On 13 October the House of Commons debated new government anti-terrorist measures being rushed through the house, including the proscription of 15 terrorist organisations. There was little time for debate and no opportunity to vote individually on which organisations should be banned.
Below are edited extracts from the debate, in which Liberal, Labour, Conservative and Plaid Cymru MPs all expressed reservations about the inclusion of an alleged Uzbek terrorist group, the Islamic Jihad Union, in the list of banned organisations.
In answering their concerns, Hazel Blears, Home Office Minister, gave one seriously misleading explanation, and one straightforward lie. Blears trotted out the Uzbek government version of a series of violent incidents in Uzbekistan in March 2004. In fact the alleged string of suicide bombings do not appear to have been anything of the kind. I visited the site of each of the bombings within a few hours, or in one case minutes, of the alleged explosion.
The physical evidence on the ground did not coincide with the official explanation. For example, each suicide bomber was alleged to be using explosives equivalent to 2kg of TNT. But nowhere, not even at the site of an alleged car bomb, was there a crater, or even a crack in a paving stone. In one small triangular courtyard area a bomb had allegedly killed six policemen. But windows on all sides, at between ten and thirty metres from the alleged blast, were not damaged. A tree in the middle of the yard was not damaged also. The body of one of the alleged suicide bombers was unmarked, save for a small burn about the size of a walnut on her stomach.
A full account of my investigations of these bombings appears in my book, which is one reason the FCO will seek to block publication. There is no more reason to believe the Uzbek government version of events in March 2004 than to believe the Uzbek government version of the Andizhan massacre. What is more, as Ambassador I sent back the detail of my investigation to London, and the Joint Terrorism Assessment Centre (JTAC) agreed with my view that there were serious flaws in the Uzbek government account ‘ and agreed with my view that the US were wrong to accept it. I concluded then, and still believe now, that these events were a combination of a series of extra-judicial killings covered by a highly controlled and limited agent provocateur operation.
Why then is this Uzbek government propaganda now being uncritically relayed to the House of Commons by Hazel Blears?
Where Hazel Blears lies outright is in assuring MPs that the information on the IJU is from our own sources. There was no intelligence material from UK sources on the above events. The UK has no intelligence assets in Central Asia. We are dependent on information given to us by the United States’ CIA and NSA. There was information from the NSA on the above events. We had NSA communications intercepts of senior Al-Qaida figures asking each other if anyone knew what was happening on Tashkent (no-one did). Despite the only intelligence we had indicating plainly that Al-Qaida were not involved, Colin Powell immediately went on the record in Washington to support their ally Karimov, stating specifically that Uzbekistan was under attack from Islamic militant forces linked to Al-Qaida.
Almost certainly MI6 and MI5 happily accept this rubbish analysis, as it suits their own agenda. But to pretend that they have independent information is a lie.
I am greatly concerned that Ministers are prepared so easily and uncritically to push a security service agenda. I am sad but far from astonished that they are so cavalier with assurances to MPs. It is worth noting that the instincts and suspicions of these MPs were absolutely spot on ‘ they are to be commended.
I am not, in a practical sense, concerned by the proscription of the Islamic Jihad Union. The evidence that this organisation exists at all is extremely tenuous, and if it does it is almost certainly the fruit of an Uzbek agent provocateur operation. I am greatly concerned by the glib repetition of Karimov propaganda by British ministers.
13 Oct 2005
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Liberal Democrat Members do not take substantive issue with the substance of the order, although we have some reservations, to which I shall turn. As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said in business questions earlier, we have strong reservations about the manner in which the Government have introduced these measures. Introducing an order listing 15 specified organisations in a circumstance where debate is limited and there is no opportunity for amendment could have put the House in a very difficult situation. As it happens, we do not have any substantive information that would contradict the information that the Minister has helpfully supplied in her letter, but that is a happy circumstance and would not necessarily apply in every case. When I first approached this matter, I shared the unease that was expressed by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) about the listing of the Islamic Jihad Union. Indeed, I continue to feel uneasy about the inclusion of that group among the list of 15. If it had been the subject of a specific order, there would have been greater opportunity for the House to scrutinise its inclusion.
I hope that nobody outside the House will be in any doubt about the view that we take of the Karimov regime, which is entirely despicable and despotic. The Minister’s PPS, the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound), recently did a brave and laudable thing in going there and bringing to the attention of the regime the revulsion that we all feel. I know that the hon. Gentleman and I share a concern about the practice of the Uzbek Government with regard to the operation of the death penalty. The Government’s signals to the Uzbek regime have not always been helpful. I am thinking especially of their treatment of my old friend, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, who has done us all a great service in graphically highlighting the appalling human rights record of the Uzbekistan Government.
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): I question the Minister specifically on the Uzbek organisation that appears in the list. According to the right hon. Lady’s own note, it has as its principal aim the holding of elections in Uzbekistan. It does not organise or recruit in the United Kingdom. It was involved in the Andijan uprising in May, which left hundreds of civilians dead. They were killed not by the Islamic Jihad Union but by the brutality of the Karimov regime that it is trying to overthrow. Should we not tread very carefully before proscribing an organisation that has less blood on its hands than a Government with whom we still maintain diplomatic relations?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I took a particular look at the organisation to which he refers. The indication, given the information, was that it was perhaps less active here than many of the other organisations that are set out in the explanatory memorandum. I have been assured that the group would cause a threat to British interests overseas in particular. It is always open to any of us to seek to weigh the balance between the actions of one group or another. As for the organisations that are set out in the list, I am saying that the information of the security and intelligence services has been sufficient, when scrutinised carefully by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, for him to reach the decision that proscription is appropriate. I will deal with the provisions on appeal, which are extensive for any organisation that finds itself proscribed.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): Reading the note as carefully as I could, it appeared to me that in respect of the Islamic Jihad Union’I would be grateful if the right hon. Lady were to clarify the matter’it was not its resistance to the Karimov regime that was causing the Government difficulties, but the fact that it was associated with direct acts of terrorism in third countries such as Kazakhstan. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case?
Hazel Blears: There is a range of activities that all these organisations will be undertaking. We have attempted in the explanatory memoranda to outline, as far as we can, the activities that have taken place. As for the Islamic Jihad Union, in March 2004 there was an explosion in Uzbekistan that killed nine people who were involved in the construction of portable improvised explosive devices. Over the following three days, there was a series of shoot-outs and suicide bombings that were carried out in Tashkent, Bokhara and Uzbekistan, leaving about 25 dead and 35 wounded. I also asked about the impact on British interests to satisfy myself that the order was an appropriate way forward.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has carefully scrutinised the information that is available to him. We are being told by the security services that the organisations on the list are of particular concern at this time. That is why the decision has been reached.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I want to return to the Islamic Jihad Union. It is the organisation that causes some of us concerns because of the country in which it is clearly operating. Can the Minister reassure me that her primary channels of information come from British intelligence and not from Uzbek sources?
Hazel Blears: The information that we receive is from our own security and intelligence services. Obviously, we have very good relationships with intelligence services throughout the world, and it is right that we should also take account of that information. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in his careful scrutiny of the evidence available to him, will have taken into account a range of different sources in relation to each of these decisions.
Adam Price: Have the Government either sought or received intelligence from the Uzbek Government on this matter?
Hazel Blears: I can give hon. Members the reassurance that they are seeking, as the case on the IJU is based on our own intelligence.
Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): Do other EU countries include the IJU on a proscribed list? Concerns about the Uzbek Government would prompt many of us to prefer to see them on the list rather than groups that oppose them, given that they have carried out acts of cruelty and torture against their own citizens. Have the British Government received representations from the Uzbek Government and other Governments about the inclusion of organisations on the list? It can be argued that many of them display anti-western attitudes, so what representations have been received from the United States?
Hazel Blears: The IJU is proscribed by both the US and the UN, so other countries have concerns about that organisation. As I said, the intelligence on which the Home Secretary reached his decision was from our own sources, so I hope that that reassures Members that the matter has been scrutinised properly and that this is a proper decision. I shall come on to the appeal provisions, which are robust. If groups feel that they have been wrongly proscribed they have recourse to a review.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Before you come on to that point, I would like to ask you another question about the Uzbeks.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Lady must correct her use of language. She is not asking questions of me, but of her right hon. Friend the Minister.
Helen Goodman: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I am sure that what the Minister said about the IJU is correct, but after the uprising in Andijan people were massacred by the Government, and others were tortured into saying that they belonged to radical Islamist groups. How will the Minister make a judgment in practice about whether people truly belong to the IJU, which is to be proscribed, or have simply been tortured into claiming that they do?
Hazel Blears: If an organisation is proscribed, anyone seeking either to become a member or to give it support would be guilty of a criminal offence. Prosecution would be a matter for the courts, and it would have to be brought properly. Evidence would be tested and there would be an opportunity for all the issues raised by my hon. Friend to be explored within the criminal justice system, as would happen with any other kind of offence. There would be an opportunity to discover whether evidence had not been obtained properly or did not stand up under scrutiny or cross-examination. I accept the points made by several hon. Members that other people may have carried out acts that we would all find abhorrent. However, we are talking about whether particular organisations pose such a threat that they should be proscribed. The fact that other organisations may be involved in other activities does not mean that the listed organisations should not be subject to a proscription order.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I reassure the Minister that the official Opposition will support the order. These are difficult areas, and hon. Members have highlighted the point that it is no light matter for this House to proscribe organisations that may want to set themselves up in this county or that are already operating in this country, if they can be shown to have legitimate aims.
I suggest that a common-sense distinction can easily be made between organisations that seek political change in their country’they might even support freedom fighters’and organisations that support terrorism. The random slaughter of innocent individuals can play no part in the process of trying to bring about political change. The hallmark of the various organisations identified by the Government is that they have engaged in that very activity.
I am mindful of hon. Members’ comments about the Islamic Jihad Union. The Government of Uzbekistan undoubtedly leave a great deal to be desired and may properly be described as “a tyrannical regime”. The fact that opposition to that regime may manifest itself outside the law is perhaps understandable, but that it should take the form of random suicide bombings that kill innocent civilians must be unacceptable. If this House does not send out a signal that it considers such behaviour unacceptable, we are on dangerous ground.