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5 Nov 2002 : Column 259—continued

11.25 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) for enabling me to intervene briefly in the debate on behalf of my constituent, Ian Nisbet, whose parents I have come to know well as they live in Brackley, very near my own home in my constituency. I echo the points that my hon. Friend made so eloquently. They are compelling points, to which I add a few comments of my own.

First, I offer my sincere thanks to Her Majesty's ambassador in Cairo, and to all the consular staff both in Cairo and in London who have been involved in the case. I echo my hon. Friend's assertion that it is not a matter of criticising the Government in this case. We are all aware of the sensitivities involved.

Secondly, we need to recognise that legal systems are different. Things that are seen in one light in London are now always seen in the same light in Cairo. The culture and conditions in prison, the operation of the legal system and the rules of evidence are not likely to be the same. We must respect some degree of difference, but that does not absolve us from concern if we feel that conditions are unacceptable or intolerable. It is an important part of the consular role and the Government's role to ensure that conditions are kept to an acceptable standard, and that accused people, who are very vulnerable when they are incarcerated, are treated decently.

I draw the attention of the House to three brief points. The first is that the Islamic organisation in question is not proscribed in the United Kingdom, although it is in Egypt. That is a relevant consideration for any of us. The second is that a real concern about the evidence has been highlighted by my hon. Friend. I cite the fact that among the bundle of documents, which seems to have been comprehensive, was a sports magazine in English, a calendar, a bundle of till receipts from the supermarket, and a number of documents that do not appear to have an owner among the accused. The operation does not seem to have been very professional. That is a matter of concern.

Finally, I echo my hon. Friend's concern about conditions not only in terms of the original arrest and incarceration, but in the conduct of court proceedings, which cannot amount to an acceptable trial if people are

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held in cages, without being able to sit during the day, probably in considerable heat and discomfort, and in very large numbers. I would be extremely grateful for the Minister's response. We are aware of his difficulties, but we are anxious to have his co-operation in the fullest possible Government attention to the case.

11.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing the Adjournment debate and on bringing this important case to the attention of the House. I know that the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness, my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), have taken a keen constituency interest in the case and have followed it closely. I assure all the hon. Members and others who are present that the Government take the issue seriously and will continue to take a very close and direct interest in the way in which the case is handled.

I welcome the opportunity to set out the assistance that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has provided to Maajid Nawaz and two other British nationals who remain in detention in connection with the case. I am grateful for the kind words of hon. Members about FCO staff, and I shall pass on those messages to them.

On 1 April 2002, Maajid Nawaz, a student at the university of Alexandria, was arrested. Hassan Rizvi, Ian Nisbet and Reza Pankhurst were also arrested on 1 April.

Consular staff at our embassy in Cairo immediately sought confirmation of the arrests from the local authorities. On 7 April, it was officially confirmed that the four men had been detained by state security and we immediately sought consular access. Our consul and vice consul were allowed to visit Maajid Nawaz and the other detainees on 11 April. They appeared well but said that they had been intimidated and treated roughly in the initial days of their detention. One of the men made serious allegations of torture. The men did not, at this time, request independent medical examinations, nor did they wish embassy staff to raise the allegations of mistreatment and torture formally with the Egyptian authorities. I shall return to that subject in a moment.

In the meantime, every effort was made to secure information on the judicial process under which the men would be prosecuted. Our ambassador met senior Government officials on 18 April and 7 May, and the prosecutor general on 8 May, to seek information. My noble Friend Baroness Amos, the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for consular matters, met the Egyptian ambassador to London on 9 May to raise our concerns about the treatment of the detainees. On 22 May, Maajid Nawaz and the other men saw their legal representatives for the first time.

We were then able to ascertain that the men had been arrested under a ministerial decree issued by the Minister of the Interior. On 23 June, the decree was

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overturned by the prosecutor general and the case transferred into the normal court system.

The detainees appeared in court on 4 July, 20 July and 3 August. On 4 August it was announced that three of the detainees were to face charges and that the fourth, Hassan Rizvi, was to be released. Mr Rizvi was released from custody on 12 August and subsequently returned to the United Kingdom. The relatives of the detainees were aware of the exact details of the charges faced.

The trial commenced on 20 October. Proceedings were adjourned after five hours and recommenced on 29 October. The judge, over the next three days, presented the prosecution evidence to the court and, on 31 October, proceedings were adjourned. The trial proper is expected to start on 21 December. Staff from our embassy in Cairo were present during the hearings and we hope to have someone present during any trial.

During court sessions the detainees were being held in a cage. We acknowledge that conditions have been cramped and that there have been difficulties with access to toilet facilities and the provision of drinks and food.

The lawyers registered protests with the presiding judge, and by 31 October conditions had improved. I am also pleased to be able to inform hon. Members that the detainees were able to speak to their relatives by telephone from the judge's chambers, I understand on 31 October.

We were concerned to learn about the allegations of mistreatment and torture suffered by Maajid Nawaz and the others. As I have said, when we first learned of them, the detainees asked us not raise them formally. However, the allegations were serious, and therefore were raised informally by our ambassador in meetings with the Egyptian Foreign Minister on 11 April and with the Interior Minister on 18 April. The allegations were also raised when our ambassador met senior Egyptian Government Ministers on 7 May, 8 May, 24 June and 26 June.

On 1 July, Maajid Nawaz, Reza Pankhurst and lan Nisbet wrote letters to the Prime Minister setting out in detail the treatment they had suffered in the first four days of their detention. A request was also made for an independent medical examination.

On 3 July, the Foreign Secretary was able to raise the case when he met the Egyptian Foreign Minister. On 25 July, my noble Friend Baroness Amos wrote to the Egyptian Foreign Minister to ask that an investigation be conducted into the allegations and that the detainees be allowed access to an independent medical examination.

On 19 September, our ambassador met the prosecutor general who assured us that he had been asked to conduct an investigation into the allegations, but said that that was not yet complete. On 25 September, our ambassador wrote to the prosecutor general to ask for the results of the investigation.

We have continued to press the Egyptian authorities for a formal response. Most recently, on 8 October, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spent time discussing the case and the allegations of mistreatment

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and torture with the Egyptian Foreign Minister when they met in Cairo. Our ambassador spoke with the Foreign Minister on 21 October and with the Interior Minister on 24 October. A formal reply from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is still awaited.

We have been active in trying to ensure the detainees' welfare in detention. Since Maajid Nawaz was arrested on 1 April, concerns about prison conditions have been raised by the detainees and their relatives in the United Kingdom. We are unable to seek better conditions for British prisoners than those afforded to local nationals. However, through representations made to the authorities by consular staff and by working with the relatives, improvements to the prison conditions have been secured. That culminated in a move to newly refurbished cells equipped with toilet facilities in September. Maajid Nawaz, lan Nisbet and Reza Pankhurst do not currently have any complaints about the prison conditions, although they obviously had serious concerns at an earlier stage.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East): I thank the Minister for giving way. Speaking very briefly, one appreciates the sensitivities involved and our feelings are, of course, with the relatives and friends of those who are currently detained in Egypt. Does my hon. Friend accept that the difficulty that he appears to be having in getting responses to the proper queries that we have raised is unusual from a Government as friendly and helpful as the Egyptian Government have always been? One hopes that the answers will come forward very quickly, but in the meantime, will he reassure the House that British visitors to Egypt, of whom there are tens of thousands every year, need have no particular concerns? Will he acknowledge that the Egyptian authorities are extremely sensitive to these matters, but live in the light of the desperate difficulties that they experienced at Luxor some time ago?

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