Introducing a backbench business Commons debate on the Kesri Lehar petition to abolish the death penalty in India, the MP for Hayes and Harlington paid tribute to the campaigners, many of whom sat watching the debate in the public gallery.
He said that last year when the “first inkling” was received that India was considering ending its eight year moratorium on implementing the death penalty, members of the Punjabi community in the UK, especially the Punjabi Sikhs came together and launched the campaign.
They secured more than 100,000 names on their petition to abolish the death penalty and address other human rights concerns.
Mr McDonnell said “fears were compounded” when in November 2012 India ended its moratorium and carried out an execution, with a hanging taking place in February this year.
In December 2012 the UN voted for the fourth time for a resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions and while 111 countries voted for, India voted against.
He argued there was a “real risk” that with more than 400 people on death row in India and 100 more sentenced to death each year, many more executions were likely to follow unless action was taken.
He said: “First of all we need to recognise the historical relationship between India and Britain means that the UK Government is uniquely placed to urge the Indian government to end the death penalty.
“Therefore I’m calling on the UK Government to use every forum, every mechanism of communication established with India both formal and informal, to press the Indian government to halt the executions now and then to sign up to the UN Convention opposing the death penalty.
“I wrote to the Prime Minister before his recent visit to India to urge him to raise this issue with the Indian government and I hope that the minister can report back on that, and the continuing pressure that successive governments now across party have been placing upon the Indian government.”
Mr McDonnell urged Britain to raise the issue with European partners to seek a joint representation from all of Europe to India on the subject.
He also said Britain should work with other countries to raise this call within the UN, adding: “With a UN Human Rights Council meeting imminent this is an ideal time to place this back on the UN agenda.”
He appealed to India to “embrace humanity by ending the state killing once and for all”.
The Backbench Business motion, signed by a cross-party group of MPs, states: “That this House welcomes the national petition launched by the Kesri Lehar campaign urging the UK Government to press the Indian government to sign and ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which encompasses the death penalty, with the result that India would abolish the death penalty and lift this threat from Balwant Singh Rajoana and others.”
Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire said the death penalty “undermined human dignity” and said the British Government continued to aspire to its global abolition.
He told the Commons: “Use of the death penalty in India is a complex issue and it continues to be the subject of much debate across Indian society.
“It was disappointing India’s de facto moratorium on the death penalty which had existed for over eight years ended with the hangings of Mohammad Ajmal Kasab and Mohammad Afzal Guru last November and February this year respectively.
“Kasab and Guru were convicted of very serious crimes, involvement in the Mumbai attacks in 2008 and the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. It is important to remember the impact such acts of terrorism have on the people of India.
“Notwithstanding this, it remains the British Government policy to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle. I hope the Indian government re-establishes a moratorium on executions in line with the global trend towards the abolition of capital punishment.”
Mr Swire said he had reiterated the Government’s position to the Indian administration last week when he accompanied Prime Minister David Cameron to the country.
And he said the India-EU Human Rights Dialogue would present a further opportunity.
The minister added: “They listened to what I had to say, was aware of our consistent position, and stressed to me the very real fear in India created by these acts of terrorism.”
Shadow foreign office minister John Spellar said: “I congratulate Kesri Lehar for their campaign.
“Uniting the community, whatever their views may be, and also gaining very wide public awareness of the issues we are discussing today.
“I also reaffirm the united determination of this Parliament on all sides to secure justice for the Sikh community of the Punjab.”
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