Jagtar Singh Johal

Cross-party MPs Call for a Legal Right to Consular Assistance, Raise Case of Jagtar Singh Johal

Ahead of the second reading of the Consular Assistance Bill on 26 April, a cross-party group of MPs called on the UK Government today introduce a legal right to consular assistance in cases involving human rights. 

During the Westminster Hall Debate on 16 April, led by Christine Jardine MP, several MPs called for legislative action to address the shortcomings in consular assistance, supporting the introduction of a new right to consular assistance to replace the UK Government’s current discretionary approach. They noted that there is presently no legal obligation for the UK Government to provide its nationals with consular assistance, and argued that such essential rights should not be based on the generosity or discretion of any particular Minister or civil servants. 

Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine said: 

“I would like to give consular services the tools to protect British citizens in the way that we and they would surely wish. To that end, I would like to assure the Government of what I am not suggesting. I am not suggesting giving a blanket right to consular assistance in all cases, nor am I suggesting forcing the UK Government to act in every case. My suggestion is specifically to improve the responses for British citizens in extreme or severe cases in which their human rights are at risk or denied […] human rights abuses such as arbitrary detention, torture and inhumane treatment need to be addressed specifically.” 

During the debate, MPs raised cases of British nationals who are currently being held in detention abroad and who have alleged violations of their human rights. These include REDRESS client Jagtar Singh Johal, and also Alaa Abdel Fattah, Ryan Cornelius, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and Jimmy Lai. 

Jagtar Singh Johal is a British human rights defender from Dumbarton, Scotland, who has been detained for the past six years in India and faces a possible death sentence following charges in which the primary evidence against him is a confession extracted under torture. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) was immediately made aware of his detention by his family members but consular officials did not see Jagtar until 16 November, almost two weeks after his detention. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UN WGAD) found in May 2022 that, under international law, Jagtar’s detention is arbitrary. 

Christine Jardine MP said:  

“Jagtar Singh Johal has been arrested and held without trial in India for seven years—seven years in which the Indian Government have presented no evidence to link him to any crime. There have been claims of his having to sign a false confession under torture.” 

Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Anna McMorrin MP said: 

“For Jagtar Singh Johal, it is over 2,000 days since he was detained in India, and the current Foreign Secretary is the sixth to be in post since his arrest. Jagtar’s family and representatives are exhausted by having to start all over again when a new Foreign Secretary is appointed.” 

British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah was sentenced to five years in prison in Egypt in 2015, released in March 2019, re-arrested in September 2019, and sentenced again in December 2021 to five years in prison for “publishing fake news” because of his activism. The UN WGAD found his first detention arbitrary, and has yet to find on his second detention. In November 2022, UN experts called for his immediate release. 

Anna McMorrin MP said: 

“Alaa Abd El-Fattah is a human rights activist who spent almost a decade in prison in Egypt. Alaa is a British and Egyptian citizen, a courageous voice for democracy and a prisoner of conscience. The UK Government have not managed to gain consular access to him in prison.” 

In the case of Jimmy Lai, MPs expressed concerns over the delayed acknowledgment of his citizenship by the UK Government and emphasised the importance of standing by British nationals, regardless of the political sensitivities involved. 

The issue of dual nationality was raised in the debate, with MPs asserting that in cases where a dual national holds British citizenship, the UK Government must provide equivalent support and consular assistance. 

During the debate, Anna McMorrin MP reiterated the Labour party’s commitment, should it come to power, to introduce a legal right to consular assistance to British nationals detained abroad and establish a new special envoy to oversee cases of arbitrary detention and hostage-taking. 

Answering for the UK Government, the Minister for consular affairs, David Rutley MP, stated that the FCDO received 189 new allegations of torture and mistreatment from British nationals overseas in the last year, a significant increase over previous years. He further outlined the diplomatic efforts undertaken by the FCDO and the complexities of providing consular assistance in countries that do not grant access or recognise dual nationality. The Minister noted that the FCDO is currently reviewing their approach to Jagtar Singh Johal’s case, as well as undertaking a review of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recommendations on state-level hostage taking.  

REDRESS has long argued that UK law must be amended to establish a right to consular assistance when British nationals (including dual nationals) experience or are at risk of serious human rights violations. Given the protections it provides, consular assistance is particularly important to prevent and respond to cases of serious human rights abuses, such as torture, arbitrary detention, or state hostage taking. 

A legal right to consular assistance in cases of human rights violations would be an unequivocal commitment to the human rights of British nationals abroad, giving these rights primacy over other foreign policy and trade considerations, and would provide British nationals with a much clearer route to accountability when things do go wrong, given that presently it is virtually impossible for challenges to UK Government practice in this area to be made in the UK courts. 

You can watch the debate here. 

Photo: Free Jaggi Campaign.