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Martin led a Backbench Business Debate in the House of Commons on the arbitrary detention of his constituent Jagtar Singh Johal (19 January 2023). Here is the opening speech transcribed from Hansard

Martin Docherty-Hughes MP (SNP, West Dunbartonshire): I beg to move, that this House has considered the imprisonment of Jagtar Singh Johal.

Let me begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate to proceed today. I noticed, while going over my notes in preparation, that it is almost a year since I first submitted the request, yet the Committee has indulged my requests to delay owing to the changing circumstances of the case. I think it was more in hope than expectation that my friend, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), offered me the slot last week, and I am delighted to see them in their place today, as well as other members of the Backbench Business Committee.

I do not intend to spend much time today going over the specifics of the case. These are a matter for the public record, following: the Adjournment debate that I was granted in November 2018; the Westminster Hall debate of June 2021; and, indeed, the urgent question heard by the House in September last year. Indeed, in the five years since Jagtar’s arrest, I have brought up his case on the Floor of the House on more than 30 separate occasions. This, along with the excellent work of my colleagues from other political parties across the House who have continued to raise my constituent’s case in parliamentary questions.

The engagement across parties in debates and in meetings with Ministers shows the strength and durability of the feeling in this place to address what is becoming one of the most—at least I would say—prominent injustices in modern UK foreign policy. That is, essentially, the purpose of this debate. Through the speeches and interventions made in the House today, I want the Government to see: that Members across this House, across parties, and across the nations of these islands, have no intention of forgetting Jagtar Singh Johal; that the choice that they made not to deem his continued detention an arbitrary one until recently to not be without consequence; and that even five years on, we will be here, and for another five years if that is indeed necessary. Once again, we ask them, through the Minister, to call for his immediate release.

The United Kingdom Government are, of course, not the only relevant party: the Government of the Republic of India, their judiciary and their police forces are the ones who continue to hold my constituent in a fashion that is consistent with arbitrary detention. I would like them to watch this debate and recognise that this has not escaped international attention and nor will it do so.

Last May, when the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention submitted a report on the case, it could not have been clearer. It said:

“Mr Johal’s arrest and detention are arbitrary…as there is a lack of legal basis or justification, and amount to unlawful abduction, incommunicado detention and unreasonable pretrial detention.”

It continues that “none of the domestic or international law requirements was complied with during Mr Johal’s arrest. Mr Johal was bound, hooded and taken by unidentified police officers. During that time, Mr Johal was never informed that he was being arrested, nor was a family member with him. Under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, no person is to be deprived of life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”

We subsequently heard last year, following the excellent work of the charity Reprieve, that this arrest was almost certainly the result of intelligence shared by the British Government. There is, of course, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar), an ongoing legal case. I hope we will one day be able to establish the circumstances that set this terrible personal tragedy into motion, although it would save the family the stress of the court process if the UK Government were to be up-front about their role in the case as soon as possible—but I am afraid I do not think that will happen.

We are here one week before 26 January, when India celebrates Republic Day and marks the 73rd anniversary of the constitution’s coming into force, effectively heralding the culmination of a long and often bloody struggle to create the modern Indian state out of the unjust and rapacious reality of British colonial rule. Standing in this Chamber, within this Palace constructed partially with the proceeds of the wealth extracted from India during the colonial period, every one of us must be mindful of so much when addressing the actions of the Indian Government, as I hope I have always been when referring to this case.

The Republic of India is a great state—indeed, it is more than that; it is a great civilisation. During my Adjournment debate in November 2018, I ended with an appeal that, transparency, due process and the rule of law be upheld in this case. The course of time has certainly not altered those sentiments, but it allows us to reflect on whether they have been upheld. I am afraid that not only do I, the majority of hon. Members present, the Johal family and countless legal experts hold the view that transparency, due process and the rule of law have not been upheld in Jagtar’s case, but so does the United Nations.

In the week before Republic Day, I made a plea to the Indian Government, and the judiciary, which is quite correctly independent, to reflect on the preamble to the great foundational document of the Republic of India that they will celebrate next week. Let us recall the words:

“JUSTICE, social, economic and political;

LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

EQUALITY of status and opportunity;”

and then of course:

“FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the Unity and integrity of the Nation.”

Those are fine words, befitting a great global state, which, if trends continue, stands to become a great global leader of the 21st century, but that will require not only economic might and demographic advantage but translating great sentiments into great actions: fair and open institutions that have the trust of the people.

This week we saw Jagtar’s case again adjourned until March due to witnesses not being presented, just as it was in November, and those more well-versed than me in Indian legal matters think it could continue to be adjourned at eight-week intervals for some time. If the prosecution cannot produce witnesses, they are not only wasting everyone’s time, but wasting the best part of my constituent’s life.

Goodness knows we still have our problems with institutions on these islands, but that should never stop anyone or any political state striving to be better. In that spirit of self-reflection, I will bring my remarks to a conclusion by asking the Minister to think about changing their strategy. Neither the family or I doubt the commitment of the Government to raise this often and at the highest levels; yet here we are, five years on, having seen very little movement in the case. Indeed, only one of the nine cases involving Jagtar has advanced in any meaningful way. The current approach simply is not working.

When the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), conceded in a letter to the Leader of the Opposition that it was the Government’s view that Jagtar had been arbitrarily detained, the family and all the many people interested in Jagtar’s welfare naturally expected that that would be followed by action from the British Government. We know that the Government have called for the release of UK citizens arbitrarily detained abroad: will they now do so for Jagtar?

I hope by the time we hear from the Minister—maybe rather quicker than we hoped—we will have an answer to this straightforward question and others that will be brought forth by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. With miscarriages of justice such as this, it is often some time before victims and families see action; when we are seeing one continuing to take place before our eyes, then we must redouble our efforts to stop it. I put it to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the Government can do their bit too.

That is the spirit of this debate. I look forward to hearing the voices of those who contribute, and they have the gratitude of the Johal family. I hope their voices will echo not just across the road to King Charles Street, but across the globe to India. We will not give up on Jagtar. It is time to set him free.

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