Saudi Arabia: Execution of Hussein Abo al-Kheir - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords at 1:59 pm on 16 March 2023.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 1:59, 16 March 2023

My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my honourable friend the Minister for Europe to an Urgent Question in another place on the execution of Hussein Abo al-Kheir. The Statement is as follows:

“Saudi Arabia remains a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office human rights priority country, in part because of the continued use of the death penalty. It is long-standing UK policy to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances, in all countries, as a matter of principle. The Saudi Government are well aware of the UK’s opposition to the use of the death penalty. The UK Government have consistently raised the issue of the death penalty, including the case of Jordanian national Mr Hussein Abo al-Kheir, with the Saudi authorities. The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, and for human rights, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, has actively raised concerns about the death penalty and the specific case of Mr al-Kheir with the Saudi authorities on multiple occasions, including with the president of the Saudi Human Rights Commission in December 2022 and when he visited the kingdom in February 2023. Lord Ahmad also raised the case with the Saudi ambassador to the UK, including in November 2022 and in January of this year.

On learning about the imminency of the execution, which took place on Saturday 11 March, Lord Ahmad again spoke to the president of the Saudi HRC, the Saudi vice-Foreign Minister and the Saudi ambassador. Saudi Arabia is committed to an ambitious programme of economic and social reform, through ‘Vision 2030’ ... However, the human rights situation is likely to remain a key issue in our engagement for the foreseeable future. We will continue to discuss human rights and the death penalty, including individual cases of concern, with the Saudi authorities.”

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 2:01, 16 March 2023

I thank the Minister for repeating the response to the Urgent Question, and I am fully aware of all the efforts he has personally made. It is a shocking case. This is a 57 year-old father of eight who did not face a fair trial and who was tortured in jail, so the evidence goes. My right honourable friend Stephen Timms asked in the other place this morning whether the Foreign Secretary had raised this case with the Saudi authorities. The response from Leo Docherty, as we have heard, was a generalised one, saying that the Saudis know our position on the death penalty and that our position is clear. He also confused the issue slightly by saying that the moratorium on the death penalty for drugs cases was about people who were users and not particularly related to this case; he corrected himself later on.

I ask the Minister the specific question that my right honourable friend Stephen Timms asked: did the Foreign Secretary make specific representations to halt the execution and if not, why not? We know that high-level interventions can have an impact. In 2015, when David Cameron and the then Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond publicly called on the Saudi authorities to prevent the execution of Ali al-Nimr, that execution was halted. I respect what the noble Lord has been trying to do as an individual Minister, but I hope he can answer my specific question.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks and note the involvement of his honourable friend the Member of Parliament for Enfield, Southgate, who got in touch with me on Saturday evening. I assured him that I was already engaging in this issue.

The noble Lord rightly raises the importance of human rights, which he knows I prioritise in all my engagements. Human rights should be central to our diplomacy and our foreign policy, and in this regard I am sure I speak for my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, whom I have known over a number of years. When he was Minister for Middle East and North Africa, he consistently raised human rights issues directly with various authorities in the region, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Although I am the primary Minister engaging in this issue, in various recent exchanges with the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia he has not only discussed a broad range of bilateral issues but has emphasised the importance of human rights as a central plank of our ongoing relationship with the Kingdom.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, I declare that I am vice-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Abolition of the Death Penalty. Saudi Arabia is becoming increasingly isolated as other countries abolish capital punishment for drugs offences. This is a welcome move globally but draws attention to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I too recognise the involvement of the Minister; however, I note the concerns of Conservative MPs who claimed that more could have been done.

My questions relate to the consequences of our relationship with the Kingdom. The Trade Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, recently confirmed to me that human rights were no longer to be an integral part of discussions on free trade agreements. Are there any human rights activities which would bring into question opening access to UK markets, or is human rights simply a noble aim when it comes to our investment negotiations with Saudi Arabia? Secondly, we know that the Government have had intensive discussions with authorities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to seek infill for development and humanitarian assistance when there are UK cuts. Can the Minister confirm that we have not asked Saudi Arabia to infill cuts to human rights programmes, especially those relating to the use of torture, human rights and legal reform, and that UK cuts will not be infilled by Saudi Arabian Government support?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that in all agreements, particularly the GCC FTA currently being negotiated, and when I raise trade issues and the bilateral relationship across the Gulf, human rights are central to my thinking. As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in the most recent conversation my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary had with the Saudi Foreign Minister, he took the opportunity to say that human rights remain a foundation stone of British foreign policy.

The noble Lord is right to say that we are strengthening our work on development with key partners across the Gulf. Indeed, the Saudi Arabian delegation is currently at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and I will be leading the plenary and closing sessions with the primary principle of those discussions. From my perspective and understanding of human rights and the rule of law, we are not asking any country to fill gaps; it is about development infrastructure and support. For example, when I visited the Kingdom recently, I saw directly the work that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is doing through its development arm in the government-held areas in Yemen. That includes building infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, so they are making a valuable contribution to development. If there are more specifics regarding the issues the noble Lord raised, I will review them and if necessary write to him.

Photo of The Bishop of St Albans The Bishop of St Albans Convenor of the Lords Spiritual

My Lords, the whole House acknowledges the contribution the Minister makes in this important area, but there are real concerns as to whether His Majesty’s Government are as intent on addressing these issues. Saudi is part of the Arab Charter on Human Rights 2004, but the problem is enforcement. Even the statute brought in 2014 does not enable enforcement. What representations are His Majesty’s Government making to the wider Arab world to work with colleagues to nudge Saudi in a new direction and stop this extraordinary range of executions, which do not seem to be abating at all?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I agree with the right reverend Prelate, and I assure him that I am raising these issues in a very wide context. When, under Islamic jurisprudence, the death penalty was established, it was done with so many caveats, thresholds and hurdles that needed to be overcome that implementation was made extremely remote, because of all the other validations that needed to be put in place. I would not say that we need to nudge the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—countries in the Islamic world should themselves be harnessing the true principles of this—but I will ensure that this remains part of our diplomatic focus as we continue to express our opposition to the death penalty across the world.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, although I recognise the undoubted role that the Minister plays and his undoubted concern, is not the killing of Hussein Abo al-Kheir just part of a shocking pattern that we have seen in Saudi Arabia? Can the Minister confirm that, between 2010 and 2021, at least 1,243 people were executed in Saudi Arabia; that, in 2022, at least 147 people were executed in one of the bloodiest years on record there; and that, on 12 March last year, 81 people were killed in a single day, some of them charged with things such as deviant beliefs? The executions are usually carried out by beheading with a sword and hanging is often performed in public, with decisions taken behind closed doors and court documents forbidden from being published. It even affects minors: a child of 14 was executed. Is the Minister taking this matter up with the United Nations Human Rights Council and talking to Islamic scholars about challenging things that are done under religious statutes?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, in the interests of time, let me assure the noble Lord that we discuss the death penalty very much in multilateral fora, including the Human Rights Council. As I alluded to the right reverend Prelate, we must also contextualise our approach and make it clear that the extreme nature of this is against our principles—indeed, if they are to exercise the death penalty, we must define what the nature of it should be.

Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Independent Labour

My Lords, following the right reverend Prelate’s intervention, can the Minister tell the House what conversations he is having with our allies—whether in the Commonwealth, in Europe or elsewhere—about the particularly barbarous practice of imprisoning children as young as 14, keeping them in prison until they are 18 then executing them? Surely this is something that the international community needs to take very seriously. Words will not be enough; action needs to be taken on Saudi Arabia in this respect.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

On the specific issue of Saudi Arabia and child detention, I believe that there is only one live case of someone facing such circumstances at the moment. I assure the noble Baroness that I have made strong representations. Certain adjudications were made in particular cases that were then reviewed and overturned. I assure noble Lords that we watch this issue very carefully; indeed, when such occasions arise, we make direct representations.

As I, the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, have said, there is a real need for countries in the Islamic world, including those in the OIC, to recognise that how they behave or act, particularly when it comes to certain issues and penalties, is not reflective of the notion, principles and intent of that structure of jurisprudence when it was created. It is a sad fact, though, that the death penalty applies not only in that part of the world but quite widely; we will continue to campaign against that. I think I speak for everyone in this House, irrespective of who stands at this Dispatch Box and when, when I say that our principled stand against the death penalty is the right one and that we should continue to advocate across the piece.

Sitting suspended.