Speech on Cardiff West constituent held captive in Yemen for over five years

British Nationals Detained Overseas
20th April 2022

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered British nationals detained overseas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and I welcome the Minister to her new position. I hope she will bring some real energy and intent to the job.

The broad subject of today’s debate—British nationals detained overseas—has received substantial focus over recent weeks, both in this place and in the media. I thought that it was important to seek an opportunity to highlight the stories of constituents detained overseas, and to keep their names at the forefront of Ministers’ and the media’s minds.

Like all colleagues across the House, I was delighted to see Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori reunited with their families. Their hard-fought return to the UK is testament to the unwavering love and untiring efforts of their families, and I completely agree with my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq that such cases deserve proper scrutiny, so that lessons for the future can be learned from the handling of cases of arbitrary detention by authoritarian regimes across the world. On that basis, I am pleased that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has launched an inquiry into hostage taking. I hope that during its hearings, it will look at cases other than those we have heard about.

Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)
The hon. Gentleman is right to touch on the dreadful story of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, which we all watched unfold and which showed the desperate straits that many families go through privately. What lessons have been learned by our consulates and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office about the importance of Government pressure and intervention at an earlier stage? If that had been done earlier, perhaps the lady would have got home earlier.

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
As ever, the hon. Gentleman’s intervention is both compassionate and pertinent, and I will go on to say something about the way the Government handle these cases. The momentum that has been gained must be maintained and used by Ministers to redouble their efforts to reunite other British nationals in similar positions with their families.

Janet Daby Labour, Lewisham East
Will my hon. Friend give way?

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
I will give way a couple of times to colleagues who might want briefly to mention individual cases.

Janet Daby Labour, Lewisham East
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He knows that I represent Anoosheh Ashoori, who was released with Nazanin. Does he agree that it is really important to keep the profiles of people who are detained in other countries right at the forefront of the Government’s attention? I truly believe that all the campaigning for Nazanin’s and Anoosheh’s release caused the Government eventually to respond and to do the right thing in the end.

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
I do not underestimate the complexities and how difficult it is tactically for the Government to approach these sorts of cases, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Where the families want their loved ones to be remembered and highlighted, that is exactly what should happen.

Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that, with the Prime Minister leaving to go to the Republic of India, it would be a good time for the Minister, in summing up the debate, to confirm that Jagtar Singh Johal is now arbitrarily detained by Indian authorities?

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

I am sure the Minister will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said and will want to respond to that remark. It is important that, when the Prime Minister visits other countries and meets their leaders, he highlights these sorts of cases as a priority.

Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North
May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the case of Mehran Raoof, a trade union activist who is in jail in Iran? He was not released when others were released. The Foreign Secretary rather erroneously said that he did not want his name to be made public. It has been made absolutely clear through Amnesty International that his family do want his name to be made public, they do want a public campaign, and they do want him to be released in the same way that the very welcome release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe took place.

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

My right hon. Friend quite rightly highlights that case and makes that name public. I am sure that will have achieved what he wanted. There are other cases, of course: Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof, whom we have heard mentioned, are two other British-Iranians whose arbitrary imprisonment continues despite the recent negotiations. There is also British citizen Jimmy Lai, who is being held in solitary confinement in Hong Kong under the dystopian national security law.

Today, however, I want primarily to tell the story of my 30-year-old constituent Luke Symons, who has been held without charge or trial by the Houthis in various prisons in Sanaa, Yemen, since 2017. Like many people in Cardiff, Luke has a Yemeni family background, owing to the seafarers who settled around the city’s thriving docklands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1914, the Yemeni population of Cardiff represented one of the two largest Muslim communities in Britain, and it continues to constitute a proud and vibrant part of the diverse population of Wales’s capital city.

In exploring his religious and cultural roots, Luke travelled to Yemen, where he met his future wife, Tagreed, a Yemeni national, in 2014. In 2016, they had a son together. Shortly after Luke’s arrival in the country, the civil war started, leading rapidly to the overthrow of the Yemeni Government, and he found himself caught in the middle of a violent conflict that came to involve military intervention by regional powers, including Saudi Arabia. Luke and his wife tried to flee to safety; they tried to come back to the UK via neighbouring countries. They managed to get to Djibouti, but they did not get the support they needed from the UK authorities to be able to travel to Britain; sadly and unfortunately, they had to return to Yemen. Following that, in April 2017, Luke was detained at a Houthi checkpoint in Yemen upon the discovery that he held a British passport.

In the ensuing five years, despite numerous promises from Houthi and Yemeni officials, talks between regional authorities and UK Foreign Secretaries, and a visit to the prison by the UK special envoy to Yemen, Luke has remained incarcerated. As the Minister will know, in October 2020, it appeared as though Luke might be included in a substantial UN-supervised exchange, which consisted of more than 1,000 prisoners. The Foreign Office says that, following extensive negotiations and logistical planning for Luke’s release, with arrangements also being made to ensure safe passage for his wife and child, Luke’s captors inexplicably broke the agreement and severed lines of communication with the UK Government. That was obviously devastating for Luke’s family, who watched helplessly as other foreign nationals, including some from the United States, were returned home by their Governments from captivity in Yemen.

Since then, there has been very little outward progress on Luke’s case. Occasionally, his family have been allowed to communicate with him via telephone. They have become increasingly concerned and distressed by his poor physical health, which has been exacerbated by the notoriously squalid conditions of his captivity and the ongoing covid pandemic. There is also concern about the lack of access to medical attention for Luke. I understand that his wife, Tagreed, was recently informed by Houthi officials that the visits that she had been able to make have been suspended.

Perhaps most notably of late, Luke’s grandfather, Bob Cummings, who is also my constituent and, along with other family members, has campaigned consistently and courageously for Luke over the years, has told me of Luke’s worsening mental health and diminishing spirit. Luke is isolated; he is alone in his cell and is not allowed outside. He is deprived of contact with any other prisoners, and sometimes he is not even aware of the day of the week. The telephone conversations he has had with his family in the UK, which have been few and far between, have been supervised by his captors and cut off after very short periods. I take this opportunity to appeal directly to his captors—after all, they are ultimately responsible for his incarceration—to release this innocent young man, who has no part in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, so that he can be reunited with his family and return to the UK.

Other countries have lacked diplomatic presence in Yemen, and that is often cited by the Foreign Office as a significant factor limiting the UK Government’s influence and options for intervention in this case. I appreciate that it is very difficult to deal with the Houthis and not a traditional Government of any kind, but we must note that other countries whose embassies in Sanaa are closed and vacant, including the United States and France, have been able to secure the return of multiple citizens in the past couple of years. That prompts the question: if those countries have been able to do that, why has the United Kingdom not been able to secure Luke’s release?

I ask the new Minister for the Middle East to make it clear to her officials that securing Luke’s release during her time in office is a high priority, if not one of her highest priorities. I ask her to commit to taking a fresh look personally at Luke’s case, mastering the details and doing everything in her power, with all her energy, to try to secure his release. I want her to redouble efforts to open channels of communication once again with the Houthis, by whatever means, and to engage personally with her counterparts in France and the United States to understand their recent successes in securing the release of prisoners by the Houthis.

As we enter the third week of the two-month-long UN-brokered ceasefire and the associated prisoner exchange negotiations between the Houthi regime and the Saudi-led coalition that have been reported, and during the opportunity that the holy month of Ramadan provides, it is vital that the UK Government exhaust all options and use their international influence, including via the UN and, quite frankly, their much-boasted relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to explore any avenue to achieve Luke’s release.

This country’s close ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are often controversial in this House because of that country’s human rights record. However, when Ministers are pressed on those ties, they are always quick to emphasise that the relationship allows us to influence the Saudi regime. Why, therefore, was Luke’s case not raised by the Prime Minister during his meeting with Mohammed bin Salman on 16 March, which, per the Government press release, included discussions relating to concerns about human rights issues?

Will the Minister undertake to speak with her Saudi counterparts to press them to include Luke’s name in any prisoner exchange that may take place during the current ceasefire? Recent discussions have not convinced Luke’s family that our diplomats are doing enough to leverage that relationship with Saudi Arabia, which is much discussed by Ministers, to press Luke’s plight.

The Minister will know that she is the fifth Minister to be appointed to the middle east portfolio since Luke’s arbitrary detention more than five years ago. There have also been four different Foreign Secretaries while Luke has been detained—the current Prime Minister, Jeremy Hunt, the current Deputy Prime Minister, and of course the current Foreign Secretary—all of whom have expressed support for Luke but none of whom has met his grandfather, despite extending opportunities for meetings to the families of other British nationals in similar positions around the world.

Luke comes from an ordinary working-class family in Cardiff. They do not have any special connections or friends in the media or anywhere else, but they deserve the same consideration and respect from this Government as anyone else. I ask the Minister to commit to Luke’s family that she will raise his case with the Foreign Secretary at their next meeting. I ask her to involve herself in this case personally, as she has done with other cases, and to take full advantage of this latest, time-limited opportunity to reunite Luke with his family. I also ask her to ask the Foreign Secretary to meet Luke’s family personally, so that she can truly understand their plight.

This incarceration has gone on too long. I believe that with a prioritised and renewed diplomatic effort, using the current window of opportunity, Luke’s release could be secured, and he and his family could be reunited. I implore the Minister to act now.

Amanda Milling Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)  5:13 pm, 20th April 2022
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard.

I am incredibly grateful to Kevin Brennan for securing this afternoon’s debate and for his tenacious support for his constituent Luke Symons. I will return to Luke’s case in a bit more detail shortly. I am also grateful to other hon. Members for raising a number of different cases today.

I want to start by paying tribute to our consular staff and our diplomats around the world, who work tirelessly to meet the needs of vulnerable British people. Around 5,000 British nationals are arrested or detained overseas each year, and supporting them is a large part of the role of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Our consular staff are contactable 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and they offer empathetic and professional support, which—importantly—is tailored to each individual case. Our staff make no judgment about the innocence or guilt of those detained overseas. As this debate and the cases that have been raised have highlighted, there are often incredibly complex challenges to overcome.

When British nationals are detained overseas, their health, welfare and human rights are our top priorities. We provide information on the local prison system so that they understand how it works. Where relevant, we inform British nationals how to access medical treatment. We provide information on English-speaking lawyers and whether a lawyer is provided by the state, so that they can access legal advice.

We cannot interfere in the internal affairs of another country, including court proceedings. Our ability to provide consular assistance is also dependent on other states adhering to their own and international laws. We can and do intervene where British nationals are not treated in line with internationally accepted standards and where there are unreasonable delays in procedures. We take all allegations of torture or mistreatment very seriously.

Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader)
The Prime Minister has said:

“As we face threats to our peace and prosperity from autocratic states, it is vital that democracies and friends stick together.”

Does the Minister therefore agree, given the issues in respect of detention and torture, that we must not shrink from letting democratic friends know when they have fallen short on what we take to be shared values, especially around allegations of torture?

Amanda Milling Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for his specific campaigning on behalf of his constituent. As I say, we take all allegations of torture and mistreatment very seriously. In his constituent’s case, we take all allegations of human rights violations seriously, and Ministers and senior officials have raised Mr Johal’s allegations of torture and the right to a fair trial with the Government of India more than 70 times. Both the Foreign Secretary and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon have raised his case, and we have regularly raised it through officials. The hon. Gentleman campaigns passionately on behalf of his constituent, and I know that he raised his case with the Prime Minister yesterday in the House.

Rushanara Ali Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow

The Minister will be aware of the case of human rights activist Karim Ennarah, the husband of my constituent Jessica Kelly, who is a UK national. We campaigned to get him released from an Egyptian jail, but he has still been slapped with an asset freeze and travel ban. They are now separated, even though he has been released. I appeal to the Minister and her officials to continue the work they are doing to get the asset freeze and travel ban lifted so that they can be reunited.

Amanda Milling Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising that case, and I am happy to follow up in writing after the debate.

I would like to return to the case of Luke Symons, which the hon. Member for Cardiff West raised. As we have heard, Luke has been held by the Houthis in Yemen without charge or trial since 2017. The Foreign Secretary and I are both very concerned about Luke’s continued detention. I appreciate the anxiety and frustration felt by Luke and his family and I am personally monitoring the case very closely. The UK Government continue to pursue all possible avenues to secure his release and reunite him with his wife and family. We have consistently raised this case at senior levels within the Houthi regime, but we face a number of challenges.

As the hon. Member for Cardiff West mentioned, we have been unable to provide consular assistance to British nationals in Yemen since suspending embassy operations there in 2015, but that has not stopped us doing all we can to support Luke’s family since 2017. We continue to raise his case at the highest level with Houthi leaders, including through our Ministers, ambassadors and the UN.

On the matter of Luke’s welfare, we share his family’s concerns over allegations of mistreatment. We continue to raise this issue with the Houthis, urging them to show compassion. We are also working closely with non-governmental organisations in Yemen, which have previously conducted a welfare check on our behalf. We also managed to secure a call between Luke and his family in January, and we will not stop working on his behalf until he is home in Cardiff where he belongs.

I want to touch on the matter of prisoner exchanges. In October 2020, Luke was due to be released as part of a prisoner exchange, but the Houthis did not fulfil their commitments. This was despite our using every lever possible to secure Luke’s release, including drawing on the support of regional partners. We continue to engage with our partners to explore every possible avenue to get Luke home to his family.

The hon. Member for Cardiff West is right to raise the issue of UN-mediated prisoner of war exchange. We understand that this involves only prisoners of war and that civilians are unlikely to be included in the deal.

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
That does concern me because, although that is essentially true, in previous instances civilians have been included in this kind of exchange. My concern is that we are not using our influence with Saudi Arabia to ask them to include Luke in the names that they would like to see released. We should be leveraging that relationship more in this instance.

Amanda Milling Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)
We are using every lever in our power. We all want to see Luke back in Cardiff.

Colleagues have mentioned a number of cases of British nationals overseas in this debate, and another case was raised with me by my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins. The FCDO and its team work tirelessly to support British nationals detained overseas. Hopefully I have set out some of the areas in which we do this. I think it is really important to say that I really appreciate Members’ concerns and support for their constituents, and I thank them for their efforts.

Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North
Could the Minister assure the House that the Government are in serious negotiations and talks with the Government of Iran about the release of Mehran Raoof, who I mentioned, and others whose names are not revealed but are nevertheless equally meritorious of being released?

Amanda Milling Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)
As I say, we are in constant contact in relation to getting British nationals released. I will happily follow up on that with the right hon. Gentleman in writing after the debate.

I thank all colleagues for their contributions today on the cases that have been mentioned. We will continue to work tirelessly on behalf of British nationals detained overseas, and in the case of Luke to see him released and back in Cardiff, because that is what everyone wants to see.

Question put and agreed to.