UK government ‘failing citizens’ in handling of state hostage taking, says inquiry

The UK government is “failing British citizens” in its handling of state-level hostage-taking, the chair of a cross-party parliamentary group has said following its inquiry into arbitrary detention.

The report, published by the House of Commons’ foreign affairs select committee on Tuesday, called for ministers to take a “zero tolerance approach” to politically motivated capture and imprisonment, which the MPs argued represented a threat to the rules-based international order.

In recent years, the government has come under intense scrutiny over its handling of detainees following the case of UK-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was arrested in Iran on spying charges in April 2016 and returned to the UK in March 2022.

Following the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and fellow British-Iranian Anoosheh Ashoori, the committee launched its inquiry into the government’s approach to state hostage situation in July 2022.

The report criticised the government’s record on communicating with the families of detainees and condemned the “inconsistency of approach” within the Foreign Office, citing a “high turnover of ministers and civil servants”.

The report comes as charity worker Kevin Cornwell and two other British national are being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Speaking over the weekend, home secretary Suella Braverman said the government was in “negotiations” to secure their safe arrival.

Braverman told Sky News that Britons intending to travel to dangerous parts of the world should take the “utmost caution”. “If they are going to do that they should always act on the advice of the Foreign Office travel advice.”

She added that if the safety of British citizens abroad was put at risk, “the UK government is going to do whatever it takes to ensure that they’re safe”.

The Foreign Office said on Monday: “We are working hard to secure consular contact with British nationals detained in Afghanistan and we are supporting families.”

The report, which warned that hostage taking was a growing threat, recommended the creation of a new government role, director for arbitrary and complex detentions, to act as a point of contact for families and improve co-ordination across Whitehall.

The MPs said the government should also clearly outline what measures it is willing to use against countries that detain Britons for “diplomatic leverage”, including legal proceedings and “Magnitsky-style sanctions” that target those responsible for human rights violations or corruption.

Committee chair and Tory MP Alicia Kearns said some states “weaponise the citizenship of British nationals” in order to achieve their geopolitical goals, adding that the government ought to be “bold in the measures used” to return detainees.

“The government’s approach to state-level hostage taking is failing British citizens,” she said. “Detainees and their families report ministerial clumsiness, serious and avoidable errors, and even callous and hurtful comments to families.

 “Our report calls for families to be treated as partners who have the potential to be instrumental in attempts to resolve the detentions.”

During the week of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release, the British government settled a £394mn debt owed to Iran over the purchase of tanks dating back to before the 1979 Islamic revolution. London has insisted that the two issues were not connected.

The report found there was “compelling evidence” that the payment to Tehran was a “precondition” for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release, adding that “failure” to pay sooner “was highly regrettable” and “almost certainly adversely affected the length of detention”.

The Foreign Office said consular officials were available 24/7 for families to receive tailored support and ministers were fully involved in complex cases.

“The best interests of British national detainees is at the heart of our consular work and we support and work with their families wherever we can,” a spokesperson said.

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