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

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development) 4:00 pm, 18th July 2019

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman because he brings me on to my next remarks. I will try hard not to be diverted by some of the broader issues in addressing what I think are the guts of his thesis, which relate to those who have been detained, imprisoned and misused.

Of course, the big headline figure in all this is Jamal Khashoggi, whose brutal murder and dismemberment truly sickened the world. There cannot be any of us who are not revolted by that story. It is a stain on the reputation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and I look forward to details of what happened being made public and explicit very soon. It would be appalling if Saudi Arabia decided to obfuscate or obscure that terrible episode. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia must make it very clear what remedial action will be taken in respect of those who are responsible and to prevent such events from happening in future.

The lack of transparency around the anti-corruption campaign, including the Ritz-Carlton detentions, mainly of Ministers, princes and businessmen, gives the international community cause for concern. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland will know that, in February last year, those remaining at the Ritz were released following a number of court settlements, or transferred to prison pending prosecution. Let us be clear: those remaining in prison must be brought to trial or released. Their assets must be unfrozen if it is not the intention of the Saudi authorities to bring charges against those individuals.

The right hon. Gentleman can be sure that the Foreign Secretary and the ambassador in Riyadh lose no opportunity to raise the plight of those individuals, and to insist that their cases must be brought to a conclusion. They must be either charged with the corruption with which they have been associated, or released and their assets unfrozen. I will ensure that we continue to apply what pressure we can on KSA in order to achieve that end. However, it is not just about the 50 who are imprisoned, about whom we remain concerned; it is also about the mechanism within the Saudi state that allows such circumstances to arise, and the judicial process that Saudi uses to apprehend and manage that case load.

The hon. Member for Leeds North East mentioned the Specialised Criminal Court, which is used to try cases that our peers among the international community would not regard as terrorist cases at all. There have been allusions in the debate to the kinds of things that Saudi Arabia might imagine constitute terrorism. I have to say that the same practice is found in a number of states within the Gulf region—it is not unique to Saudi Arabia. It is a source of frustration for many of us who deal with consular issues to try to work out why individuals have been apprehended on particular charges that look, on the face of it, outrageous and ridiculous, but that is because we are judging by our own standards and mores.

The way that many countries in the region regard such things as terrorism and offences against the state can be very different from our own. That is in no way to justify it, but it is to begin to try to understand it. I share the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Leeds North East about the SCC, and those concerns are shared with our interlocuters on a regular basis. More generally, we believe that civil and political rights strengthen a nation. I think we all believe that—otherwise we would not be here. Those rights make the state more resilient and more stable, and it is in all our interests to see a secure, stable and moderate Saudi Arabia playing a constructive role in a highly volatile region.

Free expression allows innovation to thrive and ideas to develop—an essential foundation for economic development and social cohesion. I was particularly interested in the remarks made by my hon. Friends on the nature of that cohesion, and the implicit threat to it if Saudi Arabia’s friends in the west behave in a way that isolates it and distances it from our norms and values. In our conversations with Saudi leaders and officials, we consistently underline the importance of respecting freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest. In a country wedded to social media, that includes online activity. We make the case that such issues are the guarantors of long-term stability in the region.

The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have spoken to the Saudi Government about a number of the cases mentioned today. They are listed in my briefing notes, and do not make for easy reading. Some of it has been articulated in the course of the debate, but not all of it. We have raised our concerns at the most senior levels about the increasing number of people detained for crimes relating to freedom of expression, as well as allegations of torture in detention and the lack of transparency in the aforementioned judicial process.

During the UN universal periodic review of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record in November, and the UN human rights council in March, we made clear our concerns about the constrained political environment. Right hon. and hon. Members are right to say that we believe that it is getting worse rather than better. The Government utterly condemned Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in the strongest possible terms. At the UN human rights council in June, we set out our expectation for a transparent judicial process and urged Saudi Arabia to take steps to ensure that such crimes will not happen again.

I will address the questions raised by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland as fully as I can. If he feels that I have not addressed them fully, I am more than happy to exchange correspondence with him. I agree with him about the appalling spectacle of 37 mainly Shi’a men executed in April. That was an appalling, ghastly spectacle, and I have no doubt that the leadership in Saudi Arabia want to ensure that the good reputation of their country is not besmirched and stained again in the way that it undoubtedly was.

One hon. Member talked about shaming Saudi Arabia. Shaming is dangerous in respect of many of the countries in the Gulf region. Shaming is perhaps a bit of a challenge, but certainly the reputation of our interlocutors is important to them. In our discourse with them, it is important to point out in clear terms, as their embassies in London most certainly will, that such things put the relationship between the UK, and the west in general, and the country in question back many years. It is vital that those countries give full thought and consideration to what such things do in terms of their reputation with those that they wish to influence and, in many cases, to emulate.

Diplomats from our embassy in Riyadh attempt to observe all trials of international concern, with varying effectiveness. We have lobbied at the highest levels for the diplomatic observation of human rights trials to be reinstated as a matter of routine. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland rightly said that the UK condemns the death penalty in all countries and in all circumstances. I think the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West said something slightly different—that the Government say that they condemn capital punishment.

The Government do not just say that they condemn capital punishment; they really mean it. Implicit in the word “say” is, perhaps, an element of doubt. I would like to use this opportunity to expunge that doubt completely and irrevocably. Let me say it again: the United Kingdom condemns capital punishment in all countries and in all circumstances. On that, I think the great majority—an almost overwhelming majority —of right hon. and hon. Members in this House would agree.