Too often, the fair treatment or the eventual release of British citizens detained abroad depends on publicity, this has got to change

I have a blue laminated badge with the slogan “Free Nazanin” that peaks out at me from the corner of my living room mirror.

It was given to me by Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard the first time I met him, during his hunger strike outside the Iranian embassy in London.

Originally I kept it as a daily reminder of Nazanin and the emotional torture that she and her family were being put through.

Now, it is to make sure that I never let those Britons who are still enduring imprisonment abroad or having to fight for the right to fair representation and fair trial, slip from my attention.

People like Jagtar Singh Johal has been arrested and held without trial in India for seven years—seven years in which the Indian Government have presented no evidence to link him to any crime. There have been claims of his having to sign a false confession under torture.

Or Ryan Cornelius was arrested in 2008 and convicted of fraud in the United Arab Emirates. After completing his sentence, he now faces a 20-year extension, decided behind closed doors without legal representation.

And perhaps most high profile at the moment British-Russian journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, for his criticism of the regime of Vladimir Putin, was given the longest prison sentence for political activity in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union: 25 years, in one of the country’s harshest prisons.

How can that happen? How can it be that British nationals can find themselves without legal representation or recourse to support? It was only in a recent conversation with Richard Ratcliffe that I realised the lengths to which he had to go to ensure that Nazanin got representation.

As it stands, there is no legal guarantee that any British citizen will have the right to assistance from the consulate in the country where they are held. There is no process, threshold or mechanism.

Support can be provided, and sometimes it is, but the problem is that that is at the discretion of the consulate under the Vienna Convention of 1968.

That can mean that much of the support relies on diplomacy, good faith and international relationships—discretion. Surely that is not enough?

US citizens can rely on the fact that there is already a legal obligation on their government and state department to advocate on their behalf.

But if any of my constituents find themselves detained abroad, they will have no guarantee that their government will protect them and their wellbeing, and that the right to protest their innocence or transfer home to this country will be dependent on diplomatic niceties and international relationships.

Too often, the fair treatment or the eventual release of British citizens detained abroad depends on publicity, on campaigns by the family and on the support and hard work of their MP. Many of us have direct experience of offering such support to our constituents.

That is why I brought forward a private Member’s Bill—the Consular Assistance Bill— which is returning to Parliament on April 26th.

It would impose a new obligation on Ministers to inform consular officials if they have reasonable grounds to believe that there is a risk of a British citizen suffering human rights abuses.

If someone is detained, they become ‘protected’ and would then be subject to more intensive and comprehensive investigations. Visits, discussions or deteriorations in circumstances would also have to be reported. Family or designated persons would have to be informed.

It would be the duty of the consulate to take reasonable steps to secure the safety and support of detainees, with visits, food, water, reading and writing materials and, if necessary, medical supplies.

For the most serious cases, the consulate would have to ensure access to the correct legal advice and support. We should not forget that some individuals may be the hostage of another state, arbitrarily detained or may even face a possible death sentence.

Is it not astonishing to be discussing even the possibility that any British citizen detained abroad would not have those things?

Whilst I have a commitment from the Labour Party to create this legal obligation after the election, vulnerable people and victims of human rights abuses should not have to wait any longer.

If you carry a British Passport you will see inside that it carries a request to allow the bearer free passage without hinderance and offer as much protection and assistance as may be necessary.

It is time that we lived up to the commitment in those words.

Christine Jardine MP

Christine Jardine is the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West, and elected in 2017. She currently undertakes the roles of Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), and Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland).