Human Rights in Saudi Arabia — [Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:12 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:12 pm, 18th July 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered human rights in Saudi Arabia and the detention of opponents of the regime.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving us time in Parliament to debate our relations with one of the most important operators in one of the most important regions in the world. Saudi Arabia is a dominant force in the Gulf—an area of significant importance to this country—a significant trading partner, and a significant partner in security and intelligence matters.

I am not naive about how we should approach these matters; I am aware of how politics in the Gulf works. I chair the all-party British-Qatar group, and last year I was a guest of the Kuwaiti Government in that country. Those matters are fully disclosed in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is right that we recognise, applaud and encourage progress on standards of governance and human rights. I approach human rights in that region in a spirit of humility. I am aware that many of the things for which we criticise Gulf regimes were part of our society and law just a few decades ago, or are even part of it today. On workers’ rights and standards, for example, let us not forget that for all the legislative and regulatory standards that we have in this country, not long ago several dozen cockle pickers perished in Morecambe bay as a result of the fact that they had been engaged illicitly.

Even with all those caveats, when I look at Saudi Arabia today I see a bad human rights situation, and I regret to say that it is getting worse. This is an area where the United Kingdom Government, as a partner of the Saudi Arabian Government in commercial and security and intelligence matters, can do more. They should be looking at some of their current actions.

I will focus on people being held as political detainees following the mass arrests on 4 November 2017, others who remain in detention subject to capital punishment, and our assistance to and engagement with Saudi Arabia. It is well known that on 4 November 2017, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman arrested several hundred of his political opponents, as he probably saw them. It was a mass arrest, and those arrested and detained were rounded up and taken to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. I have to say that of all the accommodation that could be afforded to those who get on the wrong side of the regimes under which they live, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh is probably not the worst; none the less, it remains a serious matter, not least because it highlights one of my main concerns: the lack of proper regard for the basic norms of international and domestic law. As a consequence of that arrest programme, there was a process of forced transfer of assets totalling approximately $100 billion, we believe. Many of those held have been tortured, and there have been fatalities. We understand that approximately 200 detainees remain in custody as a consequence of the Crown Prince’s move.

Those who remain in detention without clear legal status include Prince Turki bin Abdullah, the former governor of Riyadh and son of the late King Abdullah. He is obviously seen as a key political rival of the current Crown Prince. He remains in detention without charge. His associate, Faisal al-Jarba, is also in detention without charge. The Washington Post reported in June that Jordanian authorities detained him in Oman, where he had fled to seek safety; they eventually drove him to the Saudi border and handed him over to the Saudi authorities. Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Salman and his father, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Mohammad—both businessmen—have remained in detention since January 2018 without charge or trial. Their arrest was believed to be in retaliation for their representations and advocacy on behalf of detained family members; beyond that there is no clear basis for their continuing detention. The Government have not frozen any of their assets or asked for financial settlements.

My requests of the Government and the Foreign Office are fourfold. We should ask, first, for proof of life of those who were detained. On 12 March 2018, the New York Times report said that Ritz-Carlton detainees required hospitalisation for physical abuse. Major General Ali al-Qahtani, an aide to Prince Turki, later died in custody. Reports suggest that his

“neck was twisted unnaturally as though it had been broken” and his body had burn marks that appeared to be the result of electric shocks. To this day, Saudi Arabia has not offered any official explanation of how al-Qahtani died, although it is interesting to note that on 7 November the President of the United States tweeted:

“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing....”

Sometimes, when he takes to Twitter, the President manages to say so much more than I suspect he intended.

Secondly, we should ask for clarification from the Saudi authorities about the specific charges on which those who remain in detention are being held. That is a basic norm of international law: a person should know the basis on which they are being held and the charges should be for recognisable crimes. As an absolute minimum, they should be given the specific grounds for their arrest and be able to contest their detention fairly and promptly before an independent and impartial judge, with appropriate legal representation; and there should be periodic reviews of their case. Those who are detained in the Ritz-Carlton and elsewhere in Saudi Arabia receive none of that most basic legal entitlement.

Thirdly, we should ask that people who are not charged with a crime be released. Again, that is a basic principle of international human rights law. In its general comment on article 7 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, the United Nations Human Rights Committee stated that

“provisions should be made for detainees to be held in places officially recognized as places of detention”— presumably not normally including five-star hotels—

“and for their names and places of detention, as well as for the names of persons responsible for their detention, to be kept in registers readily available and accessible to those concerned, including relatives and friends.”

Fourthly and finally, we should ask the Saudi Arabian Government for the release of frozen assets that are currently held illegally. If the assets have been frozen without any proper legal basis, surely we should be saying that they should be returned, unless formal charges can be brought. These are not extravagant requests, and they are the very least that we should be taking to the Saudi Government if the relationship we have is meaningful and not one-sided.

As the House is aware, on 23 April this year there was a programme of 37 executions, including, we understand, one by crucifixion, following two mass trials: the Qatif 24 case and the Iran spy case. This matter was ventilated fully as a result of Mr Speaker granting an urgent question, so I will not rehearse the detail at this time, but there is one aspect I want to remind the House about: three of the detainees who were executed were children at the time of their detention and charge. Capital punishment for children is absolutely forbidden under international law.

That remains relevant today, because, according to Reprieve, there are currently at least three detainees in Saudi Arabia who are subject to conviction awaiting execution. Ali al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawoud al-Marhoon were all arrested in 2012 following anti-regime demonstrations held in the Qatif region of Saudi Arabia’s eastern province. All were under 18 at the time of the alleged offences; in international law that makes them children and makes their execution illegal. All were tortured extensively while they were detained and forced to sign false confessions to serious crimes, punishable by death, on which the trial courts later relied to convict them.

The three men were not informed of their charges or presented with an arrest warrant. All were held in solitary confinement for long periods, during which time they were given no access to legal representation. Their families did not know where they were and they could not contact them. All were tried at the specialised criminal court, which has been widely criticised for failing to meet the basic standards of a fair trial and for its use as a tool of political repression. Despite widespread international condemnation, the Saudi authorities have never investigated the serious allegations of torture. Having exhausted all domestic legal remedies, the three now await execution, unless they can receive pardons from King Salman.

The United Kingdom has a long-standing and distinguished policy of opposing the use of the death penalty in all circumstances. Surely, if that policy remains meaningful, it demands that representations of the strongest and most public sort be made to the Saudi Arabian Government on behalf of these three young men. That is a common theme in all the representations I have received from organisations that provided briefings for today’s debate. Yes, the Government will say the right things in this country, but they say them privately and they do not say them loudly and publicly enough when it comes to their dealings with the Saudi Government. In relation to the Khashoggi killing, we have seen that the Saudi Arabian Government will take heed and will respond to international pressure and criticism. Surely we should not be leaving it until the executions have happened to criticise them. We should be doing that while there is still a prospect of bringing these three young men relief and mercy.

That raises the question why all this should matter to us in the United Kingdom. We know there are many regimes across the world that are similarly despotic and, in some cases—although probably not many—even worse in their human rights abuse and their use of capital punishment than Saudi Arabia. I do not want this debate to be an exercise in hand-wringing on the international stage and saying, “Isn’t this dreadful.” It has to be an open and honest examination of how we see these issues and what we, as a commercial and security intelligence partner of Saudi Arabia, are prepared to do to help to effect meaningful change.

The Government are often criticised for not being active enough. I have heard other concerns and received from Reprieve a compelling briefing, which argues that the problem is not just that we are not saying enough, but that sometimes what we do aids and abets the conduct I have described. Reprieve has brought it to my attention that the UK College of Policing has provided forensics training to the Saudi Ministry of the Interior since 2009; I have commented publicly in the House about this before. In 2016, Reprieve obtained documents from a proposal by the College of Policing to extend its training of Saudi police to areas including cyber-security, mobile phone analysis and IT digital forensics, including data decryption and the retrieval of deleted files. These documents show that the college accepted that there was a risk that

“the skills being trained are used to identify individuals who later go on to be tortured or subjected to other human rights abuses.”

They decided that these risks could be “mitigated” by the college, in conjunction with the Foreign and Commonwealth, preparing a press statement emphasising that the forensics training is part of a wider programme to assist the Saudi authorities move to democratic policing methods. That was a thin defence in 2016. Having seen the events in 2017 and the mass execution of 37 people earlier this year, I am afraid that that defence simply does not stand anymore. Will the Minister tell us what attitude the Government now take to the relationship between the UK College of Policing and Saudi Arabia?