Britain Is Failing Citizens Who Are Arbitrarily Jailed Abroad

Families of those detained tell TIME that the British government has proven unwilling to use its leverage to seek their loved ones' release.

Britain Is Failing Citizens Who Are Arbitrarily Jailed Abroad
Protesters holding a banner reading, Release Jimmy Lai,

Tuesday marks 1,000 days since Jimmy Lai—the prodemocracy advocate, publisher of Hong Kong’s now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper, and business tycoon—was detained on charges of violating the Chinese government’s draconian national-security law as part of a wider crackdown on dissent in the city. In the interim weeks, months, and years, Lai’s family and lawyers have campaigned for the 75-year-old’s release, calls for which have been echoed by the U.S. government and the United Nations. Lai’s own government in Britain, however, remains silent on his release.

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Lai’s case is not an isolated incident. Around the world, scores of British nationals are languishing in foreign prisons on what rights groups call spurious charges. How many is unknown; the U.K.’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, under whose jurisdiction cases of arbitrarily detained Britons falls, did not provide an exact figure. Many, such as the British Egyptian democracy activist Alaa Abdel Fattah (who has spent much of the last decade behind bars in Cairo, Egypt, most recently on charges of “spreading false news undermining national security” for sharing a post about torture) have been convicted without so much as a fair trial. Some, including Jagtar Singh Johal (a British Sikh who was arrested and allegedly tortured by Indian authorities over terrorism-related charges, some of which carry the death penalty) have yet to see the British government publicly advocate for their release.

“They haven’t really spoken out on my father’s case until around a year ago,” Sebastian Lai, the media tycoon’s 28-year-old son, says of the British government. “Even now, they’re not using language to call for his release, which I think, as a British citizen, is shameful.” To date, the British government says that it has raised Lai’s case with Beijing and has pressed for consular access, which Beijing has denied, saying that he is a Chinese national and they do not recognize his British nationality. (The elder Lai was born in mainland China, escaping to what was then the British colony of Hong Kong at age 12 and eventually became a full-fledged British citizen. His son and lawyers say that, as a British national, Lai is entitled to the full force of the British government’s protection.)

Calls to rethink how Britain deals with cases of its nationals being arbitrarily detained overseas—an approach that’s been derided by British lawmakers as inconsistent and clumsy—have been largely ignored. “The best interests of British national detainees is at the heart of our consular work,” a Foreign Office spokesperson wrote in an email, noting that the U.K. foreign secretary and other ministers are “fully engaged in complex cases and regularly raise concerns with foreign governments.” But the families of those detained tell TIME that the government’s inaction has put undue stress on them, and many describe fighting a battle on two fronts: one against the foreign government detaining their family member, and another against their own.

For Chris Pagett, the fight to repatriate his brother-in-law Ryan Cornelius, who has been imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates for more than a decade, began in 2008. That year, Pagett says Cornelius was arrested outside the Dubai airport and taken to police headquarters, where he was alleged to have been aggressively interrogated and made to sign documents in Arabic (a language he does not speak or read) before being jailed without access to a lawyer. Two years later, Cornelius was charged with fraud over unpaid debts to the Dubai Islamic Bank, loans from which he and another British businessman had used to fund investment programs in the Gulf. Just two months before Cornelius was due to complete his 10-year sentence, his prison term was extended by a further 20 years. He has been denied the right to appeal.

The fate of Cornelius (who, over the course of his imprisonment, contracted tuberculosis) proved compelling enough for the U.N.’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, a panel of five human rights and international law experts, to declare that his trial had been “unfair” and his subsequent detention “arbitrary.” But the British government has yet to call for Cornelius’s release or support the family’s plea for clemency. “We had to meet certain criteria, namely that a UAE lawyer would have had to come out in public and say that there had been a miscarriage of justice,” Pagett tells TIME, saying that this was an effectively impossible task in a country like the UAE, as it would have required a local lawyer to “commit career suicide.” Indeed, the UAE judicial system lacks independence, according to the democracy watchdog Freedom House, which notes that court rulings are subject to review by the country’s political leadership.

Cornelius’s family thought they had achieved a breakthrough in February, when the Foreign Office finally extended an offer to transmit a plea for clemency from the family to their counterparts in the UAE. But the family says nothing ultimately came of it. “The one thing they’ve made abundantly clear is that they are not going to take any risks or do anything that they think might upset this relationship,” Pagett says. As a former diplomat himself, he understands the difficult political balancing act that London is trying to maintain. But as a family member, he despairs at what he sees as the British government’s unwillingness to use its leverage to defend one of its own. (Indeed, the Foreign Office recently apologized to another detainee, Matthew Hedges, after it was found to have failed to protect him when he was jailed and tortured by the UAE in 2018.)

“We are supporting a British man detained in the UAE and have consistently raised his case with the UAE authorities,” the Foreign Office spokesperson said in its statement, without naming Cornelius. The spokesperson did not address questions about the clemency plea’s status. 

Other families have voiced similar frustrations—not just in terms of the government’s willingness to support its citizens, but the urgency in which they do so. Gurpreet Singh Johal tells TIME that it took seven months for the British government to raise the allegations that his brother had been tortured during his detention in India with Indian authorities. Despite the U.N. ruling that Jagtar has been arbitrarily detained, the government has publicly ruled out calling for his release on the grounds that it’s “not in his best interests.” 

“The U.K. government is committed to seeing Jagtar Singh Johal’s case resolved as soon as possible,” a U.K. government spokesperson, who did not dispute Singh Johal’s characterization of events, told TIME in an email. “We continue to provide consular assistance to Mr. Johal and his family and have consistently raised his case directly with the Government of India.”

Perhaps the most notable case of a British citizen being wrongfully detained abroad is that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual national of Britain and Iran who endured six years of imprisonment and torture in Tehran on spurious allegations of trying to topple the government. Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, spent the entirety of that period lobbying the British government to speak out in Nazanin’s defense, and went on hunger strike in 2019 and 2021 in a bid to compel the government to pay an unrelated £400 million ($522 million) debt to Iran to secure her release. Last year, after the U.K. settled the debt, Nazanin returned home to Ratcliffe and their daughter, Gabriella.

Ratcliffe says it took years for the British government to acknowledge Nazanin’s innocence, let alone that she had been arbitrarily detained. Even afterwards, he says they were reluctant to act. “They kind of manage the symptoms—they don’t want too much harm to befall its citizens in the meantime, but there’s definitely a presumption that the government should use its weight very sparingly and these things are best left to resolve themselves,” Ratcliffe says. All these years later, he says it’s unclear if they’ve learned anything from Nazanin’s ordeal. “If you ask the government how many British citizens are wrongfully detained—the U.S. has a list of that; the U.K. doesn’t have one. It’s almost like, ideologically, they don’t want to know.” Data regarding the exact number of British nationals considered to be arbitrarily detained is not publicly available; the Foreign Office would not confirm how many British nationals it considers to be wrongfully detained abroad to date.

In April, the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee issued a report recommending several reforms to how the country deals with these cases, one of which was to establish a dedicated office akin to the U.S.’s Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. Alicia Kearns, the Conservative lawmaker who chairs the committee, tells TIME that the more hostile states continue to arbitrarily detain British citizens, the more urgent this kind of reform will become. “We urgently need somebody who can cut through all the red tape, who can work across government, who reports directly to the Prime Minister, and who can commit their entire time to try and get these people out and who is empowered to do so,” she says, noting that part of the problem stems from the fact that those tasked with responding to these cases are often also responsible for maintaining positive relationships with the countries in question.

“By putting it within the geopolitics, we are essentially saying that the geopolitics comes before the individual,” Kearns says. “Actually, the foremost duty of the Foreign Office should be keeping our people safe.”

Lawmakers and families say that while the British government may be reluctant to do anything that risks upsetting its relations with countries where its nationals are being wrongly detained—such as India, with which the U.K. is currently negotiating a trade deal, or the UAE, the U.K.’s largest trading partner in the Middle East—it does have considerable diplomatic levers at its disposal, including sanctions. The problem, they add, is that the British government scarcely uses these tools.

“There’s a strange lack of self confidence in the government of the country’s leverage,” says Bill Browder, a British American anti-corruption campaigner and close friend of Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Russian British political dissident who in April was sentenced by the Kremlin to 25 years in a penal colony in Russia over his opposition to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. “There’s this weird feeling that this is a weak country and we can’t do anything about it when there’s all sorts of other leverage tools that are extremely powerful, particularly because everybody wants to keep their money here and travel here.” 

Kara-Murza’s wife, Evgenia, and Browder campaigned for U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to advocate for his release, which he did in July after Kara-Murza lost an appeal against his 25-year sentence. “Compared to what we had from the U.K. government over a year ago, when Vladimir was arbitrarily arrested in Russia, this is significant,” Evgenia Kara-Murza tells TIME. “I would like the U.K. government to fight more for the release of Vladimir, not just react to what is happening to him along the way.”

The families who spoke with TIME aren’t asking for anything as extreme as severing diplomatic relations. Omar Robert Hamilton, the cousin of Abdel Fattah, says that his family simply wants the British government to change the country’s travel advice to Egypt, which they believe “would be seriously received” in Cairo. (On this, the Foreign Office said that “Our priority remains securing consular access to Mr El-Fattah and his release.”) For his part, Singh Johal just wants the government to publicly advocate for his brother Jagtar to be allowed to return home.

“It shouldn’t be that families have to advocate for the release of a loved one,” Singh Johal says. “The only reason people know about my brother’s case, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case, or Alaa Abdel Fattah’s case is because families have been campaigning.” So long as these families’ loved ones remain behind bars, they say they’ll have no choice but to continue doing so.