Jagtar Singh Johal

MI5 and MI6 Tip Off Tied to Torture of British Blogger at Risk of Death Penalty

The UK’s intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6 provided a tip-off that led to the detention and torture of British blogger Jagtar Singh Johal, it is claimed in a legal claim filed by Mr Johal and supported by Reprieve and REDRESS.

Jagtar Singh Johal is a British man from Dumbarton, who visited India for his wedding in 2017. Shortly after his wedding, Jagtar and his wife were out shopping when he was abducted off the street, having a sack put over his head and bundled into a car. For 10 days he was held incommunicado and not allowed to see a lawyer, his family members, or a representative of the British High Commission. He was tortured into signing a false ‘confession’, including through electric shocks to his ear lobes, nipples, and genitals, and the police bringing petrol into his cell and threatening to burn him alive.

Evidence has now been uncovered that the British intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6, may have contributed to Jagtar’s detention and torture by sharing intelligence with the Indian authorities, when there was a real risk that Jagtar could be tortured, mistreated, or face the death penalty.

Jagtar’s legal team at Leigh Day is arguing that he appears to be the individual described anonymously in a report by the UK’s Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO), which sets out how MI5 and MI6 passed information about a British national to foreign authorities who then detained and tortured them, based on striking similarities between this case study and Jagtar’s case.

Jagtar is asking the Government to grant him redress for the harm he has suffered and  recognise its actions were unlawful. He has also sought a public apology for the Government’s  role in his suffering.

This year the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that Jagtar’s detention “lacks [a] legal basis”, was based on “discriminatory grounds” owing to his Sikh faith and his “status as a human rights defender”. The opinion states that Jagtar was “subjected to torture” and that he was “targeted because of his activities as a Sikh practitioner and supporter and because of his activism in writing public posts calling for accountability for alleged actions committed against Sikhs by the authorities”. 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”.

Gurpreet Singh Johal, Jagtar’s brother, said:

“I never imagined the scenes I’d seen in horror movies of people being abducted by a foreign Government and violently tortured could become a reality for someone in my family. When it did, I expected our Government would do everything in its power to save my brother. The twist is that not only has our Government abandoned one of its own citizens, it’s actively betrayed him.”

Gurpreet added:

“If this can happen to my brother, it could happen to any British national traveling overseas. Jagtar’s only ‘crime’ was writing blogs exposing the Indian Government’s mistreatment of Sikhs, and the United Nations says this is the reason he’s been targeted. The UK should be championing free speech around the world, not assisting repressive regimes to torture and lock up British nationals who dare to criticise them. We need answers and accountability to make sure no other British family is put through this living hell.”

Rupert Skilbeck, Director of REDRESS, said:

“Jagtar’s case demonstrates how important it is that there is a full review of the way that the UK government responds when UK citizens are tortured abroad, including a careful examination of the role of the intelligence community in this case. Where there is any suggestion of collusion then there must be a full investigation, as there can be no immunity for torture.”

Maya Foa, Director of Reprieve, said:

“It was already a scandal that when a British national was snatched off the street by Indian authorities while on his honeymoon, Boris Johnson left him to rot for five years before finally admitting he was being arbitrarily detained. Now it appears the UK Government hasn’t just been negligent, but may have unlawfully enabled his abduction and brutal torture through a tip off to the Indian authorities.”

Foa added:

“The very least we can expect of our Government is not to share intelligence that leads to us being detained and tortured overseas. We’re talking about a British blogger who United Nations experts say has been targeted because he spoke out against abuses committed against the Sikh community in India – the UK Government must finally bring him home.”

Leigh Day partner Waleed Sheikh said:

“Our client is a British man from Dumbarton who has now been detained in an Indian prison for more than four and a half years, without prospect of trial or release in the near future. It is vitally important for our client and his family to understand whether or not and to what extent the UK authorities were involved in sharing intelligence that may have led to our client’s arrest and subsequent detention and torture. It would be totally unacceptable for the UK Government’s actions to have placed an individual, let alone a British citizen, at risk of torture or the death penalty.”

Notes to editors:

For further details or to arrange an interview, please contact: Reprieve’s Media Officer Georgie Robertson on +447984455763 or at [email protected] or Eva Sanchis, Head of Communications of REDRESS, on [email protected] or +44(0) 20 7793 1777.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s opinion on Jagtar Singh Johal’s case can be found here.

Evidence that MI5 and MI6 tip off is tied to Jagtar’s torture:

On 5 March 2020, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office, the UK’s intelligence watchdog, published its 2018 annual report. That report includes a case study (see below) setting out how MI5, using MI6 as a go-between, had passed information about a British national to a partner country whose authorities then arrested and tortured the British national in question:

Case study: allegations of mistreatment

In the course of an investigation, MI5 passed intelligence to a liaison partner via SIS. The subject of the intelligence was arrested by the liaison partner in their country. The individual told the British Consular Official that he had been tortured.

The FCO led the response to this allegation and lobbied for further access to the detainee. The FCO continue to regularly access the individual throughout his detention.

With the detainee’s consent, the matter was raised with the local law enforcement and relevant government departments in country. The FCO requested an independent and impartial investigation. The issue was also raised at a bilateral meeting by the Prime Minister.

Following a suggestion from the local government, consular staff have also made the individual and his family and legal representatives aware of how they could initiate a formal human rights complaint.

Jagtar’s legal team at Leigh Day, supported by Reprieve and REDRESS, have assembled compelling evidence which strongly suggests the British national in the case study is Jagtar. This is based on a number of striking similarities between the two cases:

  1. In the case study, MI5 are reported to have passed intelligence to a liaison partner via the SIS prior to the subject’s arrest. In Jagtar’s case, on 15 November 2017, not long after his detention, an article in the Indian newspaper, the Hindustan Times, claimed that although Jagtar had been on the radar of the intelligence wing of the Punjab Police for over a year, he came “under the scanner” after “a source in the UK” provided the Punjab police with “vague information” about a key man “Johal”.
  2. The subject of the case study is said to have informed a British consular official that he had been tortured. Jagtar informed the FCO about his torture, as confirmed in answers to Written Parliamentary Questions:

Parliamentary Question for FCO, UIN 117248, tabled on 4 December 2017, https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2017-12-04/117248; Parliamentary Question for FCO, UIN 118289, tabled on 7 December 2017, https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2017-12-07/118289

  1. The case study refers to the FCO leading the response to this allegation and lobbying for further access to the detainee. Likewise, there were repeated attempts by the FCO’s consular team between November and December 2017 to ensure access to Jagtar. The case study also refers to the FCO continuing to regularly access the detainee throughout his detention. The FCO has met with Jagtar several times during the course of his detention.
  2. The case study refers to the matter of the subject’s mistreatment and torture being raised by the UK authorities with relevant government departments within the country; the Foreign Office has raised the Claimant’s case with, at least, the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, the outgoing Indian High Commissioner and the Indian Foreign Secretary. viii The case study also refers to UK authorities raising the matter with local law enforcement; the Foreign Office has also regularly engaged with the Punjab Police.

Parliamentary Question for FCO, UIN 247726, tabled on 25 April 2019, https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2019-04-25/247726

  1. The case study states that the British Prime Minister raised the subject’s case at a “bilateral meeting”. On 18 April 2018, the Claimant’s case was raised by the then British Prime Minister, Theresa May, during a bilateral meeting with the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.ix

Parliamentary Question for Prime Minister Theresa May, UIN 140667, tabled on 2 May 2018, https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2018-05-02/140667

  1. In the case study, the FCO is said to have requested an independent and impartial investigation into the allegations of torture. Its consular staff are also said to have made the individual, his family and legal representatives aware of how to initiate a formal human rights complaint. This mirrors Jagtar’s case, where the FCO’s consular team engaged with the Indian authorities in securing an independent investigation to be carried out by the National Human Rights Commission (“NHRC”). We understand that a complaint to the NHRC as a way forward was suggested by the Indian authorities to the FCO, who in turn advised Jagtar’s family to write to the NHRC, which they proceeded to do. The NHRC ultimately refused to take forward the complaint because they said Jagtar’s family filing a petition on his torture before the courts precluded them from doing so.

The involvement of UK intelligence actors is further evidenced by the following:

  1. While being tortured and interrogated by the Punjab Police, Jagtar was shown photographs of individuals from the UK and was questioned about them.
  2. In September 2018, counter-terrorism raids were conducted across the Midlands. Although West Midlands Police denied involvement by the Indian government or that the raids were connected to Jagtar’s case, a number of Indian publications, such as the Hindustan Times and The Tribune, quoting Indian police and intelligence officials, reported that those raids were the result of intelligence sharing between the UK and Indian authorities and a result of “diplomatic pressure” being applied by India on the UK in relation to the targeted killing cases in which Jagtar is accused of being involved.

Prasun Sonwalkar, UK anti-terror raids linked to Jagtar Singh Johal’s arrest, claims group, Hindustan Times, 23 September 2018;

Ruchika M Khanna, Intel shared by India led to raids on Sikh activists in UK, The Tribune, 25 September 2018.

  1. In 2018, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Minister of State for Home Affairs of India and the UK, the purpose of which is “co-operation and exchange of information for combating international criminality and tackling organised crime”.xi The article in the Tribune which first brought this agreement to light refers to a request by the Indian authorities for the British government to proscribe the Sikh Federation UK, which it sees as pro-Khalistan and anti-Indian: https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/archive/punjab/news-detail-528187

Based on the above, there is compelling evidence that the subject of the case study cited in the IPCO report is Jagtar. Jagtar’s legal team conclude that “The Claimant is the “subject” referred to in the Case Study, and the Indian authorities are the “liaison partner” referred to in the Case Study”; and that “the Defendants shared intelligence relating to the Claimant with the Indian authorities which (directly and/or indirectly) caused or contributed to  the Claimant’s: (i) torture and/or inhuman or degrading treatment; and (ii) prosecution and/or further prosecution for offences carrying the death penalty.”

Wider implications for UK policy on torture:

Jagtar’s case demonstrates that the Government has failed to fix its policy for preventing UK involvement in torture, or learn from past cases. Investigations by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee have shown that since 2001, the UK has been complicit in hundreds of cases of torture and rendition.

In 2018, after years of litigation conducted by Reprieve, Prime Minister Theresa May gave an unprecedented apology for the UK’s involvement in the rendition and torture of Libyan dissident, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, and his then-pregnant wife, Fatima Boudchar. Abdel Hakim and Fatima were rendered to torture by the CIA and Libyan security services as a result of UK intelligence. Jagtar’s case demonstrates a failure to learn from these mistakes and underlines the need for reform.

Jagtar’s suffering may never have occurred if not for an apparent loophole in the Government’s policy for preventing UK involvement in torture as a result of intelligence-sharing. The policy, which at the time of Jagtar’s case was referred to as the Consolidated Guidance and has since been revised and renamed as the Government’s Principles on Intelligence-sharing, purports to give Ministers discretion to authorise the intelligence agencies to pass information even where there is a real risk that torture or unlawful killing will occur.

This permissive policy may have resulted in Jagtar being exposed to torture. When the Principles were being formulated, civil society groups, along with former Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition, called for the document to reflect the absolute prohibition on intelligence-sharing where there is a real risk of torture.

The Investigatory Powers Commissioner ultimately decided not to recommend introducing such a prohibition, referring instead to the obligation under the Ministerial Code to refrain from breaking the law.

https://ipco-wpmedia-prod-s3.s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/20190612-Letter-to-PM-.pdf, p. 4

This purported discretion contravenes UK and international law:

UN Human Rights Committee, Committee against Torture General Comment No. 2, UN Doc. CAT/C/GC/2, 24 January 2008, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/618009/files/CAT_C_GC_2-EN.pdf, para. 17 (“States parties should adopt effective measures to prevent […] authorities or others acting in an official capacity or under colour of law, from consenting to or acquiescing in any acts of torture. The Committee has concluded that States parties are in violation of the Convention when they fail to fulfil these obligations.”)

States have a legal obligation to ensure that they do not directly or indirectly enable foreign agencies to engage in activities that violate the prohibition against torture or other ill-treatment:

Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Martin Scheinin, Compilation of good practices on legal and institutional frameworks and measures that ensure respect for human rights by intelligence agencies while countering terrorism, including on their oversight, A/HRC/14/46, Practice 35, 17 May 2022, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G10/134/10/PDF/G1013410.pdf?OpenElement, para. 50; As cited in pp. 11 of Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez (4 March 2014), available at: https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/53185c254.pdf.

There is no discretion to depart from these obligations – the UN Convention Against Torture and European Convention on Human Rights confirm such obligations to be non-derogable, no matter the circumstances:

Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman Or Degrading Treatment Or Punishment, Article 2, para. 2; Committee Against Torture, Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, General Comment No. 2, CAT/C/GC/2, 24 January 2008, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/618009/files/CAT_C_GC_2-EN.pdf, p.5.

Furthermore, if it were not for an anonymised case study buried in an intelligence watchdog’s annual report totalling more than one hundred pages, Jagtar and his family would have never known that the UK may have played a role in his ordeal. This underlines the need for a new system in which victims have a right to know if the UK Government was involved in mistreatment they have suffered. This proposed system, a form of ‘post-notification’ for victims, has previously been mooted by the intelligence watchdog IPCO. It is the only realistic way torture victims may vindicate their rights:

Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office, Letter to the Prime Minister, 12 June 2019, https://ipco-wpmedia-prod-s3.s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/20190612-Letter-to-PM-.pdf, p. 5.

Photo credit: Free Jaggi Now.