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11 Apr 2002 : Column 254

Ian Stillman

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dan Norris.]

7 pm

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I welcome the opportunity provided by this Adjournment debate to highlight the plight of Mr. Ian Stillman. The main reason for asking for the debate is to highlight the Foreign Office involvement in the case, which is ongoing, and to ask two simple questions: has the support given so far been adequate, and can the Foreign Office do better in future?

For the record, I need to explain how the case began and how events have progressed. My involvement arises because Ian's sister, Elspeth Dugdale, is a constituent. As I have learned more about the case and the family, I have developed a sense of outrage that Ian's human rights have been so completely ignored by the Indian authorities, and of extreme disappointment at the extent and nature of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's support. That has come as a complete shock to me.

Ian Stillman is British and a charity worker. He is profoundly deaf and has spent most of his adult life working with the deaf community in India. He founded an Indian charity and has advised the Indian Government and several non-governmental organisations. He has an Indian wife and loves the country and its people, and has stressed that this is a one-off situation rather than representative of the system at large.

Before I go any further it also needs to be understood that Ian has another disability. He lost a leg in a motorcycle accident in 1995 and has since had a false limb fitted. Anyone familiar with false limbs knows that it can be difficult for the owner to carry heavy weights, as the balance of the body is severely affected.

I come now to the circumstances in which Ian Stillman found himself in an Indian jail. On 27 August 2000, Ian was visiting the Kullu area in relation to his charity work and was arrested at a town called Menali. He was sleeping in the rear of a taxi which was stopped at a checkpoint. There were about 10 police and one other official who was not in uniform. That person appears on no police documentation and the prosecution has denied that he was present.

Ian was ordered out of the taxi. It was night and communication was impossible. The police carried out a brief search and said that they had found evidence of a suspicious substance in the taxi. Ian and the other occupants of the taxi were taken to the police station. The police later searched Ian's hotel room and the taxi and uncovered a green bag which was attributed to Ian. That was the first time that Ian had seen the bag, and to this day he does not know whether it was in the taxi where he was sleeping or what it contained.

Ian was then asked to sign a number of documents, most of which were in Hindi, a language that he does not speak or read. Initially, he refused to sign, but he had to give in to pressure.

It should be borne in mind that Ian is profoundly deaf, it was dark and he had little idea of what was going on. He gave the police the name and number of a local acquaintance who he thought could help with interpretation. It is not known whether the police made the call. It is a fact that no one turned up.

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At about 4 pm the next day, Ian was brought before the local magistrate. On the basis of the police report and statement which was signed under duress, Ian was taken into custody pending formal charges. The other occupants of the taxi were released and Ian never saw them again. That is the background.

Ian was then taken to Kullu jail, which is a relatively small jail with up to 50 male prisoners. He was placed in a room measuring approximately 23 ft by 12 ft and he shared that space with up to 35 other prisoners. There was no glass in the window and at night it was freezing cold. There was one toilet for 35 men and each person had just under 2 ft of sleeping room on a concrete floor. That was in August.

What I find extremely hard to understand is why, according to the answer to my parliamentary question, the British high commissioner did not act to improve the conditions. Ian was in Kullu jail from August 2000 to June 2001. He was visited by consular officials on 5 September, 5 December and 21 February.

What I find beyond belief is that apparently the high commission staff thought that the standards were acceptable. Clearly they were not, and it is a damning indictment of our officials that they appeared to do so little at a time of such need. During that time it was clear that Ian's health was deteriorating and those conditions and a lack of a proper diet probably contributed to Ian's health problems.

The trial began on 14 March, but was delayed for six weeks because the police did not turn up. Most importantly, Ian was refused a deaf interpreter, despite the fact that he could not hear the court proceedings. He can lip-read English, but has no understanding of Hindi. That basic denial of Ian's human rights prevented him from receiving a fair trial. On 2 June, a guilty verdict was given. Stephen Jakobi of Fair Trials Abroad, who has been helping the family, described the verdict as

At this stage, I will give some credit to the Foreign Office, which made strong representations on welfare grounds at that time. The hope was that Ian would be able to access better medical treatment and see his family more often. Initially, his son was allowed to visit more frequently and bring supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables. Unfortunately, that did not last, and despite the family bringing the problem to the attention of Foreign Office officials, matters did not improve. In fact, it is fair to say that the family were frequently presented with this response: "But when we ask, they say that he is getting the agreed visits and provisions." Why does the Foreign Office appear far more ready to believe the Indian authorities than the family, who are reporting the problems at first hand? They do not want to make up these things; they have got enough to worry about.

Happily, in June and July last year, the Foreign Office moved things along considerably. There were concerns about a campaign of disinformation in India about Ian. The police were saying that he was wanted by Interpol, but that is completely untrue and the Foreign Office issued a press release putting the record straight and denying the suggestion completely. I am also aware that the Foreign Secretary raised the case on 26 June. That intervention and consequent action meant that the appeal hearing was held relatively quickly, in Indian terms. On behalf of the family, I should like to express appreciation for those efforts.

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Unfortunately for Ian, after a catalogue of disasters connected with the appeal—sadly, I do not have time to detail them—it was unsuccessful. Naturally, everyone was completely devastated when the verdict was finally announced early this year. A key factor was that the Indian authorities refused to accept that Ian is deaf. Also, all this is happening at a time when there are ever-increasing concerns about Ian's health.

On 14 January, the family, Stephen Jakobi from Fair Trials Abroad and I met Foreign Office staff to raise the following issues. First, we raised problems to do with the trial. We pointed out that, as I mentioned, the other two occupants of the taxi had apparently been allowed to escape scot-free. Local police corruption was also an issue. Although the officials listened politely, they made it clear that that was a problem for the Indian legal system and that they could not get involved. Stephen Jakobi pointed out that all the defence arguments in the initial trial had apparently been wiped from the record. Again, the Foreign Office claimed that it could not become involved with the matter, as it related to a legal procedure. It is crucial that the information be taken into account in any appeal; the fact that it is missing could be detrimental to Ian's case.

Secondly, concerns about Ian's medical condition were again raised. Ian had described his symptoms and his sister showed the descriptions to a number of medically qualified people. All of them were convinced that he should receive immediate medical attention. The Foreign Office response was not particularly helpful, although I do not think that that was deliberate. The family were told that such second-hand reports were not enough and that notice would be taken only of an up-to-date report by an Indian doctor. That is especially problematic as the family were keen to put together sufficient information regarding Ian's health to use it as a basis for the bail hearing. They were told that Ian's old medical notes from England would not be suitable and that it would be necessary to provide the most up-to-date information from local doctors. No help was forthcoming to enable the family to obtain the necessary documents.

The one concession—if it can be called that—to come out of the meeting was this: the Foreign Office was about to set up a pro bono medical panel and suggested that this would be an ideal first case for it. Naturally, that gesture was greeted with enthusiasm, but we can imagine the family's dismay when they were recently contacted and asked if they still wanted to go ahead with the panel. However, there is another more fundamental issue, which is an example of muddled thinking: if the opinion of a local doctor is so essential in such cases, what is the point of having a medical panel of English doctors? Why is that necessary if we need the experience and expertise of the foreign doctors?

Thirdly, the family were still concerned that the local press was continuing to run the story about Ian's not being deaf and being a wanted criminal. They asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to issue a second press release setting the record straight. That request was repeated at a meeting with Baroness Amos in February. To date, no action has been taken, and I should be grateful if the Minister would explain why.

Fourthly, concerns were raised about the actions and advice of some of the consular officials. On the initial visit, Dinesh Kumar, one of those officials, had been accompanied by an unidentified female. Ian greeted that

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act with suspicion, and the family believe that the person was a journalist. The Foreign Office dismissed the matter, saying that it is not unusual for a third party to come along, but they have not provided the name of the mystery female so that she can be identified.

The incident is more important than it sounds. Ian's reluctance to talk on that occasion may have affected the way in which the Foreign Office regards the case. Other concerns focus on the fact that initial legal advice on finding a local lawyer was not the best. The locality is under the control of a single individual, and there is evidence of police and official corruption. Those concerns were repeated a couple of weeks later, when we met Baroness Amos, and medical papers describing the severity of the condition were handed over at that stage.

Unfortunately, even though the December visit had been missed, the next consular visit to Ian was not brought forward. Why was the December visit missed? The excuse given was that Ian was at the dentist. Bearing in mind the fact that the journey from New Delhi to the jail takes two days, it beggars belief that a consular official travelled all that way without making more strenuous efforts to see Ian. Does the Minister truly believe that that is a good enough standard of service?

Matters have moved on a little, and Ian is now seeing a doctor, but that is solely because of the family's strenuous efforts. If the family had been unable to visit India, and without relatives who could try to help, the story could have been completely different. Will the Minister please tell the House how long Ian Stillman would have waited to see a doctor had the family been naive enough to believe that the consular service was looking after him? It is telling that, when an appointment was finally arranged, Ian was immediately admitted to hospital and the suspected problem was confirmed. Had the condition been allowed to continue, it is highly likely that Ian would have lost his remaining good limb.

Before I turn to the future, I want to highlight a problem that touches on the Stillman family's relationship with the Foreign Office, and with British-based legal advisers on international law. Lawyers from Fair Trials Abroad have assisted Ian and his family since August 2001. The Stillmans deeply appreciate the trust's help, particularly on legal analysis, selection of the Indian supreme court appeals team, legal research into the Indian constitution, and effective participation in one's own trial as a human right—a crucial element in the grounds of appeal.

Nevertheless, two astonishing incidents occurred, involving attempts by the Foreign Office to interfere with solicitor-client relationships. Initially, the Stillmans were very grateful for the Foreign Office's unsolicited offer of a lawyer. They thought that they were being offered a pro bono Indian lawyer, but they subsequently discovered that the lawyer was English and had little knowledge or experience, as he had only recently joined the profession.

The Foreign Office's second intervention involved contacting the Stillman family to offer one of its approved lawyers to support Indira Jaising, the Indian barrister who was selected and instructed by Fair Trials Abroad. At no point did the Foreign Office contact Fair Trials Abroad. I have to question the conduct of the Foreign Office. Is it normal practice for it to offer a lawyer's services, when

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it knew full well that a lawyer—one who rattles cages, at times—had already been appointed? It also knew that its recommended lawyer could offer no specialist help.

The trust is seeking a declaration from the Foreign Office that, in cases where the Foreign Office is aware that Fair Trials Abroad is engaged, any approach on matters falling within its mission should be made through the trust. I hope that the Minister will be able to give the appropriate assurances. It would also help all British citizens to know on what basis lawyers are recruited and recommended, and I hope that the Minister can enlighten us on that point. The trust regrets asking me to raise the matter in the House. It is keenly aware that a special relationship with the Foreign Office is essential to its client's best interests.

It is also a disappointment to the family that more strenuous attempts to plead Ian's case were not made when Ministers travelled to India. Answers to questions tabled by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) show that, although Foreign Office Ministers discussed Ian's case with Indian Home Office Ministers, the Prime Minister did not raise it with the President or the Indian Prime Minister during his visit to India in January. There has been no sustained ministerial pressure at the very highest level.

That is the record that the Government must answer for, but I am more interested in moving forward, and I seek the Minister's assurance that the following actions will be taken.

First, it would be much appreciated and very helpful to the appeal if the Foreign Office issued a press release as soon possible rebutting the unfounded allegations that are still being made against Ian. Secondly, the Government should rapidly get up to speed with the health problems and ensure that the identified care needs are dealt with and that the family have access to complete records. They should then intervene on health grounds to try to speed up the appeal to the supreme court. The Minister may be aware that it has been lodged today.

Thirdly, I ask that the Foreign Office intervene so that Ian is released on bail. There is a powerful case, because it is clear that there has been a dreadful contravention of Ian's human rights. I urge the Minister to undertake to follow through on those three actions. If an individual in the United Kingdom has a problem, he rightly expects his Member of Parliament to help. It is also expected that if someone gets into trouble abroad, the British embassy or high commission will fulfil that pastoral role. Please, Minister, reassure me that that is the case.

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