Jagtar Singh Johal: Lord Cameron must offer more than lip service to family of Scot detained for 2,296 days

Foreign secretary has chance to correct government inaction over detained Scot

It is now 2,296 days since Jagtar Singh Johal, a 37 year-old Scot, was abducted in the Indian city of Jalandhar, since which time the question of what precisely is required in order to compel the UK government to fulfil its most basic duty to its own citizens remains utterly inscrutable. This week, his family met with Lord Cameron, the sixth foreign secretary to hear their concerns. As Mr Johal’s brother, Gurpreet, pointed out, the fact the peer came to Scotland to speak with the family was a sign of tentative encouragement. That is to be welcomed.

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But as the supporters of Mr Johal know only too well by now, words are meaningless unless they are met with action. In that respect, Lord Cameron chose his remarks carefully, making no commitments, and offering scant detail about what he intends to do next. He would, he said, “look at the paperwork all over again” and “reexamine everything.” To what end? Two years ago, the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention, the foremost international authority on unlawful deprivation of liberty, concluded that there was no legal basis for Mr Johal’s continued detention, with not a scrap of judicially admissible evidence against him. It is hard to conceive of a more definitive analysis.

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A few months later, the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, accepted for the first time that the Indian government was arbitrarily detaining the 37 year-old. Perhaps this was a rare moment of lucidity, or simply a typical Johnsonian gaffe. Either way, it was rightly hailed as a watershed moment, not least because it led many to believe it would lead to the UK government publicly advocating for Mr Johal’s release. Indeed, not so long ago, that was what the government did. Back in 2020, when the then foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was asked what support was available to detained British and dual nationals in Iran, he said that the government “lobby for release where we believe that they have been arbitrarily detained”.

Amidst all the rhetoric spouted by a succession of ministers, nothing has come close to this kind of pledge as far as Mr Johal is concerned. Was that policy exclusive to Iran, or has it been shelved altogether? We may never know. What is clear is that after Mr Johnson’s acceptance of Mr Johal’s status, it did not take long for the family’s hopes to be dashed again, as the revolving doors of Whitehall ensured that one step forward was followed by two steps back. Last year, Labour leader Keir Starmer asked Prime Minister Rishi Sunak if he believed Mr Johal was being arbitrarily detained. Mr Sunak’s insipid reply noted that he took the UN group’s opinion “very seriously,” and that the Foreign Office “continues to provide consular support.”

It may be that Lord Cameron is determined to do right where his predecessors failed. He may, for example, be prepared to interrogate the allegations that MI5 and MI6 supplied information to Indian authorities that led to Mr Johal’s abduction. Or scrutinise the extent to which the UK’s desire to strike a trade deal with India has hindered efforts to bring him home. Either way, the issue deserves more than lip service.



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