JUSTICE: Jagtar’s detention is a nightmare, says family

Jagtar Singh Johal
Jagtar Singh Johal was allegedly forced into a van and arrested by Punjab police.

By Lucy Ashton

The brother of a Scottish Sikh activist who has been detained without trial in India for four years has told the BBC it is a “nightmare” which has left the family feeling “helpless”.

The fourth anniversary of the detention of Oxhill man Jagtar Singh Johal, who is accused of involvement in terror offences, comes as the new UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss declined to meet his family.

Mr Johal’s brother Gurpreet says the UK government has “failed” him by prioritising its relationship with India over the welfare of a British citizen.

But at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Boris Johnson said “the closeness of our relationship with India in no way diminishes our willingness to raise that case with the government of India”.

He said that Ms Truss had raised it the last time she was in India on government business.

Gurpreet Singh Johal says Jagtar's family feel helpless
Gurpreet Singh Johal says Jagtar’s family feel helpless

Gurpreet Singh Johal said: “It is disheartening, it’s heartbreaking waking up every day knowing your brother is sitting in a jail and you’re in the comfort of your own bed.

“Jagtar has been kept in a prison for four years without formal charges and he’s been subjected to torture and the continuous mental torture.”

Mr Johal, from Dumbarton’s west end  was arrested in India’s northern region of Punjab in November 2017 while celebrating his wedding.

His family said he was snatched from the street by plain-clothes officers while out shopping with his wife and had a bag placed over his head.

He has remained in detention in a series of Indian prisons ever since, accused of involvement in a terror plot to assassinate a number of right-wing Hindu religious and political leaders in the Punjab.

Four years on, Mr Johal has not stood trial and has insisted he has been “falsely implicated” in the killings.

He also said he was tortured by police officers into signing a confession which forms much of the case against him.

The Indian authorities strongly deny those allegations and have said “there is no evidence of mistreatment or torture as alleged”.

Gurpreet, who lives in Dumbarton, said Mr Johal was a peaceful activist and believes he was arrested because of his documenting of human rights violations against Sikhs in India in the 1980s.

He accused the UK government of prioritising its economic and political relationship with India over his brother’s welfare and has questioned why it has neither publicly called for his brother’s release nor said that he has been “arbitrarily detained” without due legal process.

Gurpreet said: “The UK government should stop putting trade over human rights. This is a British national whose life is in danger, he faces the death penalty as a result of your negligence in not protecting him.”

He said the Indian prosecutors had not produced “an ounce of evidence in their courts”.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has previously raised her concerns about the case with the UK government, and Mr Johal’s family have requested meetings with a series of serving foreign secretaries during his four-year detention.

Ms Truss, who took over from Dominic Raab in September, is the latest to decline to meet them, notifying the family over the past few days.

Gurpreet questioned why the foreign secretary had met the families of other British citizens detained overseas but not his own.

Ms Truss recently met the hunger-striking husband of Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, the charity worker currently imprisoned in Iran.

Gurpreet said: “If a white man has to go on hunger strike to meet the foreign secretary, what does a brown man have to do?”

The previous Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in August that the UK government took allegations of human rights violations extremely seriously and had consistently raised these directly with the government of India.

He went on to say that the case was being led by Lord Ahmad, minister of state for South Asia.

Meanwhile, Lord Ahmad was photographed welcoming the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the COP26 summit in Glasgow.

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The foreign office has not yet commented on whether Mr Johal’s detention was discussed when the two met, though it says his case has been raised at a number of previous meetings with members of the Indian government.

In a statement it said: “We have consistently raised our concerns about Mr Johal’s case with the government of India, including his allegations of torture and mistreatment and his right to a fair trial.

“In-person consular visits in India are currently suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, consular staff have regular telephone calls with Mr Johal in lieu of visits.”

Lack of support

SNP MP for West Dunbartonshire Martin Docherty-Hughes, left,  addressed a protest in Glasgow’s George Square to mark the fourth anniversary of Mr Johal’s detention.

He said: “The way the present UK government treats detention abroad is a scandal, it’s an outrage.

“The lack of support has been profoundly disturbing for Jagtar’s family. He is being held arbitrarily by one of Britain’s closest allied states.”

Mr Docherty-Hughes said a trade deal was getting in the way of the British government standing up for Mr Johal.

He called on the Indian authorities to begin “a free and open and fair trial” against Mr Johal or else let him go free.

Human rights group Reprieve has been acting for Mr Johal since last year.

Andrew Purcell from the group said: “All this week, representatives of the UK government are meeting their Indian counterparts, and once again, Jagtar’s case is the elephant in the room.

“Liz Truss is the fourth foreign secretary to fail to call for his release. What is holding them back? Why won’t they even meet his family?

“It looks awfully like they are abandoning a young British man in a Delhi jail for the sake of political convenience.”

After four years, Gurpreet said he does not know how much longer he will have to wait, but that he looks forward to the day his brother may come home.

He said: “There have been occasions where I’ve woken up thinking he’s downstairs and he’s shouting and messing about with the kids. And you think ‘was this all just a dream? and he’s never been away’.

“I want my brother back home. As long as I’m breathing I’ll be doing everything possible to bring my brother home.”

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