FOREIGN Secretary James Cleverly has refused to commit to seeking the release of Scot Jagtar Singh Johal from an Indian prison in what his family say is a “backwards step” in the fight for his freedom.

Johal – an active blogger and Sikh human rights campaigner - was in Punjab in Northern India in 2017 when his family say he was arrested and bundled into an unmarked car. He says he was then tortured for days, including with electrocution, and has remained in detention since then. 

In May, he was formally charged with conspiracy to commit murder and being a member of a terrorist gang and now faces the death penalty. The charges rely on his forced confession under torture and are not supported by credible evidence, say human rights groups Reprieve and REDRESS.

On Monday morning, Johal’s brother Gurpreet and his constituency MP Martin Docherty-Hughes met with Cleverly for the first time in the hope he would pledge to help secure the release of Johal and insist he has been arbitrarily detained, but neither happened.

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Former prime minister Boris Johnson acknowledged there was no legal basis for Johal’s detention – reflecting the findings of a panel of UN legal experts – but former foreign secretary Liz Truss and Cleverly have never echoed this.

Gurpreet said he was disappointed by the meeting which he insisted was full of “empty words”.

He said: “I’m grateful to the Foreign Secretary for meeting us but so disappointed in what he had to say.

“He talks about ‘Jagtar’s best interests’ but won’t seek his release - and won’t even acknowledge that there is no legal basis for his imprisonment. 

“It is a slap in the face to hear him talk about the Indian justice system and what the UK Government can do to ensure that Jagtar receives a fair trial.

The National: A demonstration was held outside Downing Street to mark five years since Johal's detention in India in NovemberA demonstration was held outside Downing Street to mark five years since Johal's detention in India in November (Image: Newsquest)

“Jagtar has been in prison for five years already based on a ‘confession’ he signed after being tortured, and his trial on these trumped-up charges has barely begun.

“As I told Mr Cleverly, trials brought by India’s National Investigations Agency can drag on for decades.

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“What we need from the Foreign Secretary is decisive action; what we got is more empty words.” 

In November a demonstration was held outside 10 Downing Street to mark five years since Johal - known as Jaggi - was unlawfully detained.

It was attended by hundreds of people from all over the UK including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was detained in Iran for six years after being accused of plotting to overthrow the government. 

That followed an incident in August where Reprieve accused British intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6 of providing a tip-off that ultimately led to the arrest of Johal, who was originally from Dumbarton.

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Reprieve showed documentation to the BBC which says there is strong evidence Johal’s arrest came from a tip-off from British intelligence. 

Docherty-Hughes said at the time the allegations risk “destroying whatever confidence Britain’s Sikh and other minority populations had in the security services”.

The West Dunbartonshire MP used a general debate at Westminster earlier this month to call for Johal’s immediate release, stating that the legal case around his arbitrary detention is now beyond doubt.

Following the meeting with Cleverly, Docherty-Hughes said: “I appreciated the Foreign Secretary taking the time, allowing myself and Gurpreet the opportunity to put our case robustly and clearly.

“However, I’m disappointed to say that despite listening to compelling evidence, built on the unambiguous findings of the UN working group, we are no closer to having the UK Government call for Jagtar’s release. 

“After five years, with Jagtar being tortured into making a false confession, and the now unavoidable evidence of arbitrary detention, the UK Government cannot move on from the softly softly approach which shows no sign of yielding results.”

Following Johal’s detention, it is said he was given electric shocks, his limbs were forced into painful positions, he suffered sleep deprivation and death threats, including threats of being burned alive, and he was forced to sign blank sheets of paper.

Despite the seriousness of the allegations and repeated requests from his lawyers, India has never provided him with an independent medical examination and has taken no steps to investigate the serious allegations of torture, as far as REDRESS and Reprieve are aware.

Reprieve's director of advocacy, Dan Dolan, said: “By failing to seek Jagtar’s release, the UK Government is effectively condemning him to indefinite arbitrary detention in India.

“It looks awfully like the Foreign Secretary is prioritising narrow political considerations over the life of a young British man facing a death sentence overseas for blogging about human rights abuses.”