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24 Oct 2002 : Column 517—continued

7.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I congratulate the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) on securing this Adjournment debate and bringing this important matter to the attention of the House.

I welcome the opportunity to set out the assistance that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has provided to Dr. Lesley McCulloch and her family and to explain what consular assistance we can provide to her and other British nationals detained abroad.

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On 12 September, the consular division of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was first advised by Lord Avebury of Dr. McCulloch's arrest the day before. We immediately informed our embassy in Jakarta by e-mail. Consular staff in Jakarta tried to contact Dr. McCulloch on 13 September at the police station at Tapak Tuan. They were refused permission to speak to her without the consent of the head of the station, who was apparently unavailable. Consular staff spent considerable time trying to follow that up with the head of the provincial police headquarters and other senior staff, but continued to be refused contact.

Our honorary consul in Medan managed to speak briefly to Dr. McCulloch on 14 September. I understand that details of her arrest were relayed to her mother on 14 September, which was a Saturday. After repeated requests, on 17 September, FCO officials were able to see Dr. McCulloch. We have continued to update Mrs. McCulloch regularly and, more recently, consular staff have spoken to her on a daily basis. Since the initial difficulties in contacting Dr. McCulloch, our consular staff have had better access and have visited her on four occasions, not two—17 and 18 September and 7 and 8 October—and remain in weekly telephone contact with her.

Banda Aceh is the capital of a dangerous Indonesian province where a separatist movement is active and where we advise against travel. There is a four-hour flight service to Banda Aceh, but despite that, British consular officials have visited Dr. McCulloch on more occasions than any other British prisoner in Indonesia.

We are also aware that Dr. McCulloch is experiencing problems with her back and will eventually need an operation. When our consul visited her on 7 and 8 October, he raised her back problems with the police commandant. I am told that medication for her back has been obtained, and that she is able to take it.

I am aware that Dr. McCulloch is a vegan and I am told that it has been possible to purchase locally the foodstuffs she requires. We understand that she is not being denied access to food of her choice.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that Dr. McCulloch was arrested on 10 September. We need to confirm that, as my information is that her arrest was on 11 September. At the time of her arrest, Dr. McCulloch is said to have been carrying out research. She travelled on a short-visit visa in an area where a special permit is required. Dr. McCulloch stated that she had applied for a social-cultural visa—a research visa—from the Indonesian embassy in Australia but had not collected it as research visas are single entry and she favoured a short-visit visa.

At the time of her detention, Dr. McCulloch is alleged to have had in her possession details of military installations within a restricted area. She reportedly explained that a colleague had written the article in question and that she had been asked to edit it, which explained why it was in her possession.

On 17 September, Dr. McCulloch was charged with violating Indonesian immigration regulations. She is currently being held in a room in the police station at Banda Aceh, where she sleeps on a mattress and has access to her own bathroom. I am told that the door to the room is unlocked. She can walk freely and has access

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to a courtyard where she can exercise. Unlike other prisoners, including British prisoners, Dr. McCulloch is not being held in a cell.

On 30 September, Dr. McCulloch's case was handed to the district prosecutor, who, on 2 October, passed the case back to the police, requesting further evidence. I understand that the police have 40 days before the case must be handed back to the district prosecutor. Dr. McCulloch's lawyers believe that the first trial date is likely to be in November, and consular staff hope to visit Dr. McCulloch at the time of the trial. We hope to be able to be present during some or all of the trial.

I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that, since January, our travel advice has advised against all travel to Aceh. A separatist movement is active in Aceh, and shootings and mortar attacks happen almost daily. As from 27 August, the same travel information advised British nationals who were working in the province to review their need to stay; in other words, the advice was that British nationals should leave if they could do so.

From the events of the past week, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the terrorist bombing in Bali has caused us again to revise our advice. We are advising against all travel to Indonesia, and that all British nationals in Indonesia should consider leaving.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has also authorised the withdrawal of some dependants and non-essential staff from the British embassy in Jakarta, but remaining consular staff will continue to monitor Dr. McCulloch's welfare closely and will try to provide all proper consular assistance.

Dr. McCulloch has further stated that, after her arrest, she was threatened, sexually harassed and made to sign a document with which she did not agree. We have raised those matters with Indonesian officials, as we are of course extremely concerned by them. Our ambassador and our consular staff in Jakarta have also raised their concerns about Dr. McCulloch's allegations of ill-treatment and the problems experienced in contacting her soon after her arrest. Those concerns have been raised with the head of provincial police in Aceh and with the head of criminal intelligence in the national police and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Indonesia. They have undertaken to investigate the allegations and we await a response.

Dr. McCulloch's case has also been raised with the Indonesian embassy in London. Furthermore, on 19 October, during her visit to Indonesia after the devastating events in Bali, my noble Friend Baroness Amos raised Dr. McCulloch's case with the Indonesian Foreign Minister Mr. Wirayuda. Baroness Scotland, my noble Friend in the Lord Chancellor's Department, has also raised concerns about Dr. McCulloch's treatment with the Minister of Justice and Human Rights during a recent visit to Jakarta.

Dr. McCulloch was given a list of lawyers when we were able to see her for the first time on 17 September. It is not possible for consular officials to advise on particular lawyers, but we have been able to provide a list of lawyers who, as far as we are aware, can deal with this sort of case. It is clearly not possible for consular staff to travel around Indonesia—or, indeed, all the many countries in which we deal with consular cases—

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to identify which lawyers are good and which are not. It simply is not possible or feasible for us to do that on that scale.

Obviously, if the case were in Jakarta, we would have had dealings with certain lawyers and might have been able to advise on particular ones, but Aceh is not the capital. It would simply be very difficult for consular officials to provide detailed advice on which criminal lawyer is the best to deal with a particular case in towns such as Aceh. However, we were able to provide a list of some lawyers on the first visit on 17 September.

Under international law, we cannot interfere in the judicial process of another sovereign country, but we have urged the Indonesian authorities to deal with Dr. McCulloch's case as quickly as possible. Dr. McCulloch also has English-speaking legal representation and an interpreter, and our consular staff are in contact with her legal representatives. I understand that Dr. McCulloch has had direct contact with friends and family. No doubt, the hon. Gentleman will know about that, so I will not go into it now; we can deal with that issue when we speak with the family afterwards.

In a recent telephone conversation with our honorary consul in Medan, Dr. McCulloch asked that we let friends and family know that she is fine and well, and that they should not worry about her.

There is a clear discrepancy between the allegations made by the hon. Gentleman tonight and what I have been told. I am very concerned by that, and I want to investigate those discrepancies. If Dr. McCulloch is telling us one thing and the hon. Gentleman is presenting the case as being entirely different, I shall be seriously concerned about that matter. I am told that Dr. McCulloch is saying something entirely different to us, and I will make investigations to ascertain whether the hon. Gentleman's version of events is true or whether what I am being told is correct.

I was frankly flabbergasted by the allegation, which the hon. Gentleman made during his speech, that the Government are soft pedalling on Dr. McCulloch's case because we wish to maintain good trade relations Indonesia, especially to sell arms. That is frankly the worst sort of cheap shop party politics on a serious issue. I flatly deny the allegation. I am very angered by it. If the hon. Gentleman wants to be taken seriously he should stop pandering to such conspiratorial nonsense. We deal with a lot of consular cases across the world every day.

Mr. Reid: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: No, I will not.

I regret to say that the detention of British subjects is far from unique. The officials in the Foreign Office—civil servants, who do their job with utmost dedication and integrity—do not deserve to have that sort of allegation made against them. We certainly would not make that sort of instruction to officials. Indeed, they would not accept it if that sort of instruction were given.

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We pursue such cases in a proper manner and will continue to do so. We cannot force the Indonesian Government to free Dr. McCulloch. We need to monitor the legal procedure and negotiate with them. Seeking to frighten relatives with untrue allegations, such as the hon. Gentleman's, is simply very wrong. We

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will continue to provide all proper consular assistance to Dr. McCulloch and will ensure that her family are kept informed of any developments.

Question put and agreed to.

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