I am delighted that the subject of human rights in Saudi Arabia has been chosen for an Adjournment debate. It is obviously a vast subject, and I hope that hon. Members will feel free to contribute to the debate and make known their views. I want to draw attention to Sandy Mitchell—my constituent—Ron Jones and Bill Sampson, all of whom have faced abuse and torture in Saudi Arabia.
A dark tale of torture has been unfolding since the release of Sandy Mitchell and the others last August. It seemed that a new allegation would surface almost every month. New information and evidence would be produced by those who had been jailed. Sandy Mitchell was a senior anaesthetic technician at the security forces hospital in Riyadh. He was arrested on
I wish to make it clear at the outset that I do not want to use the debate as an opportunity for an anti-Saudi discussion, nor do the prisoners. Sandy Mitchell and other prisoners speak fondly of the Saudi people. They speak in support of the people they met in prison, but we are against torture and the torturers, which is the focus of my contribution to the debate.
The debate will not go away. I and colleagues will not walk away from the abuses in Saudi Arabia. We are not willing to turn our backs on the people who have faced torture and abuse. It is as straightforward and simple as that. The Government, the House and the British people need to make it clear that they are horrified that, in this day and age, someone can be tortured in a country with which we are supposedly friendly. We should take the chance of today's debate to say that we stand four-square with the victims of torture—not just today, but tomorrow and in the future. That should always be the case.
The case of Sandy Mitchell and his arrest is horrific. He turned up for hospital on
Mr. Mitchell was immediately faced with a beating from the people who had arrested him. He could not defend himself because his wrists and ankles were cuffed. The beating continued for several hours. He was then taken down to the cells and was chained to a door, so that he could neither sit nor lie down. He was denied sleep and rest for a total of nine days. He said that at about 10 o'clock that evening he was taken back to his house in chains by the security officers who had beaten him. They ransacked his house, and all his personal items, including clothes, cameras and diplomas were confiscated. Most of the items taken have never been returned. His wife and son were, of course, terrified by his arrest and by the state he was in when he was taken back to his house. On his return to the detention centre he was punched, kicked and spat on, and was again chained to the door of his cell so that he could neither sit nor lie down. As I said, he was kept awake for nine days and nine nights.
During Sandy Mitchell's imprisonment his beating consisted of the torturers striking the soles of his bare feet with axe-handles, with a Saudi sitting on his chest at the same time, making it difficult and frightening for him to breathe as his feet were being beaten. He was told that he would never be released if he did not confess to the bombings. He begged his captors to check his alibi for the evening on which they accused him of being involved in the bombing. He felt certain that friends and colleagues could easily convince the police that his alibi was strong and would clear him of any guilt. He demanded a polygraph test because, as a desperate man, he thought taking such a test would prove his innocence and he would be released. This was denied to him, and the torture continued. He said that, during the beating and torture, he was bleeding continually from inside his left ear, his nose and his mouth, and that he lost some teeth.
I do not intend to go on all afternoon. I think what I have said about the torture is enough. That story can be repeated by Ron Jones, by Bill Sampson, and by any of the other prisoners held in Saudi Arabia. Having listened to one case, one can multiply it by seven to obtain an accurate picture of what went on for a very long time—as I say, these men were held for two and a half years.
In addition to the beatings and the psychological torture, we need to consider the solitary confinement in which these prisoners were held during this period—again, an attempt to break them and extract confessions to something in which they were not involved. We know all of them, and there is no question of it.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this valuable debate. I think he underestimates the role that he, other hon. Members and the Government played in securing the release of these men. Does he agree that for the long-term prosperity of the UK and of Saudi Arabia, it is important that a message comes from Saudi Arabia, to the effect that those who wish to go there and use their skills to add to the country's prosperity will be subject to clear, democratic justice, and not to some of the horrendous examples he has outlined?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. As I said at the beginning, this is an argument against the torturers, not against the decent people of Saudi Arabia, who want to give support to those who go to work or holiday there—not only British people, but those of other nationalities—and seem to be a kind race in many ways. We need to insist that people can go to Saudi Arabia in absolute confidence of the legal and judicial system; I will return to that later, because I believe that there is a bigger role for the Foreign Office and for others in making sure it happens.
I hope I am not stealing the hon. Gentleman's thunder, but he will be aware that Ron Jones's case, in particular, goes to the Court of Appeal later this year—in May, I think. Is he expecting the Foreign Office or the Department for Constitutional Affairs to intervene in the case being conducted against the Saudi Arabian regime? Is he expecting their intervention to be unhelpful and to argue that the State Immunity Act 1978 overrides human rights legislation? Is it not important to clarify the Foreign Office's take on that appeal and on the basis for intervention? What does it intend to achieve? It is also important that the British Government are not in any way implicated in condoning torture.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I will come to it in due course as I want to deal with the detail of that case and with what we would all expect from the Foreign Office and from the Government in these circumstances.
Mr. Mitchell said in his evidence that after about the fifth night he could not endure the beatings and the torture any more. He said he was prepared to sign a confession, no matter what it said. He was given a very sweet cup of tea and asked to sit down and sign a prepared statement of his confession. This was directed by Lieutenant Khalid al Sallah, the translator for Captain Ibrahim al Dali. These two seem to have been the two main torturers of Sandy Mitchell. I will refer to both of them again, as it is important that we identify the torturers and take the appropriate action when we can.
The interrogators also wanted to know, even after Mr. Mitchell had signed his confession, who had been involved with him—not only the other prisoners, but which people from the British embassy had assisted him. He could not believe that this line of questioning was being put to him, that it was suggested that the embassy was somehow involved in a bombing in Riyadh. He continued to be beaten and tortured into the eighth night, even after the confession, because they wanted further information. They said that if he would not help them further, they would bring his wife into the interrogation, because she was Thai and they could do anything they wanted to her. He said that just hearing the screams of other detainees in the prison again put him under tremendous pressure to agree to anything they were saying in terms of the British embassy involvement and the devices for the bombings.
Mr. Mitchell said that his interrogation and the torturing had sometimes lasted for an unbelievable 14 hours. That was normal for him. Even after he had been taken to the prison, the beatings continued. He was hospitalised on three occasions, first for two days, then for 14 days and then for 15 days. Imagine the extent of the injuries that meant he was hospitalised for that length of time. He was allowed a visit from the British embassy after 46 days. Prior to that visit he was again warned not to complain to the embassy about his treatment or he would face even further beatings and torture. At least then he felt that the embassy had been involved, and would hopefully speak up for him and for the other prisoners and get things moving regarding his case.
Mr. Mitchell was then prepared—he says "drilled"—to make a video confession for television as part of his confession, which was rehearsed many times. At first he was told that it was nothing more than a video for the private files. All of us who saw the alleged confession on television were horrified because Sandy Mitchell was reading off an autocue in a very unconvincing manner—and no wonder, because it was the result of beatings and torture from previous days.
So a British citizen was shown all over the world confessing to the bombings in Riyadh, and that suited a lot of internal sources in Saudi at that time. They could claim that the bombings were not the work of domestic terrorists but were quite simply the work of British or other foreign nationals working in Saudi Arabia.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. One of the issues here is the face that Saudi Arabia shows to the rest of the world, and although I cannot speak in any detail about the case he is referring to, Saudi Arabia certainly does not have a good reputation with regard to any form of religious freedom. Shi'a Muslims are regularly dealt with in a savage manner, and Christians who happen to be working in Saudi Arabia face all sorts of problems. Surely any country that wants foreign nationals to come and work within its boundaries, and which wants to show the rest of the world that it is a developed country, should take religious freedom on board. Does my hon. Friend agree?
There is an important question of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, which parallels the question of freedom for women to be accepted into Saudi society, and to be able to operate in a normal way. The issue is not just one of religion—there is the question of human rights for the whole population. The Foreign Office needs to address these issues sharply. We as a Parliament need to find a stronger voice when dealing with the Saudis, and the Foreign Office needs to lead that process.
Sandy Mitchell was finally taken to court in July, and before he entered the courtroom he was warned again that if he tried to retract his statement, he would be taken back to the detention centre, and the torture and the beatings would continue. That is what he was faced with at the so-called Department of Justice as he was being taken into court. It took about five months for a lawyer to come and speak to Sandy Mitchell and the other prisoners about the Saudis' abuse of their human rights during their time in prison. It was then that he found out that he had apparently been sentenced to partial beheading and crucifixion. His sentence had already been decided before he even saw a lawyer. That is how expansive Saudi justice is.
I do not intend to go through a lot of the horrific detail involved in this and other cases, but one issue that I must raise is the fact that as Sandy Mitchell and others were being tortured in Saudi Arabia, they noticed that the footcuffs and handcuffs that held them had been made in England. That should make us all feel tremendous shame, and I know that there is all-party support for saying that we cannot allow it to continue. We need to take action to ensure that this stuff is not exported and then used as part of a torture mechanism against any citizen, Saudi or otherwise.
Because we are talking about religious rights, the rights of women, the rights of foreign nationals and the rights of the Saudi population, it is important to record that we salute the work of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Although we are debating this issue today, and may spend some weeks and months on it, they are the custodians ensuring that Saudi behaviour is watched and properly examined every day of the week throughout the year. That is important. We should salute the work in which they have been involved. Amnesty International found a persistent pattern of systematic human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Again, that comes not just from the prisoners, but from the international organisation that knows best.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I know that he has pursued the matter with great passion. His contribution so far has been excellent.
Before he moves off the issue of torture, I should like to say that I had the pleasure of meeting Sandy Mitchell after he was released. In my professional capacity I was able to judge that he is still suffering from torture. His mental health is in serious need of support. I was concerned for him. Does my hon. Friend agree that although the beatings have stopped, the torture is ongoing for him and his family?
My hon. Friend makes a valid, important point. The experience has not ended for the prisoners. Their release was great—it was a wonderful for all of them—but I am sure that the pain of trying to bring their lives together after two and a half years of imprisonment, torture and beatings will leave a tremendous physical and psychological scar on all of them. Again, we need to think about how best to help people in such circumstances to move back into life and get back to normality. I am pleased that she raised that point. We must deal with such matters properly and more consistently.
In December I asked the Foreign Office whether it would investigate the claims of torture that were made against Saudi Arabia by the recently released British prisoners. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin, replied for the Government, saying:
"Throughout the detention of the British men in Saudi Arabia, we raised with the Saudi authorities, at the highest levels, our concerns about the case, including the men's treatment and conditions in detention. We are in touch with the men and their lawyers and are doing what we properly can to assist them."—[Hansard, 16 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 779W.]
With respect, that is all very well, but I want to know what the Government are doing to take on the Saudis on the question of the torture and beatings of British citizens in their care in prison. We must be sharper. Members of Parliament, the Foreign Office and the Foreign Affairs Committee must sharpen their language and be tougher on such questions. Those tortures and beatings cannot simply be put on the record by the Foreign Office or the Select Committee and dealt with as numbers. We must take up that challenge at all levels, whether it is the Prime Minister, the Minister, or MPs who do so. We must ensure that people are treated properly.
It is important to note that the UN is unhappy with the situation in Saudi—it is not just me, other MPs, the British Government, Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International who are worried. In reports, the UN continually refers to the abuses that take place in that country, including the abuse of human rights, torture, beatings and jailings. We must raise those matters at every opportunity.
Since his release, Sandy Mitchell and the others have been referred for medical examination. Despite the fact that we have moved on and it is so long since the torture and beatings, they still want to prove medically that they were tortured and beaten in Saudi Arabia. I do not intend to go through the medical evidence produced by the Parker Institute in Denmark, which is the world centre of excellence to which people are referred when they think they are victims of torture and want to prove it. It is important that these reports should remain private, but I shall speak to the conclusion of that report, which states:
"There is an overall accordance between the presented torture history, the described symptoms and the results of today's examination. The findings are consistent with alleged torture with a high degree of support."
That is not an allegation by any of the men. It comes from medical evidence to support their claims. There should be no question in anyone's mind that everything points to the statements made by Sandy Mitchell, Ron Jones and others, being 200 per cent. true. The report, from such a renowned institute, confirms that in everyone's mind.
As I said to Dr. Pugh, I want to come back to the issue of Ron Jones. The hon. Gentleman correctly said that the case would go to the Court of Appeal on 11 and
The Foreign Office website says that torture is abhorrent and illegal. If that is so, it should do nothing on 11 and
This may seem a naive question. It is right and proper for us to seek assurances from the Government that they will do everything they can to ensure that those who have been subjected to torture and their families receive every support and that the same does not happen again, but did the employers of any of those detained play any role in assisting them or in offering their families support?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. My information is that the employers of those who were arrested are under tremendous pressure. As employers in Saudi they did everything they could to keep channels open while their employees were in prison and to support the families, but that is difficult to do in Saudi; it is not an easy role for an employer. I am sure that those involved did everything possible in the circumstances.
I said that I would raise the case of Bill Sampson. I do so because David Maclean cannot be with us today, as he is detained elsewhere. I know that he would make these points on behalf of Dr. Sampson and I am happy to do so briefly.
Dr. Sampson was one of the few people who have dual nationality—British and Canadian. He says:
"Of those detained, I am the only dual-national (British and Canadian), and my case was initially handled by representatives of the Canadian Government. This was against my stated request to the Saudi Arabian authorities."
Dr. Sampson had asked that the British embassy deal with his problems. He continues:
"I have been given to understand that notwithstanding the Saudi Arabian refusal to recognise my dual-nationality, I was entitled under international treaty obligations to be visited by representatives of Her Majesty's government. As such, this has to be added to the long list of my basic human rights that the Saudi Arabian government violated.
The others"— that is, Sandy Mitchell and others—
"and I were denied access to legal counsel until after we had already been tried and convicted. We were denied consular access during the initial phase of our detention (in my case, the first six weeks). We were denied private, unmonitored visits with our consular representatives. We were not allowed to discuss our situation or the case with the consular representatives. Alongside these basic violations, we were held in solitary confinement, denied access to the news and any information pertaining to our case, kept under conditions of continuous light, physically tortured by systematic beatings and sleep deprivation. Because of this brutality, I suffered a heart attack and almost died due to the special attention of my gaolers."
The case that we and other hon. Members have made is a strong one.
At the outset, I said that
What I say is not against anyone other than the torturers. I have named the two people whom Sandy Mitchell recalls torturing him. They were guilty, and if the Government do nothing about the matter, they will be guilty of human rights abuses and torture. That is the only conclusion that people can come to after listening to the case of Sandy Mitchell and the others. I am sure that all of us in the Chamber demand justice for people who have been tortured. As I said at the outset, we should stand four-square with the victims of torture.
I support everything that my hon. Friend Mr. Lyons said about the treatment of his constituent Sandy Mitchell and the others who were kept in such appalling conditions and suffered such dreadful treatment, including torture. I want to mention a few things that have come my way because of a visit to Saudi Arabia, and some other matters that I hope are worth mentioning and may lead to a better understanding of what is going on there.
Last summer, I was invited to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to meet Government Ministers by the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. At first, I refused, as I always have done—I have been invited before—because of the appalling treatment of women, as well as other human rights considerations. I felt very strongly about the issue of women in particular. However, I thought about the invitation, and uppermost in my mind at the time was what happened on 9/11—the demolition of the twin towers in New York. I started to think that perhaps the time had come for some of us to start talking to Ministers in places such as Saudi Arabia, instead of being virtuous and not going to those places, especially considering that all those involved in the demolition of the twin towers were Saudi Arabian citizens.
I contacted CAABU and decided to go. A few days later, my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden approached me and told me about the plight of Sandy Mitchell and the others. That convinced me even further to go, because he asked me to make representations on his and his constituent's behalf. Shortly after that, there was a very bad situation in Riyadh, in which a compound that housed mainly foreigners was completely demolished by suicide bombers; a number of bombers were involved. That was two days before we were to fly out.
We were invited to the Foreign Office, and the adviser there told us that we really ought not to go and that our lives would be in danger if we did. However, one member of the delegation was a Member of the other place, Lord Redesdale, and in true Brit fashion, he said to us, "Well, you can decide not to go, but I'll go. If we don't, the suicide bombers have won. If they stop us going to and having influence in countries such as Saudi Arabia, they have won their case." That was a good point. Having considered his and my hon. Friend's arguments, but in the teeth of opposition from my son and daughter, I decided that I should go.
We went and, as has been mentioned, we were treated with courtesy and hospitality. We were only there for a weekend. Of about six people, my hon. Friend Ms Russell and I were the two women on the delegation. We were accepted: we were not asked to dress in a certain way and we were not asked to wear veils or cover our heads. We were treated with the utmost courtesy. I ate so much that weekend, I am sure I put on weight. That is not to trivialise what we are talking about.
During our visit we spoke to seven or eight Government Ministers. To each Minister we made representations on behalf of the British prisoners. We complained about their treatment and the charges that had been brought against them, and we begged for their release. Within weeks of our return they were released. Whether our representations had any impact, I am not sure. Later, I went to the Saudi Arabian embassy in London as part of a delegation that included my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden and other Members involved in these arguments. That probably also helped.
Last summer, after the release of the captives, I was invited to a Saudi Arabian women's day—can you believe it—in London. It was a lovely occasion. We heard from all kinds of professionals from Saudi Arabia—I know this is trivial, but they were beautiful women and beautifully dressed—who were very clever and talented. It made me think that Saudi Arabia is moving in the right direction. At the same time, however, I had to consider the fact that women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to travel alone unless they carry a document demonstrating that they have their husband's permission to do so. They are not allowed to drive or vote, and they do not have any seats on the governing council. However, a handful of women now have advisory positions to that governing council. Many of these women were in London last summer.
I made representations in Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Christian community about its right to freedom of worship. I was told by Saudi Arabian Ministers that there was no restriction on freedom of worship. They do not, however, allow buildings dedicated to religions other than the Muslim faith. I would like to discuss that issue with them once more.
I was very encouraged by the conference and lunch that I attended in London, and by seeing those terrific, talented women, who were able to speak up on behalf of the women of Saudi Arabia. This morning, however, I was very saddened to hear on the "Today" programme that the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, who is, I suppose, the Muslim world's equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury, had condemned a group of women—I am sure that they were the same women whom I met in both Riyadh and London—for having the audacity to go to a business conference where they spoke, did not cover their heads and did not wear a veil. Apparently the Grand Mufti was very critical of those women. It was suggested that he was threatening about them. Having had contact with the Saudi Arabian ambassador to London with my hon. Friend, I will write to him in the next few days asking for his Government's assurance that those women will not be threatened; in fact, I would like to see such women promoted and accepted as a norm in Saudi Arabian society.
I looked through this morning's newspapers to see whether I could find a report of the Grand Mufti's comment, but I could not do so. I discovered one or two encouraging things, however. Morocco, another Muslim and Arab state, has passed a new law that will give women equal rights; there will also be family rights; and they hope that polygamy will become a thing of the past. In addition, women are now to be allowed to join the committees of the governing councils of the game of golf. So even we and our golfing enthusiasts are coming into the 21st century.
I add my congratulations to Mr. Lyons on securing the debate and on showing a great deal of patience and care in setting out the case of his constituent, Sandy Mitchell, and the experience of other hon. Members who have had to deal with the shocking instances involving British detainees in the past year. I also pay tribute to Mrs. Cryer for raising another issue relating to human rights problems in Saudi Arabia. I hope that the Minister will be able to touch on that in his reply.
The broader topic is important but, at the outset, I join others in supporting the efforts of the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden to pursue the issue of compensation and related issues with the Saudi authorities. I hope that the Government will facilitate that, and that the Minister will shed some light on the situation in the Court of Appeal in his winding-up comments.
In response to a parliamentary question from my noble friend Lord Avebury on
Before I am critical, perhaps it is only fair to recognise the complexities that exist in Saudi Arabia. The religious situation is extremely sensitive, and we all recognise that. There are difficult internal security realities, not least, as has been mentioned, after
It would be churlish if we did not acknowledge the serious efforts that have been made by Crown Prince Abdullah to move the reform programme forward. His proposals last year for self-reform and the promotion of political participation were an important step forward. The national reform document, and the petition that he accepted from the Shi'a Muslims, also showed signs of progress. None the less, we have yet to see any fruits from that dialogue. I hope that the Government will continue to press for concrete outcomes from them.
The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden rightly paid tribute to Amnesty International. In its most recent report, it highlights many different issues, but describes how torture and ill-treatment remain rife. It also highlights the fact that international non-governmental human rights organisations have been denied access to the country to do anything meaningful.
The Government have not been slow to highlight the weakness of the Saudi position on human rights. On their website, they have focused for some time—in language consistent with that used in parliamentary answers—on aspects of the judicial system, corporal and capital punishment, torture, discrimination against women and non-Muslims, and restrictions on freedom of movement, expression, assembly and worship. This is not a relationship in which the Government are blinded or turn the other way.
Although I welcome the Government's frank statement on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, I recognise the complexity of our relationship with that country, in terms of trade, security and our joint efforts to combat international terrorism. The overlap between all those different issues sometimes means that none of them is particularly clear. Sometimes they all come together, most obviously in the al-Yamamah project—the scale of which is vast, but detail about which is limited. My hon. Friend Norman Lamb has repeatedly asked the Ministry of Defence for information and has been repulsed on the grounds of confidentiality or disproportionate cost.
We are keen to get to the bottom of the extent to which there is any conditionality in the relationship, in a trading sense, with Saudi Arabia, particularly in relation to that project, but in relation to our other dealings. On
The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden highlighted the fact that export licences from this country are still being allowed for types of equipment that would appear, at face value, to breach the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, by which such things are judged. Criterion two states that the Government will not issue an export licence
"if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression".
The export to Saudi Arabia of footcuffs and handcuffs that were manufactured in this country shows that there is at least one example of the failure of that process. Surely it is time for Britain to get its house in order, because, without that, we make a mockery not just of the licensing system, but of the Government's publicly stated position on human rights in Saudi Arabia.
It is important that we do not lose sight of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden and his hon. Friends regarding Sandy Mitchell, Ron Jones and others. The Government must make every effort to assist them in their case against the Saudi Government. In our dealings with the Saudis, we must continue to urge them to respond positively to those appeals. We must also take account of the point made by Jim Sheridan, who said that the Saudi authorities must send clear signals to citizens from other countries that they will enjoy the highest standards of international law in all their dealings with them.
On the wider issues, we must also encourage the Saudis to continue with the reform programme, and, in particular, to allow non-governmental organisations and others in to monitor how that is progressing.
We have a strong relationship with the Saudis. That relationship has to be frank, and we have to balance all our different interests carefully. However, without increased transparency and a proper understanding of the commercial and strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia, the concerns about human rights abuses will continue, and our Government's position will continue to appear weak.
I am pleased to take part in this important debate. I add my congratulations to Mr. Lyons, not just on securing the debate in the first instance, but on the way in which he set out his case. We lawyers, or former lawyers, have an expression, res ipsa loquitur, which means that the facts speak for themselves. The power of his case was that he allowed the facts to speak for themselves. The facts are chilling and that is what makes his case so powerful. I congratulate him on raising the cases of Sandy Mitchell and the Jones family over a long time. I hope that the Minister can give some of the reassurances about more effective action that the hon. Gentleman has called for.
A number of cases raise general concern about Saudi Arabia, and that is what I want to address. Nobody can have any doubts about human rights abuses after reading the evidence in the US State Department report. There are also several reports by non-governmental organisations that raise such issues—we have heard about Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for being vigilant on our behalf. The Government have their own assessment of human rights in Saudi Arabia.
Important information about human rights abuses comes from all quarters. In my part of the United Kingdom, the west country, there is a strong defence contingent and many former servicemen and women work or have worked in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf regions. From them, I have received, on a number of occasions and over many years, first-hand testimony of human rights abuses and other difficulties in Saudi Arabia. There is undoubtedly a very worrying situation. We should all be concerned about the brutal and one-sided criminal justice system, unacceptable restrictions on religious freedoms, restrictions on free speech and movement, appalling discrimination against women and non-Muslims—or even the wrong type of Muslims—and a lack of representative Government and anything remotely approaching democracy.
Mrs. Cryer mentioned the comments of the Grand Mufti. I have a piece of paper that was printed from the BBC website that quotes his remarks. There was a conference at the Red sea port of Jeddah at which the chief businesswoman in the country, Lubna Al-Olayan, used her speech to call for female empowerment in the kingdom. She said:
"It is essential for Saudi Arabia's economic well-being for the potential of the country's female workforce to be unlocked. Without real change there can be no real progress. If we in Saudi Arabia want to progress we have no choice but to embrace change."
Her statements were reasonable and sensible. Unfortunately, the Grand Mufti's response was:
"I severely condemn this matter and warn of grave consequences."
I hope that the Government will support this brave businesswoman's call and condemn the comments of the Grand Mufti.
In a difficult and unstable region where the virtuous triangle of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights are thin on the ground, all hon. Members must ask how we and the UK Government can best act to help the situation to improve. I agree that we need a stronger and sharper voice on the unacceptable practices in Saudi Arabia, but the key question is how we can best advocate change.
Our quest for the right approach must be informed by three key principles. First, it is unrealistic to expect quick fixes. It took the people of our country hundreds of years to get the democracy that we have today. We all want rapid change, but we must recognise that such change can take time. Secondly, it is unhelpful—arrogant, even—for us to seek to impose western solutions on what is a very different region and culture. One size does not fit all in this case. Thirdly, we must accept a measure of realpolitik. In the struggles that we have had in the Gulf region in the past 15 years or so, Saudi Arabia has been a friend and ally in some of our interventions. Those things need to be understood.
The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, however, is intolerable and unacceptable. I say that even though this country considers itself to be a friend of Saudi Arabia and has strong trade links with it. There must be gradual change and reform. The question is how can we help to achieve that.
The Government have decided how they will tackle this matter. I will now refer to the "Human Rights Annual Report 2002" of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and specifically to the evidence given by the Minister on
"there is an extensive list of concerns that we put forward, and they are in the public domain, about corporal and capital punishment, torture, discrimination against women and non-Muslims and restrictions on freedom of expression. However, we maintain a confidential dialogue with the Saudi Government on human rights issues because we do find in some circumstances that is more effective than public confrontation."
I am not saying that a confidential dialogue is not the right course of action—we all have to live in the real world—but if we are not careful, the words "confidential dialogue" can become a smokescreen or camouflage to hide behind. It could be another way of saying, "Actually, we are not doing much."
I am not accusing the Minister of that, but I would like him to say a little about what that confidential dialogue includes. How frequent are these confidential conversations? When was the last time that the Minister spoke to a Saudi Minister about human rights? The Minister says that the Government do, from time to time, criticise publicly the Saudi regime, but I would like to know when that last happened. I was unable to find any press cuttings of public criticism.
Saudi Arabia is an important trading partner, in particular in the realm of defence procurement. I note that the Saudi Foreign Minister has been to the UK four times in the past three years, and there have been many ministerial visits to Saudi Arabia in that time. Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean, in her capacity as Minister with responsibility for trade and industry, has been three times in the past two years. The Defence Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have all been to the country in the past two or three years. I would like the Minister to confirm whether on each visit the issue of human rights was raised. It is not so important whether they discussed the cases of individual families or the general situation, but that, on every occasion, the UK Government put down the marker that we find the country's human rights record unacceptable.
In his evidence to the Select Committee, the Minister understandably pointed towards some progress. On page 37, he says that
"we have seen in the last year the first time the Saudi's reported to the UN Committee Against Torture. There are still concerns but I think that is a positive development. There was the new criminal code, which came into force in Saudi Arabia in May 2002 which gives increased rights to those people accused of crimes. The fact that the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers visited Saudi in October 2002 I think was a positive development."
I do not disagree with any of that, but what has happened since January 2003 when he made those comments? In particular, what has happened to the new criminal code, which introduced the radical notions of an accused person being allowed to be defended by a lawyer, and a court passing a sentence after the trial, rather than before the trial has taken place, as was the case? Is that code in place and working, and are we satisfied with it?
I recognise that Saudi Arabia is at the crossroads. The winds of change are beginning to blow fiercely through the country. It is facing a struggle with internal dissent and terrorism. It is grappling with population growth that is outstripping economic growth. Sectarian resentments are beginning to grow, and there is an upsurge in radical Islamic activism. Those are difficult issues for any Government to deal with. We must recognise the fragile state of the entire region, the stability of which is by no means assured.
Although, we appreciate the sensitivities of the country and the region, we none the less want the Minister to take effective action. It is vital that the Saudi Government act firmly and decisively against the threat of terror and global terrorists, and nothing should be used as a smokescreen or excuse to block further progress in giving Saudi citizens more freedoms, rights and justice. That might be achieved through confidential dialogue or through something else, but will the Minister tell us whether he will continue to press the Saudis, using all means possible, to accept the need for change and to flow with the inevitable river of reform?
We have had an exceedingly good debate on what is, undoubtedly, a very serious issue. In particular, I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Lyons on securing this debate on human rights in Saudi Arabia. I have listened carefully to all the points.
I am appropriately reprimanded and apologise sincerely for my mispronunciation. Perhaps it is because I have been drinking beer—no, I have not.
My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden raised important concerns about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, particularly his constituency concern. He focused on the cases of the British men who were detained in Saudi Arabia until August last year. I genuinely understand his concerns, and I pay tribute to the way in which he consistently supported their cause. He somewhat diminished his role in the process, as he played a key part in advocating their interests.
I shall comment in general terms on points raised by my hon. Friend and other hon. Members. To this day, the Foreign Office remains in close contact with the men and their families. Indeed, throughout the two and a half years of their detention, British Government Ministers and officials worked exceedingly hard to resolve their case and to secure their release. We consistently raised the matter with the Saudi Government at the highest levels and at every conceivable appropriate opportunity—I shall come back to that later—and we were in close contact with the men and their families throughout the case. Obviously, it was an extraordinarily difficult time for them. Mr. Ron Jones is present today in the Public Gallery, and I welcome him.
My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden discussed the men's treatment while in detention. I wish to make it absolutely clear that throughout the case the paramount concern of Ministers and officials has been the men's welfare. We made clear our concerns about their treatment and conditions of detention with the Saudi authorities repeatedly and consistently at all levels. We did so in private—that goes to the nub of several points that have been made this afternoon—as our judgment and assessment were that that was the most effective, practical means of securing the men's release. Of course, we can be challenged over that assessment.
The majority of the families and of the lawyers believed that it was not in the men's best interests to raise the profile of their case publicly. We can be criticised, and different Members will have different judgments, but that is the conclusion that we reached. The fact that finally, albeit after too long a time, we secured the men's release suggests that our approach was sensible.
Let me comment specifically on some of the points that have been made. My hon. Friend spoke about the identities of two individual torturers. We raised with the Saudi authorities the role of named Saudi individuals involved in the men's detention. In respect of my hon. Friend's concern about what would happen if they came to this country, the position is that unless those individuals were found guilty by a court of an offence recognised under UK law, we would have no grounds for arresting them. That is the legal situation. We are aware of the ongoing legal case on the men's detention. We have expressed our concerns about it and the conditions of their detention, and we shall continue to do so.
My hon. Friend also said that he wanted a stronger voice from the Foreign Office against human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia generally. That is a key point. He asked explicitly what we are doing in that regard and I shall give three responses. First, there is undoubtedly a balance to be struck in respect of what might be described as strident, public criticism that could harm the interests of UK citizens. I am not referring to my hon. Friend, but unless we recognised that there is a balance to be struck, we would not be carrying out our responsibilities on behalf of UK citizens appropriately and responsibly. Secondly, in response to the question about what the Foreign Office is doing, people must look at what we have done: we have consistently pursued such matters and made our position clear.
Thirdly, on the generality of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, the issue was consistently brought forward by hon. Members of all parties when the Foreign Office published its annual human rights report. We have listened and responded and the general criticisms of human rights in Saudi Arabia are far more explicit in that annual human rights report now than in the past. My hon. Friend referred to the excellent work of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in relation to that process and other human rights cases, and I endorse that view. Although the Government have one role and human rights organisations have another, we respect such organisations and work with them to promote human rights and to take up particular issues of concern.
My hon. Friend also referred to Bill Sampson and questioned why he was dealt with as a Canadian national. He entered Saudi Arabia on his Canadian passport, and Saudi Arabia, under its statutes, does not recognise dual nationality. That is why it was appropriate and most effective for the Canadian authorities to take up the case. Nevertheless, we were in close contact throughout with the Canadian authorities and, since his release, we have offered to provide Mr. Sampson with appropriate assistance.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Cryer mentioned the approaches that she and others have made, both in Saudi Arabia and to the Saudi ambassador in London. I genuinely believe that all such representations, including our own in the Foreign Office and throughout Government, contributed to the work that went on throughout the men's detention to secure their release.
My hon. Friend also referred to the involvement of Saudi nationals in the attacks on the United States on
My hon. Friends the Members for East Lothian (Anne Picking) and for Strathkelvin and Bearsden raised the important point that a number of the men concerned are still suffering from torture. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian said that we should be helping to integrate those men back into society. The point was well made. On their release, we arranged for fast-track access to national health service appointments and liaised with the offices of the men's MPs to help them get access to local services. It was right and proper that we responded in that way.
Mr. Moore raised in general terms the issue of selling arms to Saudi Arabia. It is worth saying that all export licences for equipment for Saudi Arabia are assessed case by case against both our own national arms export licensing criteria and the consolidated EU criteria. Most of our strategic exports to Saudi Arabia fall within the ambit that he mentioned—the al-Yamamah project—under the terms of the Government's memorandum of understanding that was signed in 1985. The equipment that is supplied is judged according to those licensing criteria. Key within that is the point that equipment is not sold if we judge that it could be used for internal repression or external aggression.
My hon. Friend Laura Moffatt has not spoken today, but she is in the Chamber. She has consistently raised concerns with the Foreign Office on behalf of her constituent, Mr. Ron Jones.
When I return to the body of my speech, I shall refer specifically to that worry. It is a key issue.
Mr. Streeter referred to my comments at the Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this year when I spoke about the Government's annual human rights report. I said that we undertake a confidential dialogue with regard to the Saudi authorities and I am grateful for the fact that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that that is not necessarily the wrong approach. He asked how often the dialogue takes place. It takes place exceedingly frequently and at every opportunity we raise such issues at official and ambassadorial levels.
My noble Friend Baroness Symons has explicit responsibility for Saudi Arabia, which is why the hon. Gentleman has not heard me usually referring to such matters. She has raised the matter directly with the Saudi authorities, as have the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. We take such an approach consistently and we shall continue to do so. The hon. Member for South-West Devon also acknowledged from my comments that some progress has been made in Saudi Arabia, an issue to which I shall return.
One of the matters that we need to reflect on is that when dealing with human rights at any time, there are intermingling forces of progress and forces of reaction. We are therefore constantly engaged in making exceedingly difficult judgments about how to promote the forces of progress while, at the same time, making clear our opposition to the forces of reaction. The hon. Gentleman sought a more detailed response in respect of Saudi Arabia. On
My hon. Friend rightly mentioned steering a careful path between encouragement and criticism. We have all been sensitive to that. Does he agree that it is most important for the victims of torture to know that the Government, especially the Foreign Office, are not obstructive to any action that they may feel is necessary? It is not just a matter of sitting back and allowing things to happen, but of supporting people from the United Kingdom who may have been in difficulty, particularly in Saudi Arabia.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. We support United Kingdom nationals who have been in such difficult circumstances and we shall continue to do so. I think that she was alluding specifically to a legal case, to which I shall refer later.
The hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale raised the issue of men being shackled by leg irons that were made in England, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden. I am sure that all of us shared the horror and revulsion when that fact was revealed. It is a worrying and serious allegation and it is important that I make some specific comments about it.
In March 1994, an open individual export licence was granted for the export of shackles to destinations that included Saudi Arabia. In an announcement to Parliament on
That announcement also committed the Government to encourage European Union member states to impose similar restrictions as a third step towards a global ban. As a forerunner to that announcement, Saudia Arabia was specifically removed as a destination on the export licence on
We greatly welcomed the men's release on
Although the Foreign Office's consular remit and responsibility normally ceases when a British national returns home, on this occasion, given the exceptional circumstances, we offered the men further assistance. As I said, we offered them fast-track access to the national health service. We liaised with their Members of Parliament and—rightly and appropriately, given the circumstances—the Foreign Secretary spoke to each of the men on their return.
The issue of compensation has been raised, and my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden mentioned that, too. I am aware of the men's desire for compensation. It is of course for them to decide how they proceed in that regard, and whether they pursue legal action. Nevertheless, we remain in close touch with the men, their lawyers and the Saudi authorities, and it would not be appropriate for me to go further on those issues now. Indeed, to do so could compromise any progress that would otherwise be made.
It may be true that there are outstanding legal cases, but behind all that, at the end of the day, there is a drive to receive justice rather than compensation. I ask the Minister to reconsider the legal opinion that he has been given in respect of Ron Jones and the two people I mentioned, Khalid al Sallah and Ibrahim al Dali. Surely the Foreign Secretary should consider how we could arrest those people the minute that they step foot in the UK or the EU. That would be a way forward.
I give my hon. Friend a commitment that I will look at that legal advice again. It is clear legal advice, and I will happily discuss it with him in detail, but it would be totally inappropriate for Ministers to give cavalier commitments on something of such importance when we know that, legally, we could not act differently.
The Foreign Office's annual human rights report describes in detail how the Government have responded to human rights challenges around the world, including in Saudi Arabia. Our view is that the promotion and protection of human rights is morally right and firmly in our national interest. By that, I mean that countries that have strong and good human rights records tend to be those with which we have good relations and can do business. We are convincing people that we are taking the right approach on human rights both from a moral and altruistic and from a self-interested point of view.
The annual report on human rights makes it clear that we have human rights concerns in a wide range of countries. We undoubtedly use different approaches to human rights issues in different countries. I know that that sometimes subjects us to criticism, but it is a reality that one size does not fit all. The same approach is not the most effective in every situation. Our experience has been that engaging the Saudi authorities in discussion on human rights issues in private is often more productive and effective than public confrontation. However, let me be clear that private discussions are in no way synonymous with a soft approach. That refers to the issues raised by the hon. Member for South-West Devon.
We have deep concerns about Saudi Arabia's failure to implement basic human rights norms on a wide range of issues, including aspects of the judicial system, corporate and capital punishment, torture, discrimination against women and non-Muslims and restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and worship. Hon. Members have referred to a number of those issues, and it may be helpful if I expand on them.
We are worried that the Saudi legal system's procedures do not meet accepted international standards. Indeed, in a fact-finding mission to Saudi Arabia in October 2002, the United Nations special rapporteur for the independence of judges and lawyers, Mr. Cumaraswamy, met representatives from the Government, the Shura council, the board of senior religious scholars, the bureau of investigation and prosecution, the judiciary, the prison service and the legal professions. His report identified many areas of concern. He considered that the Saudi judicial system continued to rely heavily on confessions, that the Ministry of Justice's control over judges contributed to a lack of transparency and impartiality, and that torture and prolonged, incommunicado pre-trial detentions continued. We voiced our concerns about Saudi Arabia to our European Union partners at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in March 2003.
We also have concerns about capital and corporal punishment. As hon. Members will be aware, the Saudi judicial system imposes corporal and capital punishment under Saudi sharia law. A number of crimes can be punished by death, including adultery. The judicial and administrative authorities' use of amputation—for example, for theft—and flogging remain prevalent. Individuals can be sentenced to flogging for consumption of drugs and alcohol. We believe that the Saudi authorities executed 53 people last year, one of the highest levels of public execution in the world. The Saudi authorities are well aware of our views on the use of the death penalty: we oppose it in Saudi Arabia and everywhere in the world. We also oppose judicial corporal punishment in all its forms.
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley referred to the plight of women in Saudi Arabia. While women represent more than half the school and university population, they are constrained in the types of job that they can take and in the positions that they can hold in society, and there are severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, to which my hon. Friend referred. There has been some progress. In September 2001 Saudi Arabia ratified the UN convention for elimination of discrimination against women, but we and others have voiced disquiet about the broad reservations that it placed on that ratification. Again, therefore, it is a mixed picture.
Against those wide-ranging concerns must be set some encouraging developments in Saudi Arabia in human rights issues. In May 2002 the Saudis adopted new criminal justice procedures aimed at modernising the criminal justice system. The Saudi Government have shown a greater willingness to engage with the international community and openly discuss human rights issues, and we support and encourage them in that process.
The Minister mentioned the new criminal justice system. In his evidence to the Select Committee in January it was clear that it had not yet been implemented, although it had been introduced in a different way the previous year. Does he know whether it has now been implemented and is working, and are we satisfied?
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I meant to pick up that point earlier.
We have seen some practical implementation of the new system. We continue to monitor the situation closely and we are encouraging the Saudi Government to move further. In terms of progress, we have also seen a greater willingness by the Saudi authorities to engage with the international community in dialogues on a wide range of issues. Indeed, in January 2003 the Saudi Crown Prince, who is responsible for much of the day-to-day running of the country, set out proposals for self-reform and the promotion of political participation in the Arab world. Two dialogues have been held since then, and a third is planned. It will address what in many senses is the most controversial subject—the situation of women in Saudi Arabia. We see that as a positive step forward and will encourage that process.
A number of hon. Members referred to the legal case that Mr. Jones is pursuing. Mr. Jones has asked the Court of Appeal to decide that the United Kingdom's existing legislation regarding the immunity of foreign states from the jurisdiction of UK courts, under the State Immunity Act 1978, is not compatible with the UK's obligations under the European convention on human rights. That request is a legal challenge to the 1978 Act under the Human Rights Act 1998. In accordance with the requirements of the 1998 Act, the Government have a right to be party to the proceedings. The legislation is theirs, so they have a right to be represented. The 1978 Act is the responsibility of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which has asked to be joined as a party. The Government are intervening not to go against Mr. Jones, but to defend existing UK legislation. I shall be happy to talk to hon. Members about that on another occasion.
In conclusion, this has been an important debate on a difficult issue. There have been some positive human rights developments in Saudi Arabia, but there is undoubtedly still a long way to go. We continue to have wide-ranging concerns, but we remain committed to encouraging Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record. We are encouraged by the ratification of some of the United Nations' human rights treaties, but we should like to see the Saudi authorities go further in implementing those treaties and lifting their exceedingly broad reservations, particularly with regard to women. We continue to press the Saudi Government to ratify the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights, which are two of the six core UN human rights instruments.
We continue to voice our concerns at every opportunity, both privately and publicly. However, as I have stressed on a number of occasions, there must be a balance between explicit public condemnation and private dialogue. The reaction of hon. Members suggests general recognition of that point. If we do not take that balance into account, we shall not serve the interests of UK nationals. In that context, we shall continue to pursue our course of action. I thank every hon. Member who has contributed to the debate, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, who initiated it. This has been a good opportunity to raise issues on an important subject.