Foreign & Commonwealth Office Questions

Alok Sharma answers MPs' questions on issues including political prisoners held in Colombia and the Marshall scholarships.

Colombia: Political Prisoners


3. What reports he has received on the conditions in which political prisoners are held in Colombia; and if he will make a statement. [908032]


13. What reports he has received on the conditions in which political prisoners are held in Colombia; and if he will make a statement. [908042]


We are concerned by reports about the detention of human rights defenders and activists in Colombia, often held without trial or access to legal representation. Our embassy in Bogota closely follows specific cases. The Prime Minister raised our concerns about threats to human rights defenders with President Santos during the state visit in November.


I thank the Minister for his answer, but, following the amnesty law passed by the Colombian Congress on 28 December, will the Minister urge the Columbian Government to release all civil society prisoners, as agreed, as soon as possible?


We welcome the approval of the new amnesty Bill of course, and we believe it will lead to a benefit for all citizens and the wider region as part of the Columbian peace process. We look forward to all aspects of that law, particularly with regard to disarmament and reintegration.


Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

The transition zones are an important, if not crucial, aspect of the peace agreement, yet we are hearing reports of work on living quarters not even having started, of food being so rotten that people are suffering from severe and possibly lethal food poisoning, and of the supply of water being very scarce. Given that the transition zones are where the FARC troops are supposed to be concentrated as an essential element of the peace agreement, will Her Majesty’s Government please put absolute pressure on the Colombian authorities to ensure that the zones are properly completed?


We do of course raise these matters with the Colombian authorities on a regular basis. I take the point that the hon. Gentleman has made, and we will of course relay it back.


The United Kingdom has supported the Colombian Government of Juan Manuel Santos throughout the difficult, recently concluded and very welcome peace process, and we have pledged our continuing support through the United Nations and the European Union. Will the Minister outline what specifically will be supported, and tell us whether the Colombian people and civil society will be included in the discussions on how the funds will be allocated?


My hon. Friend is right to suggest that 2016 was a historic year for Colombia. The peace deal with the FARC ended the longest conflict in the western hemisphere. He asks about the range of support that we are providing for the peace process. It includes a contribution of £7.5 million to the UN trust fund, with more than £2 million dedicated to de-mining.


According to a report from the Institute for Development and Peace Studies in 2016, there is now a paramilitary presence in 31 of the 32 Colombian departments. Will the Minister make urgent representations to the Colombian Government to ensure that the proliferation of paramilitaries and private armies is countered, and that the articles of the peace process are upheld?


I can confirm that we are concerned by reports of violence against human rights defenders, which has increased in 2016. Those attacks have increased in areas from which the FARC is withdrawing, which is disturbing. We will of course raise these matters with the Colombian Government, particularly the importance of security in conflict-affected areas.

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Topical Questions


Since 1953, the Foreign Office has supported Marshall scholarships to help young Americans to study in the UK. Will my right hon. Friend continue to support this increasingly important aspect of the special relationship?


The Government, of course, support the Marshall scholarship programme. It is another example of Britain’s soft power, and I am delighted to say that we have made additional funding available to enable 40 scholars to study at UK universities from September this year.

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The Foreign Secretary will be aware of my constituent Billy Irving, who is wrongly imprisoned in India. As we await yet another judgment, what are the Foreign Secretary’s plans to get Billy and his colleagues home whatever the outcome? Will the Foreign Secretary reassure us and them that that remains his priority, and that it will not be derailed by his Government’s Brexit bedlam?


Our heart goes out to Billy Irving’s family and all those involved. I raised this matter with the Minister of External Affairs and the Indian Foreign Secretary when I visited India in October. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also raised it with Prime Minister Modi. We are pressing for speedy due process to take place. As the hon. Lady knows, we await the outcome of the appeal process.


Further to the question of the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), my constituent Ray Tindall and the other men of the Chennai Six, who are in prison for a crime they did not commit, will be looking for a little bit more than thumb-twiddling and warm words. Does the Minister have any concrete proposals to get those innocent men home within the next six months?


As I have said, we take this matter incredibly seriously. We have raised it on a number of occasions and will continue to do so. We cannot seek to interfere in the legal process of another country, but let me assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing absolutely everything we can to urge a speedy process and to make sure the men get help in prison.