited video of Andy apparently confessing to a number of offences. He appeared gaunt and disoriented, and he had noticeably lost weight. Screaming could be heard in the background. Torture is extremely widespread in Ethiopian prisons, and political detainees such as Andy are routinely abused to extract information and false confessions. Ethiopia is one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Christians are persecuted, stripped of their human rights, abused, tortured and reduced to second-class citizens in their own country.
Dr Mathias spoke about the aid that Ethiopia receives. Something is seriously wrong when a girl band—they are known as Ethiopia’s Spice Girls—received £5.2 million in aid, on top of the £4 million that they have already received, but we cannot help this man Andy. That is disgraceful. I understand the Foreign Office’s position, but I make it clear that we have a moral obligation to call for Andy’s release. I support those calls today.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. I thank Tom Brake for securing this important debate. I do not disagree with anything he said. I declare an interest as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human rights and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on democracy and human rights in the Gulf. I have tabled written questions on Andy Tsege, and I am thankful that we have now been afforded the opportunity to debate his case.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Chris Law, who is a vocal campaigner for Andy’s release and has worked closely with Andy’s family and Reprieve over the last six months. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend is unable to attend today’s debate, but I hope that my party colleagues and I are able to convey many of the points he would have intended to make.
As we are all aware, Andy’s situation is very worrying. Ethiopia is a country where tensions are high, where the human rights situation was described only last month as “dire” by a representative of Amnesty International, and where the recent elections in 2015 were held against a backdrop of reported political intimidation of opposition parties. Evidently, Ethiopia is a country fraught with problems, and it is concerning that Andy is currently languishing there.
Since his incarceration, the Ethiopian authorities have continued to peddle the myth that Andy is a terrorist and that his political party, Ginbot 7, is a terrorist organisation. Frankly, that could not be further from the truth and as his partner, Yemi Hailemariam, has said, he is a “politician, not a terrorist.” Ginbot 7, despite sustained pressure from the Ethiopian Government, has not been proscribed as a terrorist organisation by any other Government and, indeed, the UK is yet to be provided with any evidence of Andy’s supposed terrorist activity. It is appalling that Ethiopia is taking that line, and I truly hope that the UK Government have been vocal in rebuffing those claims to their counterparts.
I would be grateful if the Minister outlined whether the Ethiopian authorities have recently tried to provide any evidence against Andy and, if so, what the Government have said to the Ethiopian authorities in response. As per an answer provided by Baroness Anelay of St Johns on
Despite those prolonged and sustained efforts, Andy remains locked up in prison. The Government’s representations are welcome, but the Foreign Office must go further and call for Andy’s immediate and unconditional release. We keep hearing from the FCO that Andy has access to legal advice, but that simply does not go far enough. Reprieve has argued that any legal access is effectively pointless, as the Ethiopian Government have already said that there is no legal route by which Andy can be allowed to contest his death sentence.
The UK Government have repeatedly claimed:
“Britain does not interfere in the legal systems of other countries by challenging convictions.”
However, Reprieve categorically disputes that rebuttal. It is of the opinion that the former Foreign Secretary, Mr Hammond, personally intervened in the case of Karl Andree, who was released from a Saudi Arabian prison in 2015. As such, will the Minister clarify why it seems that the Government’s approach to Andy is different from their approach to Mr Andree?
Furthermore, what is the Minister’s position on the comments made by Mr Grieve that, as Andy was kidnapped and sentenced to death in absentia, the Government should be calling for his release? Last Wednesday marked two years since Yemi and Andy’s children last held a conversation with their father—two full years in which he has had minimal contact with the outside world and has been stuck in a prison dubbed “Ethiopia’s gulag”. Andy now faces the prospect of another Christmas behind bars, without seeing or hearing from his beloved wife and three children.
In closing, I would like to draw a parallel with the situation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Only last week, I met her husband Richard. After speaking with him, I could not stop thinking about how their family’s Christmas will not be celebrated. Nazanin and Richard have a young child, Gabriella. It is absolutely heartbreaking to think what they are all going through. Tulip Siddiq has been a great advocate for her constituent, and I hope that the Government can assist further with the case. At a time when families around the world are coming together, the families of Nazanin and Andy could not be further apart. The Government must do more for them, and they must be willing to demand their immediate release.
It is an honour to serve—in haste—under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. I congratulate Tom Brake on securing this important debate, which allows us to mention a number of cases. We have heard about the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We need her release, but also, pending that, we need proper access for her family. The case of Kamal Foroughi, which was described strongly by Jim Shannon, is similar.
Like others, I will concentrate particularly on the case of Andy Tsege. I met his family initially after, as an officer of the all-party parliamentary group on human rights, I was made aware of his case by Jeremy Corbyn, who was also an officer and ensured that the group took up his constituent’s case, which he had been following. Obviously, since the right hon. Gentleman’s elevation to Leader of the Opposition, he is more constricted in what he can do and say in proceedings such as this, but I note his attendance for a large part of the debate, as I am sure have Andy Tsege’s family.
Let us be clear: we are talking in this case about a series of instances in which someone has been treated appallingly. Andy Tsege was tried in absentia, which is a scandal in itself. He was then sentenced to death, which is also a scandal and should be cause for alarm given the UK’s diplomatic stance. He was then rendered in a gross way from a third country and imprisoned in Ethiopia, where he has been tortured and mistreated. Let us remember that the anti-terror proclamation under which he was sentenced was not introduced until a month after his trial in absentia began in June 2009. Every stage of this case stinks. We must remember that Andy Tsege is a dual national, and the trial in absentia happened while he was here in the UK with his family.
We have been told in numerous parliamentary answers that Andy Tsege’s case is a priority for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but can the Minister tell us what less the FCO could have done had this case not been a priority? Thankfully, there have been a number of visits, but none of them has taken place free of the presence of the Ethiopian authorities. The FCO is also involved in the constant circular offer of legal assistance. As the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said in introducing the debate, the fact is that Andy is not a criminal; he is the victim of a series of crimes. The Government should not collude in the fiction that there is a legal process or that there are recognisable charges against this UK citizen.
I am certainly not taking sides with the Ethiopian Government on this issue, but I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is using somewhat excessive language. The British Government have not been complicit at all. They have been active on the case for two years that I know of. Perhaps he might want to reconsider. He is normally much more reasonable than that.
If the hon. Gentleman checks, he will see that I said that the Government are constantly referring to legal advice and legal assistance, in circumstances where there is no process. We have already heard that there is no right of appeal for Andy Tsege, and that he was tried in absentia. What I said was that the Government’s line about legal advice colludes with the fiction that there is a legal process with recognisable charges. I did not imply any other degree of complicity, and I did not actually use the word to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I know that he chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Ethiopia and Djibouti; it would have been interesting if he could have offered some alternative narrative from the Ethiopian authorities. As I understand it, the FCO has neither been given one nor referred to one, although the Minister might correct me on that when he replies.
I congratulate Tom Brake on securing the debate and giving such a succinct summary of the case. It seems to me that the crime committed by Andy Tsege is being an outspoken critic of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. I thought that we in this country encouraged that kind of behaviour, so I am not sure why, as Mark Durkan has just said, we are now accepting the Ethiopian version of events.
What is clear is that if the cornerstone of the British case is that Andy Tsege should be allowed access to legal representation, that has to mean more than just a list of lawyers that he may or may not still possess. The bottom line is that we would not expect any British citizen to get such poor support from the authorities. Will the Minister demand private access to Mr Tsege? Will he ensure proper legal representation? In fact, will he do what we would expect him to do for anybody and demand this man’s release?
Thinking back to the case of John McCarthy, what would have happened if we had all just sat back quietly and said nothing? Would McCarthy ever have been released? We must shout loudly and clearly that we are not putting up with that for Andy Tsege, or for Nazanin Ratcliffe. We expect our Government to protect our citizens, stand up for the rule of law and make it absolutely clear to regimes around the world that if they have no respect for human rights and the rule of law, they will get no favours from us.
I thank Reprieve for its outstanding research and advocacy on the case of Andy Tsege and many others in which I have been involved. I say to the Minister, as have others, that the Government have intervened before. They intervened in the case of Karl Andree, and of my constituent Ghoncheh Ghavami, the young woman imprisoned in Iran for trying to go and see a volleyball game. She was released; her case was raised by the former Foreign Secretary with his Iranian counterpart. The former Prime Minister intervened in the case of Shaker Aamer, as did others.
I am delighted to see here the Leader of the Opposition, who is Andy Tsege’s MP, as well as the shadow Foreign Secretary. The Leader of the Opposition has worked on many such cases over the years. I went with him to Washington as part of the attempt to get Shaker Aamer released; the British Government were active in that case as well. The Minister himself has raised the case of the three young Saudis still on death row: Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher.
However, there are other cases in which the Government pull their punches, such as the case of Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who has been in and out of prison for five years, and is currently there on a charge of spreading false news by tweeting in a bid to discredit Bahrain. Believe me, that regime needs no help discrediting itself. There is often a suspicion that where our Government have trade or military links, they pull their punches on such matters. They are doing so in relation to Andy Tsege, who is a British citizen. Many of the people in the other cases that I have mentioned were not British citizens, or had dual citizenship. Undoubtedly we should intervene.
I know that time is extremely short. There appears to be no doubt—again, I am grateful for the briefing from Reprieve—that Andy Tsege’s case involves unlawful rendition. The Ethiopians do not appear to deny that; the Yemenis appear to accept it. That in itself should result in his release being immediately called for. There has been no due process. There is precedent for Government intervention, so I urge the Minister to give us some hope and confidence, particularly as we approach Christmas, that Andy Tsege can return home to spend time with his family in Britain.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. A lot of the points have already been comprehensively made, so I will be as brief as I can in order to give the Minister and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson the opportunity to respond. I join other Members in congratulating Tom Brake on securing this debate, and I congratulate all the Members who have spoken and attended today.
Such cases attract considerable concern and public interest. I have been contacted—like almost every Member here, I suspect—by dozens of constituents calling on the UK Government to do right by these citizens and actively seek their release from unjust imprisonment. On behalf of the Scottish National party, I pay tribute to the campaign groups that have kept the flame of hope alive for so many prisoners, particularly Reprieve, Amnesty International and, here in Westminster, the all-party group on human rights. My hon. Friend Margaret Ferrier mentioned my hon. Friend Chris Law, who unfortunately cannot be here; I also commend my hon. Friend Stephen Gethins, who supported the bid to the Backbench Business Committee for this debate.
“Our consul has been able to meet Mr Tsege on a number of occasions and we are working with him and with the Ethiopian Government to try to get this resolved.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 612, c. 878.]
Patently the situation has not been resolved. We have heard the details of the case from a number of Members: a UK citizen has been rendered from Yemen to Ethiopia, essentially abducted and detained after a trial in absentia that he knew nothing about, and is now under a death sentence, facing the rest of his life in prison with no access to legal representation or clear route for appeal. The point has been well made by several Members, including Mark Durkan: what is the point of legal representation if there is no right to appeal?
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington on securing this debate. The case has horrifying features. The legal system that I have seen in this country in many years practising at the Bar has many features that protect the human rights of individuals who face trial. Does Patrick Grady agree that Britain can have a real role in arguing for increased standards in human rights and representation at trial throughout the entire world?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. I wholeheartedly agree with his point; I might touch on it towards the end of my remarks.
What other steps are the UK Government taking to monitor the wellbeing of their citizen, who is being held in what we have heard described as Ethiopia’s gulag? When will the next private consular visit be? When will he be allowed to speak to his family?
We have also heard about the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, which Jim Shannon spoke about in some detail. It is another dreadful situation, in which a British citizen was lifted at Tehran airport and, after an unfair trial, sentenced to five years. Again, there has been massive interest in her campaign from civil society and the public; I saw some of the campaigners making their way along Parliament Street a few weeks ago as I was on my way to the SNP offices at No. 53. I am proud to be among the Members of Parliament who signed a card to Nazanin, to let her know that she was being thought about, at the reception recently hosted by Amnesty International in Speaker’s House. The card is in the oldest and finest traditions of Amnesty. I remember being taken as a young boy to a talk about its work in support of prisoners of conscience and about the difference that a letter can make, whether it is to prisoners themselves, to the detaining authority or to our own Government. But we should not have to write such letters; as Members of Parliament we should be in receipt of them.
I believe that we are united today in this Chamber and across the House in calling out these unjust imprisonments and calling on the Government to do more. The same is clearly true in the case of Kamal Foroughi. The SNP has welcomed the thawing of relations with Iran and the diplomatic progress that has been made, but how will the UK Government use that relationship to press for the release of these prisoners, or at the very least for consular access or third-party access from the likes of Amnesty and other human rights organisations?
The debate raises broader points for the UK Government. How can UK citizens denied their rights overseas be protected by any new human rights Act that the Government might bring in here in the UK? If UK citizens in such desperate circumstances cannot rely on the Government to defend their basic human rights, why should the rest of us at home have any confidence? Dr Mathias made a very important point about rendition, particularly the use of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The Government have to be clear about whether that territory has been used for rendition and on what occasions, and while they are at it they should consider the resettlement of the Chagos islanders—an issue that I know the Leader of the Opposition is also exercised about.
The point about the UK’s position on the death penalty was well made by Kerry McCarthy; as is often the case, I agreed with almost everything she said, so there is not much need to repeat it. My hon. Friend Fiona Bruce and other Members all gave examples of cases in which the UK Government have interfered in or made comments about judicial systems in other countries. The key point in these cases is that there is no evidence that the judicial systems in question are meeting any international standards; these people have been illegally or unlawfully detained, so there is no judicial process for the Government to interfere with.
The UK Government have a duty to lead and to give confidence to all their citizens, here and overseas, that they respect human rights and the rule of law. This is the festive season; one of the great Biblical injunctions is
“to proclaim good news to the poor…liberty to captives”, so let us hope that the Government will live up to the spirit of the season and call today for these prisoners to be set free.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello. I thank Tom Brake for securing this debate and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. This matter is long overdue to be addressed by the House.
Some powerful speeches have been made today. I thank the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), for Foyle (Mark Durkan), and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), and for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), for contributing to the debate. A running theme has been the fact that the Government have intervened in other cases, with the case of Karl Andree being a prominent example. The hon. Member for Foyle made a powerful speech expressing his frustration, which I think many of us feel, and his criticisms should be borne in mind. Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, highlighted the perceived poor support for these prisoners from the Government and the failure to demand their release.
On the day the Foreign Secretary was appointed, he stated that even when British nationals depart our shores, their rights as British nationals travel with them—that
“when you leave Heathrow, when you leave Dover, a British citizen is basically the responsibility of the Foreign Office”.
Unfortunately, as this debate has highlighted, those words ring hollow in the cases of Andy Tsege; of many other British nationals who are being detained abroad, such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi, who are both being held in Iranian detention facilities; of Ali al-Nimr, who is being held in Saudi Arabia; of Nabeel Rajab, a Bahraini human rights activist; and of many others who have been mentioned today.
We are concentrating on the case of Andy Tsege. As we have already heard, he was sentenced in absentia under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism proclamation of 2009, while living here in London. That legislation has been described as a way to
“restrict…opposition and dissent” by targeting
“members of opposition groups, journalists, peaceful protesters”— those are the words of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
It is worth noting that Mr Tsege’s case differs from many other UK consular cases, but that was not mentioned in a letter written by the Foreign Secretary on the matter on
The Ethiopian Foreign Minister has told UK officials that Mr Tsege is not permitted to appeal against his death sentence. After promising the previous Foreign Secretary, Mr Hammond, that Mr Tsege would be allowed to see a lawyer, the Ethiopian Government have failed to deliver on that pledge. He has only just received a list of lawyers allowed to represent him, but has been given no way of contacting them. I hope for more information and clarity on that from the Minister today.
Andy Tsege’s whereabouts remained unknown for two weeks after he was taken. He was then kept in solitary confinement for 12 months. The UN special rapporteur on torture has reported to the UN Human Rights Council that Ethiopia’s treatment of Mr Tsege has violated the convention against torture. UK consular staff in Ethiopia have yet to visit him privately since he was imprisoned. Rumours of human rights abuses have emerged, and he recently reported that he feared for his life. Will the Minister provide an update on progress, Mr Tsege’s health, and the possibility of future visits?
The shadow Foreign Office team have been working hard to press the Government into action to secure Mr Tsege’s release and to raise awareness of the case at the respective agencies. My predecessors and I have regularly written to, met and spoken to the Foreign Secretary and Ministers to urge the Government to speak out on this issue, but so far they have refused to demand his release. The shadow Foreign Secretary, my hon. Friend Emily Thornberry, and the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, have on two occasions held meetings with the Ethiopian ambassador and the Ethiopian representatives at the UN Human Rights Council. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition—Andy Tsege is a constituent of his—has had a request to visit him refused. My hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary represents Yemi and Andy’s family, who live in her Islington South and Finsbury constituency, and she has worked tirelessly to raise the profile of this case, which I am very pleased has been brought to the House’s attention today.
While the release of Andy Tsege, and that of the other UK nationals in the cases highlighted, is being negotiated, what interim action will the Minister take to ensure that such prisoners are treated fairly and humanely? We fully understand and respect that we should not wish to interfere in other countries’ legal systems and determinations, but Mr Tsege has been given no legal due process, and nor has any evidence been produced of the crimes that he has allegedly committed. The legality of his extradition is also questionable. A British national has been illegally detained through the means of extraordinary rendition and has suffered human rights abuses. I press the Minister to use his influence and uphold our responsibility to secure Andy’s release and return him home to our shores.
I pay tribute to the families who have endured the forced removal of their loved ones, often without knowing where they are, how they are being treated and even whether they are still alive. I, too, attended Amnesty International’s Human Rights Day event, which the hon. Member for Glasgow North mentioned. I agree with him that we need to do more than write letters, as much as we know that such gestures are appreciated.
Andy Tsege’s partner Yemi has campaigned endlessly for the past two and a half years to try to bring her partner home to their three children. She has had one solitary phone call from Andy since he was apprehended. She has said:
“The saddest part in this ordeal is how Andy’s case has been handled by this government. It is surely the bare minimum for a British national to expect that his government will protect him and stand up for his human rights.”
She finished by saying:
“I am beginning to lose faith with what it means to be a British citizen. Not just for Andy, who has been abandoned by his Government, but also for me and my children, who were born and raised here. I fully appreciate the boundless complexities, but there is one very simple fact that every day that goes by we all lose the most precious of things which is time to be a family, and for Andy to be a father to our three children. I hope the government realises just how much we have sacrificed.”
I thank Yemi for her words, and all Members present will feel a sense of empathy with the sadness she has expressed. I hope that no one in Westminster will ever have to experience for themselves what such sacrifice truly entails. Will the Minister commit to securing Andy’s release as soon as possible? We have heard the heartache of the families left behind; how long is the Minister prepared to let that endure?
It is an honour to respond to this important debate, Mr Flello. I welcome all the contributions that have been made.
The debate is important because it has allowed Members of Parliament to express their concerns on behalf of constituents and the families of those affected by consular issues. It is important for Members to be able to raise these matters, but also for the Government to explain in more detail what we can do and are doing, as well as touch on the fact that many things are happening behind the scenes that we cannot share.
As many colleagues have outlined, the contact that Britons experiencing difficulties abroad have with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office may be the only time they have a relationship with the FCO, or indeed the Government as such. They want that support, and they want us to get it right and help them. In any typical year, we deal with more than 310,000 calls for assistance, and around 17,000 cases are running. That shows the scale of what Her Majesty’s Government are doing through our posts, embassies and high commissions around the world, as well as in the Foreign Office, of course. I shall spell out consular policy in general terms and the policy on the detention of Britons by other states, and I will look at the two big cases—the Tsege and Ratcliffe cases—in a little more detail. I do, though, recognise that there are many other cases that MPs may want to raise separately outside this debate.
I do not say this defensively, but simply to try to put things in perspective: I ask for a more cautionary tone from some Members. There has been talk of the FCO doing little, not caring, or not being committed, and I take a bit of offence to that, personally. I understand that that sort of thing is sometimes said because these are passionate issues, and MPs want to be seen to be doing all they can to help the family concerned, but I fully reject the idea that the Foreign Office or Her Majesty’s Government are not absolutely committed to helping every single Briton as best we can, often in very difficult circumstances, and to ensuring that justice is done, and that they can return to the UK as quickly as possible.
I shall not dwell on this, because that would not be appropriate, but my approach is shaped by my personal experience dealing with a very difficult consular case involving the killing of my brother in the 2002 Bali bombing. I think of that every time any family member comes to me and says that somebody is missing, hurt or needs to be brought home. I make sure that I and the team I am working with are able to do everything we can, but I ask Members to understand that a phenomenal amount of activity happens behind the scenes that we deliberately cannot talk about. In fact, talking about it openly could affect the agenda and how things are being interpreted in the relevant country, where they will read the headlines about us shouting from afar, as some Members have said. I know of cases that have been delayed by an unhelpful headline, because the country has taken offence at what they have read in the British press as it is reported back.
I understand what the hon. Lady is saying, and I shall address that specific case, but I should be clear that, in some cases, we are subject to the wishes of what the family want to do. I make an effort to meet the families, either with MPs, by myself or through our consular staff, and they themselves sometimes do not want things being made public—and sometimes I do not have permission to say what I am doing. Many cases have been brought up, particularly the two that we are focusing on, but I do not have permission to share in public what is going on, or to decide what can be said, because that is in the gift of that family, and we must respect their wishes. I ask Members to recognise that as well.
In these cases, we are often dealing with countries where governance, the rule of law and transparency are not at the levels that we in this country enjoy, defend or promote. We did not always have that right in the 800 years of our history; it took us a long time to get where we are today. Many countries are on that learning curve. It is absolutely right that our international development money goes towards helping to improve their justice systems, so that they have better, more transparent processes for dealing with such cases. That is the reality check—the prism through which we must look at these cases—but it should not deter us from ensuring that we work as hard as possible right across the piece to help Britons abroad.
As I say, consular assistance is at the heart of what we do in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Our consular staff give advice and practical support to British nationals overseas when things go wrong. That support, I stress, is not a right or an obligation. We do not have a legal duty of care to British nationals abroad, but this Government are proud, as I think successive Governments have been, of the long-standing tradition of offering British nationals the best consular service in the world.
I will not, because I am running out of time. If there is time at the end, I will. Independent customer feedback is overwhelmingly positive and shows that our staff approach their work with care, empathy and professionalism. As I have indicated, the volume, variety and complexity of cases are staggering. In the last financial year alone, our staff overseas dealt with more than 5,000 detentions, 3,600 deaths and nearly 4,000 hospital cases. We increasingly focus our precious resources on those who need it most: the vulnerable. Some things we do not and will not do, as has been implied by hon. Members today: we do not take decisions for people; we do not interfere in another country’s legal or judicial system, although as I said, we try to advance their systems through our other programmes; and we do not seek to get for British people a better deal than the locals get.
It is important that we use consistent criteria in determining how much support we provide in each case. Our job is to ensure that the public pressure in certain cases does not unfairly divert our attention from the large number of cases that never hit the media. While serious cases have been raised today, 13 British nationals face the death penalty throughout the world. There are more than 2,000 British nationals in detention at any one time, the greatest number of whom, about 400, are in the United States.
We have a clear process for engaging with detention cases. Host Governments notify us when a British national is detained, as long as that person agrees. We then make contact or visit the individual, where possible within 24 hours. Our priority is always their welfare—ensuring that they are receiving food, water and medical treatment, and that they have access to legal advice. In the majority of countries, our staff visit people in detention about four times a year. Some prisoners have described our visits as a lifeline; in some cases, they might be the only ones they receive.
Our assistance does not stop there. If British nationals tell us that they have been mistreated or tortured, with their permission, consular staff express our concerns to the authorities and seek an investigation. Where we cannot provide support, we work through others, such as the charity Prisoners Abroad, and they support detainees and their families and help to provide and maintain contact. If there is no family, Prisoners Abroad can help find people a pen pal or send them books to read or study. It can also help with prisoners’ resettlement in the UK after release.
The death penalty was raised by a number of hon. Members. Irrespective of the charges against any British nationals, we do all we can to ensure that the death penalty is not carried out. Indeed, yesterday, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in favour of a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. We continue to press countries to advance their systems so as to remove the death penalty, as we did in ours.
I turn to the two main cases that have been mentioned; if there is time, I will progress to others. If I do not get a chance to respond now, I will write to hon. Members on the details of the questions they have asked, as I have done after other debates.
Mr Tsege’s case is well known to me, senior colleagues in the Foreign Office and Members in the Chamber. We are committed to offering the best consular support to him and his family. Since he was arrested and taken to Ethiopia in June 2014, we have worked hard to ensure his welfare, and his access to consular and legal advice. We continue to do so. We take every opportunity to raise his case at the very highest levels in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Government, whose own difficulties have been touched on today, are in no doubt about our concern for Mr Tsege and the priority that we place on ensuring his wellbeing. The Foreign Secretary and his predecessor have both raised Mr Tsege’s case personally with the Ethiopian Government, and our ambassador takes every opportunity to do so. I will visit the country at the end of January, and I will ensure that the mood and tone of this debate, and our important stress on the case of Mr Tsege, is related to the Government.
As a result of our continued high-level engagement, we have ensured that Mr Tsege is no longer in solitary confinement, and we have received a commitment from the highest levels of the Ethiopian Government that he will be given access to a lawyer. Last Thursday, our ambassador visited Mr Tsege, who appeared to be in good health and good spirits, and she was reassured about his welfare. Mention has been made of a private meeting not being allowed to take place, but the standard rules in Ethiopia are that all visits are accompanied. Those rules are followed by Ethiopians themselves.
I understand why some people have called for the UK Government to advocate Mr Tsege’s release, but we believe that calling for his release would not meet with success; just by shouting out, we would not win his release at this stage. Indeed, to do so could put at risk the progress made so far, including on our access to Mr Tsege. Furthermore, as I said at the start, we cannot interfere in the legal systems of other countries. We have, however, lobbied the Ethiopian Government strongly and consistently against the application and use of the death penalty. They can be in no doubt about our position.
On the case of Mrs Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, as hon. Members are aware, Iran does not recognise dual nationality—that is not the case in the UK; we consider Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe to be a British national—and has repeatedly refused permission for visits to her. We have repeatedly requested the Iranian authorities to grant us consular access so that we may be assured of her welfare. The Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and I have raised the matter at our respective levels. I also raised it with the Iranian ambassador only a couple of weeks ago, and I have met Richard Ratcliffe, the husband.
Since we were first made aware of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s arrest, we have been supporting her family. I have met the family on three occasions to reassure them that we will continue to press the Iranians for greater consular access. We also stand ready to assist, if requested, with the return to the UK of her daughter, who is not, as has been said in the debate, trapped in Iran. The daughter is allowed to return to the UK at any moment; it is a family decision for her to remain in Iran.
I am obliged to give the final minutes to Tom Brake, who introduced the debate. In conclusion, therefore, I simply say to all hon. Members that we take the issue of those detained overseas very seriously. I pay tribute to the families and loved ones during distressing times, and I thank consular officers who work every day to support British nationals in their most difficult times. I also thank Members of Parliament for the role that they play in bringing aspects of different cases to the fore and in lobbying me personally. I stand ready at any time to meet them, even away from the Foreign Office.
Supporting British nationals in difficulty abroad is an absolute priority for me and for us at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We cannot always do as much as families want, but I assure the House that we do everything we can, and we will continue to work tirelessly to protect British nationals’ welfare and to uphold their rights.
I thank all hon. Members who have spoken, and the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, for making time to attend the debate. The Minister has heard the consistent and very strong message from all Members today that Andy and Nazanin’s detentions are unacceptable and illegal, and that their trials have been frankly deplorable. He is also getting a consistent and identical message from their families. If I have concern about what he has said, it is that he is hiding behind family confidentiality. He must respect that, of course, but families are asking him to take the action that has been set out in this debate. We must have public, outspoken action now at the highest level, from our Prime Minister, to secure their release. We demand—
I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman’s peroration, but what he said is incorrect. I am following the advice of families very carefully indeed. I would say more if families allowed me to, and I think he disingenuously has misled the Chamber by making that suggestion.
It is clearly very important for the Minister to sit down with the families. Having observed some of the body language of the families—
Motion lapsed (