Revealed: John McDonnell’s bombshell letter that insisted constituent who arranged his wife’s honour killing on the orders of his own mother was INNOCENT
- Sukhdave Athwal and mum Bachan, fixed the death of Sukhdave’s wife in 1998
- Surjit Athwal ‘disappeared off the face of the earth’ after asking for divorce
- Bachan, 70, boasted of Surjit being strangled and dashed into a river once dead
- During the investigation, John McDonnell wrote a letter to the Commons saying there were ‘no grounds’ for police to detain members of the Athwal family
Surjit Kaur Athwal is seen shortly before she disappeared from a family wedding in India in December 1998. Grandmother Bachan Athwal, 70, was convicted in 2007 of the ‘honour killing’ of her daughter-in-law Surjit. Bachan lured the woman to India before arranging to have her murdered at a family meeting
Labour’s John McDonnell wrote a House of Commons letter to officials saying he was convinced a constituent had nothing to do with his wife’s disappearance – only for him to be jailed for murdering her.
Sukhdave Athwal, 43, arranged for mother-of-two Surjit, 27, to be strangled and her body dumped in a river.
His own elderly Sikh mother, ashamed of her daughter-in-law’s Western ways, ordered the so-called honour killing to preserve their warped family code.
In December 1998, the West London family lured defenceless Surjit to India where relatives killed her.
When local police began a probe, bus driver Athwal, of Hayes, visited his local MP Mr McDonnell and persuaded him to write an official letter on House of Commons notepaper stating he ‘had nothing to do with the disappearance of his wife’.
Mr McDonnell’s letter also claimed there were ‘no grounds’ for police to detain members of the Athwal family. He sent it to the Indian High Commissioner in London, asking for Indian authorities ‘to ensure Mr Athwal’s family does not suffer’.
It was not until nine years after the shocking crime that Athwal and his mother were jailed for life for murder at the Old Bailey in 2007. The assassins in India were never convicted, and the prime suspect remains a free man to this day.
At the time Mr McDonnell wrote the letter – dated October 7, 1999 – he did not know the Athwals were killers. But neither did he wait for the outcome of two police inquiries, one in London and one in India, into the mother’s disappearance.
John McDonnell, newly elected Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, addresses a meeting at a Bobby Sands/James Connolly Commemoration in 1997. During the investigation into Bachan Athwal and her son Sukhdave in 2007, John McDonnell wrote a letter to the Commons, claiming that there were ‘no grounds’ on which to detain members of the family
Sukhdave Athwal, is pictured at crown court, where he was accused, along with his mother Bachan Athwal, 70, of conspiracy to murder his wife Surjit Kaur Athwal while on holiday in India after she asked for a divorce.
Mr McDonnell, now the Shadow Chancellor, strenuously denies ‘interfering’ in any police inquiry.
Last night the former Scotland Yard detective who eventually cracked the case, Clive Driscoll, branded Mr McDonnell’s letter ‘unhelpful to say the least’.
And Surjit’s brother said his discovery of the Labour MP’s intervention had left his family ‘at a total loss’.
Mr McDonnell, who subsequently met Surjit’s family, insists he had lobbied hard for justice for her and was instrumental in helping the later investigation that convicted her killers.
Surjit was forcibly wed in 1988 at the age of just 16, and endured ten years of an unhappy and abusive marriage.
Surjit is pictured left next to her husband, Sukhdave Athwal in a family photo before her death. Bachan Athwal, 70, was caged for a minimum of 20 years in 2007, while her son Sukdave, then 43, pictured right, was sentenced to a minimum of 27 years. Surjit was forcibly wed in 1988 at the age of just 16, and endured ten years of an unhappy and abusive marriage
She lived with her strict husband and his tyrannical mother Bachan Kaur Athwal.
Widowed Bachan ran the family home with an iron fist, with Surjit treated like a slave. In Bachan’s mind, she posed a threat to the family’s good name.
Despite beatings from her husband and mother-in-law, Surjit rebelled. She found a job in customs at Heathrow Airport, dressed in Western clothes and wore make-up, and went out with new friends. In November 1998, Bachan told family members: ‘We have to get rid of her.’
After she was lured to India, Bachan’s brother Darshan Singh allegedly strangled her.
A month after she vanished, Surjit’s brother Jagdeesh Singh, of Coventry, wrote to Mr McDonnell. The MP for Hayes and Harlington promised to assist – yet did not reveal he was also helping Surjit’s husband Athwal, who was his constituent too.
Then came Mr McDonnell’s letter – sent before the outcomes of both investigations.
The letter was shown to Scotland Yard Detective Chief Inspector Mr Driscoll by Indian police as he was investigating the case years later. Mr Driscoll, now retired, said: ‘The House of Commons means something in India. So to get a letter from a serving MP saying, “I am convinced they are innocent” was significant.
‘I remember speaking to the officer in charge of the case out in India and he said, “Your government doesn’t think they are guilty.”
In the years after his 1999 letter, Mr McDonnell made extensive efforts to help Surjit’s family.
For many years he became a key campaigner for the family, raising their plight in Parliament in 2002 and 2003. In the years after his 1999 letter, Mr McDonnell made extensive efforts to help Surjit’s family find the truth. For many years he became a key campaigner for her family. He repeatedly lobbied the Foreign Office to put pressure on the Indian police, and raised the family’s plight in Parliament in 2002 and 2003.
In 2003, he also secured support for an ‘early day motion’ calling for diplomats to intervene, he arranged a meeting between Surjit’s family and the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, and he pressed for the Metropolitan Police to be allowed to travel to India to progress their investigation into the British mother’s disappearance.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, left, and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, right, can be seen at an election rally in Liverpool on 7 November
He says this played an important part in helping bring mother and son to account.
Mr McDonnell held meetings with various community leaders, members of Surjit’s family and local councillors to progress the case. On July 26, 2007, after a 13-week trial, Bachan, then aged 70, became one of the oldest people to be convicted of murder.
Jagdeesh Singh later thanked Mr McDonnell. But when he discovered the MP had also helped his sister’s husband, he said he felt ‘astonished and outraged’. Clutching his framed copy of the last photo taken of his sister, he said of the MP: ‘He shouldn’t have said he was convinced her husband was innocent. He should have just said he backed a full investigation.’
The year after the convictions he wrote a letter to Mr McDonnell, calling his 1999 letter ‘inappropriate and unjustified for you as an MP’.
Mr McDonnell wrote a lengthy and courteous reply a fortnight later, pointing out all the efforts he had made to achieve justice for Surjit. He told Mr Singh: ‘I ensured meticulously that I assisted all I could in securing a full and proper investigation into this case. You do not seem to be aware or acknowledge that it was in part as a result of my representations that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner authorised Met officers to visit India.’
Regarding Mr Athwal, he said: ‘I did become convinced that he was not involved in the disappearance of his wife as did many in my local community. However although I reached this personal assessment I continued to press on behalf of your own family for a full police inquiry both by the Metropolitan Police and in India.
I did so because Surjit was my constituent as well and I have responsibilities to both her and my other constituents, the Athwal family. I did not give precedence to either family.’
This week, Mr McDonnell’s lawyer Martin Howe said: ‘Our client played an active constituency MP’s role in the pursuit of the investigation of the disappearance of his constituent.’
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