Analysis: Jagtar Singh Johal allegations raises key questions of UK Government

For nearly five years, the plight of Jagtar Singh Johal has thrown up one shocking detail after another: the allegation of the coerced confession; the glacial progress of a justice system that has kept him apart from his loved ones; the grim claims of torture involving electrodes.

Last week, however, one detail trumped them all. Reprieve, which has long campaigned on the Scot’s behalf since he was snatched from a street by plain clothes officers in India’s Punjab region, said it had evidence that showed the British state was complicit in Mr Johal’s incarceration.

In a bombshell development to the long-running case, the non-governmental organisation lodged a complaint in the High Court against the UK Government. It accused Britain’s intelligence agencies of supplying information to Indian authorities that led to the 35 year-old’s arrest – and ultimately, they say, his torture.

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Those who have spent years campaigning for the Dumbarton man expressed anger at the allegations. His constituency MP, the SNP’s Martin Docherty-Hughes, said it risked “destroying whatever confidence Britain’s Sikh, and other minority populations, had in the security services”.

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He explained: “What I can see from the documentation is that clearly either MI5, MI6, or both of them were sharing information about someone called ‘Johal’ with the Indian state authorities, and quite frankly, that can’t be anybody else other than Jagtar.

“We seem to have security services which have limited, if any, oversight, and what they have done is put my constituent, a young man from Dumbarton, in a position where he could have been tortured and is being arbitrarily detained.”

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A key question being asked is how the allegations against MI5 and MI6 will impact on the continuing efforts to secure Mr Johal’s release. There has been growing frustration at the UK Government’s inability – or unwillingness – to regard Mr Johal’s treatment as an open and shut case of arbitrary detention and publicly call for his release..

That very assessment has been made by the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention, which has identified multiple violations of Mr Johal’s human rights. The UK Government, however, has stuck to its quiet diplomacy, insisting that it has repeatedly made its concerns clear in representations to New Delhi.

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Jagtar Singh Johal was arrested in India in November 2017 but has yet to stand trial. Picture: Family handout/PA Wire
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Reprieve’s legal action may exert political pressure on the new prime minister and foreign secretary – to act, especially if it is successful. The Foreign Office has declined to comment on the latest development, citing the live legal proceedings. But it, and the wider Government, will also be coming under scrutiny to answer Reprieve’s claims that intelligence about Mr Johal was shared with India.

The information in question is alluded to in four paragraphs in the 2018 annual report of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO), which details an example of alleged mistreatment.

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“In the course of an investigation, MI5 passed intelligence to a liaison partner via SIS [MI6],” the report’s first paragraph states. “The subject of the intelligence was arrested by the liaison partner in their country. The individual told the British Consular Official that he had been tortured.”

Nowhere in the report is Mr Johal named, but Reprieve believes the facts match his case, not least due to the fact that the-then prime minister, Theresa May, raised it with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in April 2018, six months after Mr Johal’s arrest.

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In the eyes of some, the legal action corroborates long-standing suspicions about the precise role played by the UK Government in Mr Johal’s case.

In 2019, the veteran lawyer and human rights activist, Gareth Peirce, alleged British authorities had secretly colluded with counter-terrorism agencies in India, stating there was evidence to support the idea of “close co-operation between the UK and the Indian authorities”.

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That, she said at the time, would explain the inertia of the Foreign Office and the Government at large.

“In repeated cases and worldwide, it has been such covert collusion, belatedly acknowledged, that has accounted for the seeming impotence of official government expressions of concern,” Ms Peirce added.

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A key issue, at least as far as the legal action is concerned, is what steps, if any, were taken by MI5 and MI6 took to ensure Mr Johal, a British citizen, was not mistreated.

Much rests on what was known until recently around Whitehall as the ‘consolidated guidance’, now called ‘the principles’ – effectively a code of conduct for intelligence officers and service personnel.

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Whenever British intelligence agencies decide to share information with their overseas partners, the guidance stipulates they must assess the risk that suspects could be mistreated.

That assessment depends on a range of factors, including a nation’s human rights record; given widespread and repeated concerns about India’s record had been aired well before Mr Johal’s detention, it is unclear what, if any, consideration was given by MI5 and MI6.

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But that is not all. When British intelligence agencies pass information to foreign partners, it is common practice to include caveats setting out how it should be used; typically, caveats insist that no detentions or arrests should be made without the UK Government being consulted.

From that, several questions emerge. Did MI5 or MI6 include such caveats in Mr Johal’s case, and were ministers, including the-then foreign secretary Boris Johnson, consulted? We do not know, but the IPCO has previously expressed concerns about the use of caveats, pointing out they have been applied incorrectly, or worded in such a way that they are incomprehensible.

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Such vital questions require answers, but the most important thing, say Mr Johal’s supporters, is bringing him home.

Mr Docherty-Hughes said: “It will be up to the incoming prime minister to speak up on behalf of those who believe in the rule of international law and make sure my constituent is brought home.”

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