The UK government has decided not to call for the release of a British man held in an Indian jail for five years, saying it would not be in his best interests.
There have been repeated calls for Britain to do more to secure the release of Jagtar Singh Johal, who claims to have been tortured and forced to make a confession. He faces terrorism charges and the first stages of his trial have just started after repeated delays caused by disputes over evidence.
More than 70 MPs this week called on the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, to request Johal’s release when he travels to Delhi for the G20 leaders’ summit.
The refusal to call for his release came in a letter sent to Johal’s MP, Martin Docherty-Hughes, dated 8 September and signed by the minister for Asia, Lord Ahmad.
Ahmad wrote: “Having carefully considered the potential benefits and risks to Mr Johal of calling for his release, as well as the likely effectiveness of doing so, we do not believe this course of action would be in his best interests.
“With Mr Johal’s trial under way, our assessment is that such a call would be considered interference in the Indian judicial process, which could jeopardise our ability to offer consular assistance.”
Ahmad adds: “We will continue to raise our concerns directly with the government of India, as the foreign secretary did most recently with external affairs minister Jaishankar on 1 March.
“Where appropriate the prime minister will also raise Mr Johal’s case during his upcoming engagements with the Indian government.
“We will continue to do what we can to support Mr Johal and his family, always guided by our assessment of Mr Johal’s best interests.”
The original letter by Docherty-Hughes was sent on 20 July, but he only received a reply almost two months later, the day after a separate letter concerning Johal’s fate signed by more than 75 MPs was publicised by the BBC.
The UK Foreign Office said its decision to refrain from calling for his release “did not represent a weakening of its position”. His brother and the campaign group Reprieve rejected the claim as absurd.
Docherty-Hughes said: “To lead is to choose – and the prime minister has chosen not only to prioritise a desperate bid for a free trade deal [with India] over the life of a British citizen, he has also chosen to snub a perfectly reasonable request to him made by more than 70 of his fellow MPs, across all parties.”
Dan Dolan, the advocacy director at Reprieve, said: “The government insists that its position on Jagtar’s case is not ‘weakening’, but it’s honestly hard to see how it could be any weaker.
“They must wake up to the fact there can be no fair legal resolution to proceedings that began with a torture confession and have not produced any admissible evidence in six years. This is a political problem that demands a political solution, and the prime minister’s refusal to do what is needed smacks of political cowardice.”
Johal’s brother Gurpreet said: “I’m fed up with being told there’s nothing the government can do. My brother has been missing from this family for six years now, imprisoned for his human rights activism on false charges. The prime minister and foreign secretary are leaving an innocent British national to rot in an Indian jail because they lack the political will to do what it takes to get him home.
“It sums up how seriously the government are taking my brother’s case that they only bothered to reply to the letter from MPs after it was in the news.”
Johal, 36, from Dumbarton, West Dunbartonshire, was a blogger and campaigner for Sikh human rights, which was said to have brought him to the attention of the Indian authorities.
He travelled to India in October 2017 to get married. Reprieve says that while he was out shopping with his wife, Johal was hooded, bundled into a car by men in plain clothes, “severely tortured” and made to sign blank pieces of paper.
In May 2022, the UN working group on arbitrary detention concluded that he had been arbitrarily detained and that his detention breached international human rights law. At one point Boris Johnson, the then foreign secretary, wrote in a letter to the opposition leader, Keir Starmer, that Johal had been arbitrarily detained.
The Foreign Office appears to believe that having called privately for Johal to be put on trial it can no longer call for his release. Relations between India and the UK are at a sensitive stage as long-running talks about a trade deal reach a critical stage.
There were also suggestions in August 2022 that British security services may have transferred information to Indian authorities that led to Johal’s arrest. The Foreign Office has in the past said it had raised concerns about the case and that it took the UN report seriously, and the department has generally held back from officially saying it was not calling for his release.
Johal was arrested in connection with targeted killing cases that took place in Punjab between January 2016 and October 2017. It is alleged that these offences were part of a conspiracy created by the Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF), an organisation of which the Indian police allege Johal was a member. KLF was described in the court documents as a “terrorist gang”.
The Foreign Office has been approached for comment.