As published in the Telegraph.
Successive British governments have acquiesced in the abuse of political detainees by foreign regimes. This must stop now.
Liz Truss and I share a fundamentally Conservative line on repeat offenders. As Justice Secretary she rightly saw that lawbreakers who refuse to learn their lesson had to face the consequences.
I’m sure the new Prime Minister would agree this principle should be applied in the same way to politicians and government institutions as to armed robbers and fraudsters. And with this in mind I urge her to act on the repeat offending of successive British governments when it comes to getting mixed up in torture.
In recent days, it has emerged the UK may have been complicit in the appalling abuse of Jagtar Singh Johal. Jagtar is a young British blogger who travelled to India for his wedding. There he was abducted and tortured by Indian police. He was tortured so badly he had to be carried out of his cell. He was forced to sign a blank sheet of paper, which was held up as a “confession”. He now faces a possible death sentence.
Instead of doing everything in its power to bring this British national home, our Government has sat on its hands. Now representatives have published evidence suggesting his arrest followed a tip off by Britain’s intelligence agencies — perhaps in response to Indian pressure on the UK to crack down on Sikh activists.
This story is depressingly familiar. During the war on terror, countless prisoners were tortured by foreign governments after — it is claimed — Tony Blair’s ministers provided tip offs about their whereabouts.
I see an echo in the case of Abdulhakim Belhaj, a Libyan dissident delivered to Colonel Gaddafi’s torture chambers in 2007, along with his pregnant wife Fatima Boudchar. Their appalling ordeal followed a UK tip off. In 2018 the then Prime Minister Theresa May gave an “unreserved” publicly apology to Mr Belhaj and Ms Boudchar, claiming that Britain “has learned many lessons from this period”.
But Jagtar’s case, if the UK was in fact complicit, shows these lessons have not been learned. We must have a foreign policy championing British values, including our commitment to fundamental human rights. Indeed, reports by the UK’s spy watchdog show there are many more cases each year where the UK seeks to share intelligence despite a real risk of torture. Our intelligence agencies do a difficult and dangerous job, but getting mixed up in torture does nothing to keep us safe.
The US Senate’s report on torture during the war on terror could not find a single case where waterboarding and similar torture techniques led to actionable intelligence. Involvement in torture actually makes us less safe — it erodes our moral authority as a country, opens our government to charges of hypocrisy, and undermines our credibility with vital intelligence partners.
Conservatives have a proud legacy of standing against torture: it was Margaret Thatcher’s Government that passed the 1988 Criminal Justice Act, which made torture anywhere in the world an offence under UK law. As our new Prime Minister, Liz Truss has an opportunity to continue that legacy, and take the strongest possible stand against UK involvement in torture.
A good start would be finally keeping the 2010 promise to launch a judge-led inquiry into UK involvement in torture post 9-11.Successive Conservative governments have vacillated over this inquiry, and as a result I have sadly been forced to bring a legal case to compel the government to deliver on its commitment. My co-claimant in that case is the Sheffield MP Dan Jarvis who understands as I do that UK national security is undermined by the taint of torture.
Alongside this inquiry, Liz Truss must introduce an ethical foreign policy, one preventing these torture tip offs. In 2019 the government published a new “torture policy”, entitled “The Principles” without apparent irony. It is fatally flawed, as it suggests Ministers have discretion to sign off acts carrying a real risk of torture.
These so-called “Principles” are not good enough: we need an outright ban on Ministers trading intelligence where there is a serious risk of torture. The outgoing Government was moving in the wrong direction, and its National Security Bill even sought to give Ministers legal cover if they encouraged and assisted crimes like torture overseas.
As our new Prime Minister, Liz Truss must rethink this reckless approach and respect Thatcher’s legacy by taking the toughest possible line on torture. And there is one vital action Liz must now take: pick up the phone to India’s Prime Minister and request the release of Jagtar Singh Johal, who should not languish in prison one day longer.
Everyone from the United Nations to Boris Johnson have already acknowledged Jagtar is arbitrarily detained – we must now get on and take responsibility, especially given the UK’s apparent role in Jagtar’s mistreatment. If we’re to break the cycle of the UK’s repeated involvement in torture, we must work to free Jagtar; fix the system that helped put him there; and finally put British values at the heart of our foreign policy.