Judge orders UK government to declassify more Thatcher-era papers on Golden Temple Massacre
KRW LAW LLP represents journalist Phil Miller in his quest for information about British support forIndia’s counter-insurgency campaign against Sikhs in the 1980s, including the Golden Temple Massacre at Amritsar in 1984.
A Tribunal in London has told Britain’s Cabinet Office that it must declassify more secret papers aboutthe Golden Temple Massacre in 1984, in which hundreds, if not thousands, of Sikh pilgrims were killed by the Indian army. The then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, secretly sent an SAS officer to advise Indian troops before the operation.
The decision comes after journalist Phil Miller, who first exposed the SAS role, made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for four Cabinet Office files from the period, that were being withheld from the National Archives.
The Tribunal rejected the government’s argument that declassifying the papers would damagediplomatic ties with India. The Tribunal “could not see that, after 30 years, there was a requirement to withhold any of the withheld material ‘for the purpose of safeguarding national security’.” It said there was “a very high public interest in disclosure of the withheld materials in general”.
The Tribunal accepted that one file (“India: Political”), from the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), could contain information that “relates to” British spy agencies MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – and therefore the Cabinet Office was entitled to rely on a technicality that exempts such material from the FOIA scheme.
The Tribunals’ decision follows a three day hearing in March 2018 where Mr Miller was representedpro bono by KRW LAW LLP and Counsel Julianne Kerr-Morrison of Monckton Chambers. Dabinderjit Singh Sidhu OBE, principal advisor to the Sikh Federation (UK) provided a witness statement in support of the appeal.
To defend its position, the government sent two senior witnesses, who gave most of their evidence in secret court. One witness was Philip Barton, Director General of Security at the Foreign Office. He had previously chaired the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and served as a Private Secretary to Tony Blair and John Major.
The files that must now be released in full include papers on UK-India relations from 1983 to 1985, ameeting between Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi’s advisor, the situation in the Punjab, Sikhactivities and the assassination of Mrs Gandhi in October 1984. The UK Cabinet Office has a month to appeal this decision and has not yet handed Mr Miller any of the papers.
The Tribunal also made a significant comment on the ‘Heywood Review’, which was established by David Cameron in 2014 to examine Mr Miller’s discovery of the SAS role. This Review by the CabinetSecretary Sir Jeremy Heywood claimed to have read 23,000 documents in just over a fortnight. It concluded that the SAS advice had “limited impact in practice”, and said Mrs Thatcher was not motivated by potential arms and helicopter sales to India worth billions. The Heywood Review was branded a “whitewash” by Sikh groups and the Labour Party has made a manifesto commitment to holding a public inquiry if elected.
The Tribunal said “we also acknowledge the limitations of the Heywood Review from their [i.e. theSikh community’s] point of view, in particular the speed with which it was carried out and the limited time period of the files that were looked at.”
The Tribunal dismissed the UK government’s claim that declassifying more papers would harmrelations with India and said “It is worth noting that we have heard no evidence of any adversereaction from the Indian government resulting from the events of January and February 2014” referring to Mr Miller’s original exposé of the SAS role and the subsequent Heywood Review. The Tribunal pointed out that the British government showed the Indian authorities an advance copy ofthe Heywood Review but their reaction was only something “anodyne”.
Reacting to the judgment, journalist Phil Miller said:
“After nearly four years of asking for disclosure of these files, it is a great victory for a Judge to rule that more transparency would not harm diplomatic ties or risk national security.
“While I note the Tribunal’s decision that one file cannot be released because it may relate to the intelligence agencies, this just shows the limitations of the freedom of information act that such a loophole exists.
“It is no wonder that many in the Sikh community are calling for a public inquiry, as only that would have the power to disclose all relevant material. We know from the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq Warjust how revealing JIC papers can be.”
The government has until 11th July to appeal the decision of the Tribunal. Until then the requested material cannot be disclosed.