Minister silent on claims spy agencies’ information led to abduction of Sikh

·5-min read

A Foreign Office minister has refused to comment on claims MI5 and MI6 supplied information that led to the abduction and alleged torture of a Scottish Sikh.

Jagtar Singh Johal, from Dumbarton, was in Punjab in northern India for his wedding in 2017 when his family say he was arrested and bundled into an unmarked car.

The 35-year-old said he has been detained and subjected to torture, including electric shocks, and faces the death penalty over his activism and campaigning for Sikh human rights.

His lawyers have lodged a complaint after human rights group Reprieve identified his case among anonymised details published in the annual report by the UK’s investigatory powers commissioner.

The report sets out how MI5 and MI6 passed information about a British national to foreign authorities who then detained and tortured them, which matches details in Mr Johal’s case.

Minister Rehman Chishti, replying to an urgent question on the case in the Commons, said: “The first priority of the Government is the welfare of Mr Johal.”

He said: “With regards to any civil litigation with regards to concerns on the intelligence agencies, I cannot and will not comment in this House on that.”

He added: “We must let the legal process take its course, and I will therefore not comment on this matter in line with long-established practice.”

The urgent question was raised by SNP MP Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire), who told the Commons how Mr Johal, his constituent, “has now had his 188th pre-trial hearing suspended today because the courts in India couldn’t make their mind up”.

He added: “Lawyers representing my constituent submitted a motion at the Royal Courts of Justice seeking redress after compelling evidence emerged linking the United Kingdom Government directly to his arrest and torture almost five years ago.”

Mr Docherty-Hughes said the information has “posed a multitude of hard questions” for the UK Government and new Prime Minister Liz Truss, given she was formerly foreign secretary.

He said: “Like hundreds of thousands of UK citizens of Sikh ethnicity, the Singh Johal family travel to India every year, yet now they must wonder if it’s safe for them to continue to do so.”

Mr Docherty-Hughes suggested the difficulties experienced by Mr Johal have been “caused directly, at least for me, by the intervention of the state which is meant to protect him”.

He went on: “We have a family, an MP and a House of Commons who want answers on who knew what and when.”

As MPs discussed the case, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy posted on Twitter a picture of a handwritten letter by Mr Johal, in which he called the new Prime Minister to “show more guts than her predecessors”.

In the letter, Mr Johal asked Ms Truss if she will do anything for him and another prisoner, Christian Michel, who has been held in India since 2018.

He went on: “It is my hope that our freedom will not be traded in return for increased trade with India.”

A panel of UN legal experts has found that Mr Johal’s detention is arbitrary, that it “lacks legal basis” and was based on “discriminatory grounds” owing to his Sikh faith and his “status as a human rights defender”.

Jagtar Singh Johal
Mr Johal was arrested in Punjab on November 4 2017, shortly after his wedding (Handout/PA)

The UN concluded that the appropriate resolution would be to release Mr Johal immediately and accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations, in accordance with international law.

Labour MP for Rotherham Sarah Champion asked Mr Chisti why the Foreign Office has not called for the release of Mr Johal when “it has always been the Foreign Office policy to call for the release of arbitrary detained British nationals”.

She said: “The outgoing prime minister accepted Jagtar Singh Johal is arbitrary detained. The minister says that the Foreign Office does not give a blanket approach, but that’s not correct. It has always been the Foreign Office policy to call for the release of arbitrary detained British nationals.

“Yet, the Government has not done that in this case. Can the minister explain why the Government has not acted in line with its own policy?”

The Foreign Office minister conceded the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson issued their opinion on Mr Johal, adding: “And that is the point with regards to the new Foreign Secretary and the new Prime Minister will have to make a determination for themselves on this matter.”

Commenting on the Commons debate, Bhai Amrik Singh, the Chair of the Sikh Federation (UK) said: “It was disgusting how the minister tried to backtrack today in the Urgent Question debate when challenged in Parliament by MPs on all sides.

“The Minister eventually accepted that Boris Johnson came to this conclusion and admitted Jagtar was in arbitrary detention. However, he said Liz Truss and James Cleverly would come to their own judgment.

“This is totally unacceptable and not the way the Government should operate now a case has been lodged in the High Court.

“Next week when we protest outside Downing Street, we will demand that the UK Government confirm Jagtar is in arbitrary detention and call for his immediate release.”