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Saudi Arabia: Anticipated Executions

Volume 627: debated on Monday 17 July 2017

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on what steps are being taken to intervene in the anticipated execution of 14 people in Saudi Arabia.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his urgent question. Media reporting has suggested that 14 men could be facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia for attending protests in the eastern province of the country in 2012. We are looking into the details of the reports and seeking urgent clarity from the Saudi authorities, both in Riyadh and here in London. I have been in contact with the ambassador for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who I know will come back to me with information when he has it.

We regularly make this Government’s opposition to the death penalty clear—we are firmly opposed to it—and we raise such concerns at all levels and at all appropriate opportunities. The Saudis are aware of our stance on their human rights, and this position is a matter of public record. The Prime Minister most recently raised this during her visit in April this year.

I thank the Minister for his helpful response. Evidence points to Saudi Arabia taking the final steps before executing up to 14 people, including at least two who were juveniles at the time of their alleged offences and were convicted on the strength of confessions obtained through the use of torture. Our Prime Minister has highlighted the UK’s “long-term and historic relationship” with Saudi Arabia, and has said:

“rather than just standing on the sidelines and sniping, it’s important to engage, to talk to people, to talk about our interests and to raise, yes, difficult issues when we feel it’s necessary to do so.”

I am sure the Prime Minister and the Minister will agree that 14 executions are just such a difficult issue and I am pleased that it has been raised urgently with the Saudi Government.

I would like to ask the following questions, however. Will the Minister ask the Prime Minister to call on Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to stop the executions—especially of juveniles Mujtaba Sweikat and Salman Qureish—going ahead? If the executions of juveniles and others arrested in relation to alleged protest activity go ahead, will the UK commit to freezing and reviewing any criminal justice assistance which could contribute to the arrest of protestors and dissidents in Saudi Arabia? What further steps will Her Majesty’s Government take to condemn Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty, especially in the case of people with disabilities and juveniles, such as Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher?

Our Prime Minister is promoting the UK as a global nation. How she responds to the threat of summary executions by a partner and close ally will determine exactly what kind of global nation she intends the United Kingdom to be—a global champion of human rights or an apologist for human rights abusers.

First, on the death penalty, in particular in relation to juveniles, the UK Government oppose the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country, including Saudi Arabia, especially for crimes other than the most serious and for juveniles, in line with the minimum standards set out in the EU guidelines on the death penalty 2008, the provisions of the international covenant on civil and political rights and the Arab charter on human rights. A law has been proposed to King Salman by the Shura Council that codifies the age of majority at 18, and the death penalty should not be given to minors. All the cases the right hon. Gentleman mentioned towards the end of his remarks have been raised specifically by the United Kingdom, and in each case we have received assurances that minors would not be executed.

On the general relationship with Saudi Arabia, our starting point for engagement on human rights with all countries is based on what is practical, realistic and achievable, and we will always be ready to speak out as a matter of principle. Ministers frequently discuss human rights and raise concerns with the Saudi Arabia Government. We have a balanced relationship with Saudi Arabia and use engagement to encourage reform. This is a society that is going through a process of reform, heading towards Vision 2030, which the new Crown Prince has laid out as a pattern for Saudi Arabia for the future. Women’s rights are changing with the addition of women to the Shura Council. It is a process that goes not at our pace, but at other paces.

We make sure that human rights are a key part of every conversation that senior colleagues have, and that would certainly be the case should it be necessary to intervene should any minors be in the position described by the right hon. Gentleman. As I indicated at the beginning, we have very sketchy reports on this at the moment. That is why we are doing more and I will write to the right hon. Gentleman when I receive further, more detailed information, so that he has it available.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

We have heard—over the years, indeed—Her Majesty’s Government talk about the influence they have had over the actions of the Saudi Government in terms of capital offences. I would be very grateful if the Minister could from his place today give some examples of how that has paid off, because, on days like this, it does leave some questions to be answered.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election to the office of Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. It is an important office, which was well held by his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), to whom we would all pay tribute. These are difficult jobs done by colleagues, and my hon. Friend did it particularly well, but we are very pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) in his place.

It is so difficult to try to prove a negative. The authorities with which we deal in Saudi Arabia are not necessarily in a position to make their judicial decisions dependent on external pressure, and nor would we be in a similar situation. We know that allegations are made about possible executions, including those of minors, and that they then do not happen, but we do not know whether that can be laid at the door of any specific representation. I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that these representations are regularly made to a changing society and a changing judicial process in Saudi Arabia, which must, of necessity, be theirs and not ours.

I add my thanks to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question today. I also thank the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for bringing such an important matter to the House and for speaking so eloquently on the subject.

I am sure that all Members present today share my concern about the impending executions. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most prolific executioners, and the death penalty is increasingly being used there as a punishment for non-violent acts. In January 2016, the Saudi authorities executed 47 men in a single day for alleged terrorism offences, and just last Monday, six men were killed. It is becoming clear that these executions are being used not only as a form of draconian punishment but as a tool to suppress political opposition, to fight sectarian religious battles against the Shi’a minority and to antagonise regional rivals in the process.

It is just over six years since the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, declared that there would be

“no downgrading of human rights under this Government”.

He went on to argue that

“pursuing a foreign policy with a conscience is…in the long term enlightened national interest of our country.”

It is striking how far the Conservatives have strayed from that commitment. When it comes to our relationship with Saudi Arabia, it would appear that human rights concerns are now of secondary importance to trade. This Government have treated Riyadh’s human rights record as an inconvenient embarrassment rather than a cause for serious concern. Their reluctance to champion the values of human rights runs counter to who we are as a country and risks eroding our international standing, just when we need it most. My party’s position on this matter is clear: the 14 executions—including those of two juveniles and one disabled man—must not take place. I call on the Government to use their influence to stand up for human rights and unreservedly condemn these planned executions.

Order. Before the Minister responds, I must say in all kindness to the hon. Lady that the fluency of her delivery was unfortunately not matched by any conformity with the expected procedure for the posing of an urgent question. I allowed her to continue, but for future reference—this is directed not only to the hon. Lady but more widely—an urgent question requires a brief sentence or two in response to the Minister, followed by a series of questions. It is not an occasion for the setting out of an alternative party position. It is not like a debate—[Interruption.] It might very well have been very good, as the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) chunters from a sedentary position in a rather inappropriate way, but unfortunately it was not very good at complying with our procedure. I say good-naturedly to the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes)—and I am looking at the Opposition Chief Whip too—that we really must encourage compliance with the required procedure. Now, I would like the Minister very briefly to respond—30 seconds will suffice, I think—before we move on to further questioning.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks; I have got the gist of the points that she was making. Saudi Arabia remains a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country, particularly because of its use of the death penalty, its record on women’s rights and its restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, religion and belief. No aspect of our commercial relationship with Saudi Arabia prevents us from speaking frankly and openly to it about human rights. We will not pursue trade to the exclusion of human rights; they can be, and they are, complementary. The United Kingdom will continue to adhere to that.

The Minister will agree that it is depressing how regularly the death penalty is carried out not just in Saudi Arabia, but in its neighbour Iran, which has already carried out dozens of executions this year. Given the small likelihood of persuading the Saudis to abolish the death penalty completely, does he agree that it is best to focus on getting them to adopt the most basic of standards, such as not executing people for crimes they committed when they were juveniles?

Absolutely. I concur with all my hon. Friend’s points and, for brevity, I will leave it at that.

I thank the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for raising this issue today. The death penalty for political protest is something that horrifies any democrat. With that in mind, we have serious concerns about whether the Government are using their powers. The Minister confirmed that the Prime Minister has raised this matter, so was she satisfied with the response? If she was not, what further action will be taken?

The Prime Minister will continue to raise concerns as long as the United Kingdom has them. If we want to move to a position that would satisfy all of us, I suspect that Saudi Arabia is not yet there. Accordingly, the Prime Minister will continue to raise concerns if she believes that they are justified.

Will my right hon. Friend again confirm that the Government oppose and abhor the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country, including Saudi Arabia? Does he share my concern that the death penalty is enshrined in Islamic sharia law—the law of Saudi Arabia? With what force is he is making our position known to our counterparts in Saudi Arabia?

I can only repeat what I have said before. The United Kingdom’s opposition to the death penalty, our carrying that through by votes in this House and our adherence to international conventions makes that clear, but not everyone is the same. The United Kingdom cannot unilaterally change the law elsewhere, but we can and will stand up for the rights that we believe are correct, and from Iran to the United States to Saudi Arabia we will make that clear no matter which country is involved.

We are constantly told by the Conservatives that we have values in common with Saudi Arabia. What are they? They do not involve human rights or international law, so what values can we possibly share with Saudi Arabia when they propose to crucify somebody and to use the death penalty against minors?

In response to the right hon. Lady asking about what we may share, we should not ignore Saudi Arabia’s important contribution to regional stability. It has had its own painful experiences as the victim of numerous Daesh attacks, and collaborating with Saudi Arabia has foiled terrorist attacks, potentially saving British lives. There are areas where our interests work together in the interests of the United Kingdom, but that is of course not universal.

Given the fact that—alas, perhaps—we are no longer an imperial power able to send a gunboat to enforce our view of the world, will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in his considerable experience in the Foreign Office, a quiet conversation to make our case and set out our views is far more likely to be effective than shouting at people across the railings?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Different approaches have different impacts. It would certainly not be right for people to be silent on things that they think are important; they should raise them publicly. It is also true, however, that quiet conversations with states over a period of time effect change, which is true in consular cases as well as in the higher profile death penalty cases. My hon. Friend is right that both approaches can have an impact, but sometimes they do not.

In the Minister’s communications with the Saudi authorities about this particular group of people, will he establish whether reports are correct that others, again including juveniles, are facing similar charges?

I will make what inquiries I can. Certainly from the media reports we have, it will be important to find out whether any juveniles are involved. Non-governmental organisations in the west are normally quite good at finding out and reporting this information, and the United Kingdom has acted upon such information in the past. We will certainly look for that information, and I will gather as much as I can.

What impact does the Minister believe the 38% cut to the Foreign Office will have on dealing effectively with human rights in Saudi Arabia, or wherever?

All aspects of Government must pay attention to the need for financial probity, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has made sure that human rights is a key part of our work, certainly for as many years as I have been there—that now spans a few years—and human rights will remain a key part of desk work here and of the work that posts do abroad.

Among numerous others, my understanding is that the two juveniles at risk of execution were charged under Saudi Arabia’s anti-cybercrime laws. Is the Minister in a position to confirm or deny that? Can he reassure the House that any cyber-security assistance and training provided by the UK to Saudi Arabia has not been used to facilitate charges that lead to the death penalty?

I do not have the detailed information that the hon. Gentleman asks for, but I will seek it. I will also seek reassurances in relation to the collaborative work on cyber-security, which is done to protect the United Kingdom and our common interests, rather than anything else. I will need further information before I can reply, but I will write to him.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that our relationship with Saudi Arabia enables us to raise our human rights concerns? This House should also appreciate that the Government of Saudi Arabia are taking steps to improve their actions on human rights, and particularly to improve the opportunities and rights of women in Saudi Arabian society.

My hon. Friend is right. A vision of Saudi Arabia, as with a number of states in the area, is fixed in people’s minds, but it does not always conform to the reality. Progress and reform in some of these states is extremely slow. They are very conservative societies, and sometimes their leaders are ahead of popular and religious opinion. It is a difficult process, but she is right. Objectively, it can be seen that the position of women has improved in relation to access to the Shura council and beyond, and there is more to come. The 100,000 people educated abroad by King Salman’s predecessor included women who were educated in the west—in the United States and in Europe—and they were not intended to return to a Saudi Arabia that would be unchanging. [Interruption.]

Order. I am sure the Whips mean well in advising on these matters, but they sometimes get the timing a bit wrong. When an hon. Member is receiving an answer to her inquiry, she should remain in her seat rather than beetling around the Chamber because some Whip suddenly wants to relay some piece of information. It is no doubt well intentioned, but misguided.

In response to the recent spate of executions, Amnesty International has renewed its call on the Saudi Arabian authorities to immediately establish a moratorium on all executions as a first step towards abolition of the death penalty. Can the Minister lend his support to Amnesty’s calls?

As we are absolutely opposed to the death penalty in any circumstances, a moratorium is, in a sense, immaterial because we want to see the death penalty stopped everywhere.

I hear what the Minister is saying about talking to, asking questions of and advising the Saudi Government, but should not the UK Government stop pussying around on this matter and demand that these executions do not go ahead? Those people were just protesting innocently and honestly for a fair society.

I understand the force with which the hon. Gentleman speaks. It is difficult always to convey to colleagues in the House exactly what the ambassador or the Prime Minister say in their conversations to convey, in a different form, exactly the same degree of force and concern that the hon. Gentleman conveys so eloquently.

How far does the Minister really believe the UK’s influence extends over Saudi Arabia? If the UK Government’s supposed leverage cannot stop the Saudi Government beheading their citizens, why does he believe it is appropriate for the UK to continue to license the sale of arms to that country?

It is impossible to give a simple answer to the question of how much influence one state exerts on another. Let me point to a long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia. It is a long-standing relationship on security and intelligence matters, which has acted in our interests and for the safety of our citizens. We have a common approach to dealing with not only terror and extremism, but changes in Saudi society over a period of time. As I say, it is not for those outside to take credit for internal changes. This is a continued dialogue with a state that we have known for a long time, but one that is still relatively new and coming to terms with the modern world. I think the relationship is the right one, but we will continue to press for the best values.

Does the Minister accept that executing individuals who were under 18 at the time of the commission of the alleged offence is in violation of not only international law, but Saudi domestic law? He is therefore on very strong ground in raising this matter. Will he do so in terms, because, whatever the longer term relationship, minors have been executed in the past year and many are now on death row there? Will he say exactly what representation he is making today or tomorrow? If he is in doubt about who is at risk, will he talk to Reprieve about that?

I reiterate the point that the UK makes about the death penalty, particularly in relation to minors. Where cases involving minors are brought to our attention, we reference them specifically, as we have done in several of the cases raised by the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). I am gaining more information about the matters referred to in the newspaper report today, and if they do involve minors, specific representations will indeed be made.

Points of order normally come after statements; I made an exception for particular matters earlier. Is this just because the hon. Gentleman wants to beetle off to some other commitment or is this urgent for the House now?

Sir, I would not presume to adjudge its urgency; I shall leave that to the Chair. There appears to be some confusion, which I certainly would not want, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) is of a like mind. Last week, when we had the opportunity to question a Minister about matters relating to Saudi Arabia, I conferred with one of the Clerks at the Desk to find out whether my having been on a visit to Saudi Arabia was a declarable interest. The advice I was given by the Clerk was that it was entirely up to the individual Member but as I was raising a question—rather than instigating an early-day motion or debate, or giving a long speech—on our relations with Saudi Arabia, there was no registrable interest to declare. I understand that that might have changed today. I would not, as I know my hon. Friend would not, have wanted to have misled the House in any way, and I would value clarification on whether we need to declare an interest when merely asking a question of a Minister.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. As far as I am aware, nothing has changed today. Although he may find this less than fully satisfactory, or even a tad disquieting, I am afraid I must give him the advice the Clerks tend to give: it is for each Member to judge whether something requires to be declared in the course of any parliamentary contribution. I put it to him that certainly a relevant factor for him to consider is whether such a visit was externally financed; I would have thought that that was a germane consideration. Members go on Select Committee trips on a very regular basis and, as far as I am aware, they do not always, in the course of every question, refer to the fact that they have been on a Select Committee visit somewhere. If there is a question of outside financing and an outside body, it might be thought to be prudent to refer to it. I think that was the matter the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent had in mind, and if she wants, briefly, now to make any declaration, I am happy for her to do so.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. It has been brought to my attention that in asking a question a moment ago, I perhaps should have drawn the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I am not sure there is a “further”, but the hon. Gentleman has always seemed to be an amiable fellow, and therefore I shall indulge him.