What diplomatic support should a British citizen detained abroad reasonably expect to receive from the UK Government?
The circumstances of Hasnat Karim, a dual UK and Bangladeshi national currently held without charge in Bangladesh, highlights how for families of detainees the failure to provide diplomatic assistance is inexplicable. The rights of dual nationals to receive such support from one of their countries, when they are detained in the other, are codified by international convention. Why then have the British authorities claimed they cannot intervene in this case? Why are we so reluctant to defend the rights of UK nationals in this situation?
On 1st July Mr Karim, his wife and two children found themselves hostages during a terrorist siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery, an upmarket restaurant in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. Whilst his family were released, Mr Karim remained a hostage until the siege was broken. He is now in police detention, held unlawfully without charge, in contravention of both Bangladesh and international law. Consular access has been refused, contact with his family denied, and he has been interrogated without access to legal counsel. Several local lawyers who might have acted for him have refused to do so, saying they have been 'advised' by members of the Bangladesh government to not support any suspect in this matter.
As to why they still detain Mr Karim, Bangladesh remains frustratingly silent. The absence of any information and explanation has led the local media to speculate nonsensically that rather than a hostage he must be one of the hostage takers - conjecture made more intense after images and video emerged of Mr Karim speaking to and performing tasks for the terrorists during the siege.
All the available evidence makes clear the opposite was the case. Witness statements from other hostages - along with a forensic analysis of the images by a US security and intelligence agency - make clear any actions he undertook were through coercion by terrorists who might otherwise have murdered him and his family.
Given this evidence it is inexcusable and extraordinary that the Foreign Office has not done more to help. The stated policy relied upon is that we do not interfere in the legal system of other countries. This is a policy interpreted flexibly by the UK according to circumstances - and of course in this case the detained person is a UK national.
When David Cameron was Prime Minister, very publicly and personally he intervened in a case in the Maldives with a threat to impose sanctions on the government of that country if it did not reform its judicial system. He demanded the Maldives authorities release a person not even a British citizen but who, despite being convicted of a serious criminal offence, is someone known to Cameron. The individual was granted bail to travel to the UK for medical treatment where he has now received political asylum.
More recently the British Government has intervened on behalf of a dual British and Iranian citizen and charity worker, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, currently detained and awaiting trial in Iran on yet unspecified charges of conspiracy against the Iranian State. Her case has been taken up by Prime Minister Theresa May, who has even spoken personally with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urging that Zaghari-Ratcliffe be released.
The family of Hasnat Karim does not believe that British Prime Ministers past or present will soon be making similar calls to Bangladesh. But they have a right to expect the FCO to voice publicly at the highest level that denial of consular access is unacceptable. They expect the FCO, armed with the weight of evidence, to demand his immediate release and return to the UK.
It can only be surmised there are other considerations in play. All countries, Britain included, must inevitably balance a duty to help citizens in trouble abroad against the geopolitical or bilateral implications of doing so. This is an unfortunate political reality even when the country in question, Bangladesh, has a reputation for autocracy and disregard for the rule of law. Still: A British citizen is unlawfully held in custody without evidence or reason by a miscreant government - and should be sufficient reason for the British authorities to act.