Foreign Office asks for Indian torture claim to be heard in secret court

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The Foreign Office has asked for claims to be examined in a secret court that a British citizen was detained and tortured after the security services passed intelligence to the Indian government, newly filed court papers show.

The government department is refusing to confirm or deny claims that Jagtar Singh Johal, a British Sikh activist, was detained in India on November 4, 2017 after an alleged tipoff to the Indian security services.

Johal faces nine charges including conspiracy to murder, an offense that can carry the death sentence. After five and a half years he is yet to stand trial, despite court hearings being scheduled close to 300 times.

The former Conservative home secretary David Davis said: “This case raises troubling questions about the role played by the UK’s intelligence services in the abduction and torture of a British citizen overseas.”

Johal’s lawyers from Leigh Day and Reprieve are seeking a court apology from the government over its handling of his case. They allege that the tip-off was made in the knowledge that torture might follow Johal’s arrest.

Boris Johnson, when he was prime minister, wrote to the Labor leader, Keir Starmer, to say Johal had been subjected to arbitrary detention, a view shared by a UN working party on arbitrary detention. However, more recently a Foreign Office minister formally withdrew his statement in the Commons that Johal had been tortured.

Johal’s lawyers became concerned about a potential tipoff by the British security services after the 2018 annual report by the UK’s Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO), published in 2020, set out a case study in which MI5 and MI6 had passed information about a British national to “a liaison partner”.

The British national then told consular officials he had been tortured, and the detention was raised by the UK prime minister. The IPCO did not name the individual.

Leigh Day said the similarities between this anonymous case study and Johal’s case were striking, including the timing. Reports in the Indian press based on Indian police briefings suggested information on Johal had come from UK sources.

But the Foreign Office in its filed defense against the claim by Johal’s lawyers refuses to confirm or deny any transfer of information, saying it would not be in the national interest to do so. The defense claim also casts doubt on Johal’s torture allegations, a stance that is at odds with previous Foreign Office assurances and correspondence with his brother Gurpreet.

The defense repeatedly refers to him looking “fine” at a time when consular staff were telling Gurpreet they knew Jagtar could not speak freely and had whispered to them about mistreatment, out of earshot of his Indian officials and guards.

The defense says he did not explicitly raise allegations of torture, alleged to have occurred very soon after his arrest, with British consular officials until 11 January 2018. Any issue of his mistreatment or unjustifiable arrest is anyway not a matter for the British courts, the Foreign Office no.

An email from a Foreign Office official to Johal’s brother dated December 2017 accepted the seriousness of the torture allegations. “I just want to reassure you that this does not mean we take at face value that he told us he was well,” he said. “We are conscious that your brother is speaking in front of an Indian official… At the end of my visit the official left the room to get the guard in. At this point Mr Johal whispered to me ‘we need to talk about mistreatment, but not now, at a later stage’.”

Davis said: “It is telling that the government is willing to say nothing at all about what happened to Jagtar but has sought immediately to move the case into a secret court. I am also disheartened to see the government casting doubt on Jagtar’s very credible claims of torture and mistreatment, when the [Foreign Office] has raised these so many times with the Indian authorities.”

No date has yet been set for the hearing.

Foreign Office asks for Indian torture claim to be heard in secret court

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