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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:47 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 2:47 pm, 18th July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I sincerely congratulate Mr Carmichael on his comprehensive account of some of the crimes and misdemeanours currently being carried out by the Saudi regime. I will emphasise one or two of his points, but I will endeavour not to repeat them.

It is probably now a truism to say that the Saudi regime operates, to a large extent, outside civilised norms, the rule of law and due process, and does not, in many cases, recognise the right to a fair trial. It is not unique in those respects—indeed, it is not unique in the Gulf region; its closest allies in the Gulf Co-operation Council, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, are equally guilty in many respects—but that does not excuse what it is doing. A lot of the current cases date from immediately after the Arab spring and the crackdowns that occurred in those countries, including some of the cases of juveniles who were arrested and who are still incarcerated and face the death penalty.

However, it is also undoubtedly true that the situation has become worse since the accession of King Salman and the increase in power of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. We now look with great irony at the way they were fêted as reformers and as those who would undo a lot of the anachronisms and anomalies of Saudi society. There is little sign of that in the area of women’s rights. The response to women’s rights defenders who protested not only the driving ban, important though that is, but against the whole guardianship system has been the arrest, detention and torture of prominent individuals.

Of course, the issue that gained the regime in Saudi Arabia notoriety around the world was the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Again, there is no contrition there and no real willingness to co-operate with the UN special rapporteur or the international community in investigating that; indeed, it has simply been swept under the carpet.

The treatment of the Shi’a minority population has been atrocious over many years, with many people put on trial on trumped-up and vague charges. Most significant was Sheikh al-Nimr, himself the uncle of one of the young men currently on death row but also the most prominent Shi’a cleric in Saudi, who was executed after years of persecution in the mass execution in January 2016. I think it was one of the largest of the recent mass executions—47 people were beheaded or killed by firing squad.

Again, it is outside the scope of this debate, but of course beyond all this are the atrocities being committed, and the breaches of international humanitarian law, in Yemen. It is a shame, but I think it is emblematic of the way the British Government are responding to many of these atrocities that it took victory by the Campaign Against Arms Trade in the Court of Appeal for the Government to look at suspending in any way the sales of arms that are fuelling that war. Even so, it is without any embarrassment that the Government are taking their case to the Supreme Court, no doubt with the intention of resuming sales thereafter.

That is the background to this debate, and I want to focus on a couple of those points. The first, which is particularly shocking, it is not just that many people who in other countries would just be seen as exercising their democratic rights end up in prison in Saudi Arabia, but the fact that it also happens to juveniles. Sadly, a number of young people have been executed, including in the mass execution earlier this year of 37 people, in which three young men who were juveniles at the time of their arrest were executed.

The three who have become a cause célèbre and are still at risk on death row are Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood al-Marhoon. Their cases have been raised many times in this House over a period of years. Indeed, in preparing for this debate, I looked back at an urgent question that I was granted back in October 2015. I shall say more about it in a moment, because it relates to a good decision that the previous Government made, but I referred in that exchange to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who has taken a close interest in these matters over a number of years, writing then to the Prime Minister and raising the case of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, yet four years on there is no less a threat. Indeed, because judicial processes have been exhausted, there is, other than the mercy of the King, nothing standing between him and other detainees and their executions.

These are difficult subjects to deal with, but they have to be dealt with, and the British Government appear to have particular difficulty in dealing with such matters in relation to Saudi Arabia even though they are outspoken in relation to other places. A type of double standard appears to operate. It would be useful to have from the Minister today an acknowledgement that these matters are serious, that they are growing, that the regime in Saudi, far from becoming more tolerant, is becoming more illiberal in these ways, and to hear what response the British Government are going to make. Sadly, as I have said and we have heard also from the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, there is continued close co-operation—collusion—with the Saudi Government.

The matter that I was referring to from 2015 related to a prison contract that the UK had as part of a bizarre arrangement set up within the Ministry of Justice called Just Solutions International, which actively went out and sold services, often to repressive regimes, without making sufficient checks. I am pleased to say that, in response to my urgent question at that time, the then Lord Chancellor, who is now the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that he was closing that operation down and withdrawing from the contract. He is to be congratulated on that, but it was one beacon of hope and has not really been followed up in succeeding years. Indeed, there continue to be concerns about the College of Policing and other arrangements whereby respectable UK institutions offer training—it was reported only last year that hundreds of Saudi police officers were being trained—or supervise or in some way give credibility to institutions in which practices such as torture are carried out.

[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]

No doubt the Government will say, “We respect human rights and we hope that by engaging with these countries we can promote human rights,” but that is not what is happening at all. There is no sign that the engagement is in any way mitigating or addressing the way in which the Saudi authorities operate, so in effect we are colluding.

There is no clearer sign of that than the funds that have been referred to, which are largely opaque; this is within Government. Numerous attempts have been made to identify exactly where the money goes, particularly in relation to the Gulf countries. The integrated activity fund and other larger funds, which are operated through the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, run to more than £1 billion in total, but there is no clarity whatever about how that money is spent. Frankly, that is a disgrace.

I welcome you to the Chair for this debate, Sir Henry. This morning’s statement on detainee issues had really to be dragged out of the Government over the period of a year. It is a matter of great regret that the Government announced that they would not pursue that, despite previous promises on rendition and the Gibson inquiry and the Intelligence and Security Committee inquiries and their inconclusive nature.

There is an unhelpful trend in this Government not to deal with issues that they find embarrassing to themselves or to their close international partners. When I heard the announcement today, I thought, “Well, this is exactly what we heard about Leveson 2: ‘Nothing to see here. We’ve all moved on. No need for an inquiry.’” That is becoming an unhealthy habit of the Government. They should bear it in mind that, even if they are not prepared to confront these matters in this House or in public, they will still come to light and, as with the war in Yemen, there will be legal challenges. I have no doubt that there will be in relation to rendition. We are fortunate in this country to have a tradition of good independent journalism, of good independent non-governmental organisations, some of which briefed us for this debate, and of lawyers who will do that job if the Government are not prepared to do it themselves.

The Minister has set himself up as somebody who does take these issues seriously and wishes to see this country take its human rights responsibilities abroad as seriously as its defence and security and trade responsibilities, so it would be useful if we could see some change of tone and of policy specifically in relation to Saudi. Do we need anything further than what happened to Jamal Khashoggi just last year to raise the alarm about the way that that country is conducting itself in the region and in the world?

I shall end my comments shortly as other hon. Members wish to speak. I end simply by asking again in relation to the detainees on death row in Saudi, and specifically in relation to those who were juveniles when their alleged offences took place, that the Government redouble their efforts and use what influence they have—they say that they have a lot of influence—with Saudi, and that they do so in the strongest possible terms and the most urgent terms, because it could well be the case that at no notice we find that there has been another series of mass executions in that country.