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Saudi Arabia: Mass Executions

Volume 658: debated on Wednesday 24 April 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office if he will make a statement on what representations he has made to the Saudi Government with respect to the mass execution of 37 people yesterday.

We are very concerned by the executions of 37 men in Saudi Arabia, and the Foreign Office is working to establish the full facts. The Foreign Secretary will be raising this matter with the Saudi authorities at the earliest opportunity. The UK Government oppose the death penalty in all circumstances and in every country, including in Saudi Arabia. We regularly raise human rights concerns, including the use of the death penalty, at the highest levels with the Saudi Arabian authorities.

May I ask the Minister specifically what representations were made in respect of the 12 condemned men I referred to the Prime Minister’s attention on 3 December, including Abbas al-Hassan, who was executed yesterday?

Does the Minister recall his predecessor’s statement on 7 March 2018 that the Foreign Office was

“concerned with those cases where minors might have been indicted”—[Official Report, 7 March 2018; Vol. 637, c. 319.]

but that he had received assurances on that matter? Is the Minister now aware of the fact that three of the executed people, and possibly more, were indeed juveniles, and that in most of these cases—again, in flagrant disregard for international law—most appear to have been tortured prior to the extraction of confessions? Does he acknowledge that there have been around 100 executions so far this year and that, according to the campaigning group Reprieve, Saudi Arabia is on track to execute 300 people by the end of this year? Will the Minister agree to meet me and representatives of Reprieve to go through the list of condemned people and see how representations could most effectively be made?

Finally, does he accept that Britain’s moral position on this issue is somewhat compromised by the continued supply of arms, fuelling atrocities in the civil war in Yemen, and that we are in urgent need of a reappraisal of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, given that the continued medieval barbarism of the regime does not constitute the basis for a friendly alliance, and indeed makes it an enemy of our values and our human rights?

I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this situation does raise the gravest imaginable concerns. Executing 37 people is a deeply backwards step, which we deplore. In response to the specific question about representations that have been made in the past, I can confirm that British embassy representatives in Riyadh did make representations regarding specific individuals last November.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that one of the grave concerns about these executions is that they would appear to include minors, or those who were minors at the time that the charges were made. This is of course totally unacceptable and we deplore it. I can advise the House that in just the last few minutes, the European Union—and we have put our name fully to this—has issued a very strong statement of condemnation through the European External Action Service, pointing out that these executions are a regressive step and specifically raising concerns that some of the 37 people executed were minors.

I fully appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman is saying regarding our arms exports. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia faces a number of threats; the issue of arms is not just about using arms in Yemen. We ensure that any arms exports fully comply with the consolidated criteria that govern any such sales.

I share the sentiments expressed by my right hon. Friend at the Dispatch Box. The security and stability of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia matters a great deal in the region, and is indeed the basis of our relationship. Notwithstanding our shared concerns with regards to terror, will my right hon. Friend confirm that we do everything we can to use our influence to impress upon the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that that relationship carries with it obligations? When he and the House express themselves in such strong terms, there is usually a very good reason why those concerns are being expressed, and they should be listened to.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he has said. He speaks with the utmost authority in this House and was an excellent Minister for the Middle East; I have to say that, at a moment like this, I rather wish that he still was. I can say in all honesty that, despite always being polite, he never held back from telling his counterparts in Saudi Arabia where he thought they were making mistakes and where he thought their record on human rights fell short. It is by having access of that sort and having trusted Ministers on our side that we can best get that message over—and I hope, over time, make a difference.

As we have heard, yesterday saw the largest mass execution in Saudi Arabia since January 2016, in which 37 people were killed. According to the official Saudi press agency, the men were executed:

“for adopting terrorist and extremist thinking and for forming terrorist cells to corrupt and destabilise security”.

They were arrested after four Islamic State gunmen attacked a Saudi security compound in Riyadh, but the Saudi authorities have still not made clear whether those arrested were linked to the attacks.

Publicly pinning one of the headless bodies to a pole as a warning is not only disturbingly barbaric and medieval in nature, but an abhorrent violation of human rights. According to the families of those executed, there was no prior notice that the executions would be carried out. That is a blatant flouting of international standards set out by even the most brutal of regimes that still use the death penalty. We know that some, if not all, of those executed were convicted in Saudi Arabia’s Specialised Criminal Court, which has been widely condemned by human rights groups as secretive, and which has in the past been used to try human rights activists, whom the state often wrongly regards as terrorists.

We also know that at least three of those executed were juveniles—a clear violation of international law, which the Saudi regime appears to care very little about. Abdulkarim al-Hawaj was charged with participating in demonstrations, incitement via social media and preparing banners with anti-state slogans. Reports from human rights watchdogs in the country claim that he was beaten and the so-called confessions extracted from him through various means of torture. Mujtaba al-Sweikat was a student about to begin his studies at Western Michigan University when he was arrested at King Fahd airport, beaten and so-called confessions extracted through torture. Salman Qureish was just 18 when he was executed, but he was convicted of crimes that allegedly took place when he was still a child. The UN has condemned his sentencing and the use of the death penalty against him after he was denied basic legal rights, such as access to a lawyer.

Saudi Arabia has executed more than 100 people already this year. If it continues, the number of executions this year alone will reach over 300. Human rights group Reprieve says that five of the prisoners it supported were executed yesterday. Many were forced to stand in stress positions for hours and deprived of sleep until a confession was extracted.

These executions have caused a breakdown in Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran and have the potential to destabilise the region further, so what discussions has the Minister had with his Saudi counterpart since the executions took place? Will the Government condemn the use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia today? Will the Government call for an immediate end to executions in Saudi Arabia? Finally, what plans do the Government have to tackle the use of violence against human rights activists in Saudi Arabia?

I yield to none in my affection and admiration for the hon. Gentleman, but he is fortunate that I am in a generous mood. I note in passing that he was due to speak for two minutes, spoke for a little over three, and the first of his four questions was posed after three minutes and one second. It was a volley of unsurpassable eloquence, but it was a tad too long.

The right hon. Gentleman and I share in common a characteristic of being short, and we have done so for some decades, as he knows.

I will happily confirm that you always win, but I will not say in which direction I am pointing, Mr Speaker.

I do not think anyone in this House would disagree with what the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) has said. All Members want to defend human rights, and we abhor executions of this sort. We really do genuinely disapprove in the strongest possible terms of what has happened, particularly when it is reported that one of those executed was displayed on a cross—something that anyone in this House just a few days after Easter will find more repulsive than anything we could have pictured.

We have to be sure of our facts, however. We need to find out directly what precisely were the supposed crimes and what was the due process used. Although the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can legitimately use its law to bear down on genuine extremist threats, its Government must appreciate that there will be growing international pressure on them to accept that the sort of action we are discussing is utterly unacceptable in the modern world. It does them no credit and it does not support the basis of law that any proper country should be working on.

I have worked with the hon. Members for Stockton South (Dr Williams) and the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on a detention review panel of the female human rights activists in Saudi Arabia. Does my right hon. Friend accept that these executions and the accelerating pace of executions in Saudi Arabia cannot be seen in isolation from the wider criminal justice policy—if that is what one should call it—that relates to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the detention of civil society activists in Saudi Arabia? If Saudi Arabian civil society space is closed down as it has been, the security and stability of the country, which is after all our ally, will be the victim.

My hon. Friend makes a serious point: any country needs to realise that using such methods will eventually backfire. Although I think there are greater arguments for pointing out how unacceptable such methods are, rulers are wise to be mindful of such dangers.

I did not answer the question put by the hon. Member for Leeds North East about human rights defenders. Yes, we will raise the issue of freedom and protection for those who defend human rights. It is not acceptable to attack non-governmental organisations when what they are doing is trying to defend justice.

I thank the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) for securing this urgent question.

We are here to discuss yet more appalling human rights violations. There is huge concern about this latest mass execution. Not only is it reported that a number of those executed were from the Shi’a minority, but, critically, and as has been pointed out, a number of those put to death were minors at the time of the alleged crimes.

We have been here rather frequently to discuss human rights violations, what is happening in Yemen, the murder of Mr Khashoggi, and so on. The issues are raised, and when we talk about arms sales and our relations with Saudi Arabia we are told that we have influence, but it is difficult to see that influence at the moment. Does the Minister agree that we must reassess the relationship with Saudi Arabia? Also, instead of us coming back time after time to discuss more issues of concern, will the right hon. Gentleman commit to returning to the House to tell us what has been done about that reassessment?

I will be discussing this with the Foreign Secretary, and he will be calling his counterpart, the relatively new Foreign Minister in Saudi Arabia. The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point that we should all take on board: the broader picture gives growing cause for concern. We can look at those who have been executed and their number—Shi’a, minors and those whose crimes we do not know, as well as the Khashoggi incident—and I am sure that we will be robust in our embassy and Minister-to-Minister representations. It is important that the regime in Saudi Arabia appreciates that the voice of world opinion can only get louder in its condemnation.

The King of Saudi Arabia is reported as being interested in ensuring that there is prison reform in his kingdom. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that prison conditions will be on the agenda next time he raises human rights with the Saudis?

This is an important agenda. When I was a Minister at the Department for International Development, I always wanted prison visiting and access to be a condition of any aid that we gave to a country, although I did not exactly succeed in my objective. My hon. Friend illustrates the important point that when people are hidden and no one can get to them, we do not know what is going on. The ability for decent people to inspect prisons and visit prisoners, as is the case in this country, is a very important aspect of any judicial system and the human rights that ought to go alongside it.

Saudi Arabia is now one of the world’s top executioners, behind only China and Iran. Amnesty International called the recent executions

“a chilling demonstration of the Saudi Arabian authorities’ callous disregard for human life. It is also yet another gruesome indication of how the death penalty is being used as a political tool to crush dissent from within the country’s Shi’a minority.”

These Shi’a men apparently were convicted after sham trials that involved torture. We must condemn this in the strongest possible terms and take some kind of action. Words are easy, but the UK must give a direct indication that we will not put up with this kind of thing.

No one can question the right hon. Lady’s track record on defending human rights. We hear loudly what she says. One of the questions we need to ask the Saudi Government is what on earth they think this will achieve. The practical benefit seems entirely negative, and I hope that the rational argument that the death penalty achieves nothing in the modern world will eventually sink in.

Does the Minister feel, as I do, that the feebleness of the response to the Khashoggi murder and the butchering of his body has in some way encouraged the Saudi authorities to think they can get away with anything, no matter how brutal and borderline insane?

I do not quite agree with my right hon. Friend. The international reaction was pretty robust, and a collective voice condemned it, led by Turkey, where it happened. I would like to think that that incident had a dividend and it got through to people that it was unacceptable, and they were taken aback by the fact that the murder of one person counted for so much elsewhere in the world. I hope it will never be repeated.

Three more juveniles who were arrested after the Arab spring for peaceful protest—Dawood al-Marhoon, Ali al-Nimr and Abdullah Hasan al-Zaher—have gone through the same process and are on death row awaiting execution by beheading, which could happen at any time with no notice. Will the Government make specific representations for those three? Otherwise, we will see more executions as the year progresses.

These 37 executions will spur us to take a deep interest in not only the general concept and principle of the death penalty but individual cases. Given the robustness of the statement just issued by the European Union, I am confident that we will not be alone in making our opinions clear.

Can we have a measure of repentance about the enthusiasm with which we sponsored Saudi Arabia for the United Nations Human Rights Council?

I am always happy to be repentant to my right hon. Friend. I am not familiar with the exact details of what he refers to, but I maintain the position that we will make our views on these issues clear in a very robust way to the Saudi Government.

I remind the House that I chair the all-party parliamentary British-Qatar group and am an officer of the all-party group on Kuwait, so I hope the Minister will accept that he does not need to persuade me of the importance of creating good relations with our friends in the Gulf. But when I read about the use of not only capital punishment but torture to obtain confessions, on the basis of which the executions were carried out—including the torture of Munir al-Adam, who was beaten so badly that he lost his hearing in one ear—I find myself asking, why do the Government of my country want to regard these people as our friends? Surely this is the time for a fundamental reappraisal of our relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

We unreservedly condemn torture in all circumstances. I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is asking for. We have to look at the broader picture of the entire Gulf and the dangers around it. That is always taken into consideration when looking at who we work with across the world.

I know how much my right hon. Friend cares and how hard he works on these matters of human rights. The European Union has also condemned what is happening. Can we ensure that this is not just the ritual condemnation that happens immediately after an event and then is forgotten, but that at every opportunity in his dialogue with Saudi counterparts, he stresses the value that this country and our European partners place on freedom, human rights, religious freedom and all those areas that would be of great benefit to Saudi Arabia if it were to embrace them?

My hon. Friend is right. It is no good just having a day’s anger after an event such as this. It has to be persistent and consistent, and the condemnation of executions of this sort and any abuse of human rights has to be built into our policy and actions at all time.

Human rights abuses, executions, airstrikes in Yemen killing 100 in March alone, including 19 children—if the Saudis continue to fail to listen to the Minister’s pleading, why does he extend to them the veneer of respectability?

The hon. Lady mentions Yemen. I have spent many decades taking an interest in Yemen. I hope we will now see some progress towards a political settlement. We have to give our full support to Martin Griffiths, our UN representative. Part of the message we have to send to the Saudi Government is that bombings in Yemen do not achieve any of the objectives they have set out to achieve, and we need a political settlement as a matter of urgency.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that this country does not pursue trade at the expense of human rights?

I can give that assurance. We obviously want to defend human rights everywhere, and we want to maximise our trade, but we will not pursue a trade opportunity at the expense of human rights.

It is difficult to fathom the logic of such senseless barbarism in Saudi Arabia’s policies, and this has wider implications, particularly in relation to Iran and the geopolitical stability of the middle east. At what point will this country’s commercial and geopolitical interests come second to the need to demonstrate moral courage and real economic consequences of Saudi Arabia’s continued behaviour?

We value our trade with Saudi Arabia, as we do with all partners in the Gulf, but we have to ensure that such commercial activity goes hand in hand with the robust political messages that we all send in this House today.

As the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) said, the vast majority of those executed yesterday were Shi’a Muslims. To what degree do the British Government consider that the Saudi regime is using the death penalty as a means of quashing dissent among a persecuted religious minority within its borders?

I do not think that this is the moment for me to give an extended thesis on such matters, but I understand the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. In many parts of the middle east, the Sunni-Shi’a conflict is very intensive and creates enormous tension, difficulty and strife. I very much hope that in the years ahead, we will see the temperature settle and good relations between Sunni and Shi’a communities everywhere.

What more could the Government do through the embassy in Saudi Arabia to work with civil society, women’s groups in particular and human rights defenders to ensure that human rights are upheld in the kingdom?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this point. As a Government, we tend to attend internationally important trials in all countries, where of course it is permitted by the host Government. We have been denied access to trials in certain circumstances in Saudi Arabia. I think that defending human rights activists and NGOs is very important. To that end, our embassy is very active, and some of its engagement with the Government may not be popular with them, but that is what our embassies should be doing. They are defending justice, decency and human rights, and that is what our foreign policy is designed to do.

These men could not have been convicted in any court worthy of the name, because a conviction that relies on evidence obtained through torture is no conviction. In the eyes of any law, these men were innocent: they were not executed; they were murdered for dissenting from the policies of the dictatorship that runs the country.

The Minister has listed a lot of things the Government have done previously that have made no difference. If anything, Saudi Arabia is going in the wrong direction. He has ruled out a fundamental rethink of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, and he has ruled out a fundamental rethink of our multibillion-pound arms trade with Saudi Arabia. Will the Minister tell us what else is left that the Government have not already tried, and which has failed to persuade these people that the regime does not belong in the 21st century?

First, we do have to be certain about establishing the facts in these cases. I know that a lot of suggestions have been made about many things that may have happened with the 37, but before we speak with the authority of Government, we do very much feel obliged to establish all the facts first and to engage with the Saudi Government in doing so. On what can be done, I again go back to the point about growing international pressure. I hope that, by acting in concert with other countries, we can, perhaps on the back of these executions, make a difference to future policy and behaviour in the kingdom.

This is an ally whose behaviour is as bad, if not worse, than most of the regimes around the globe that we would regard as hostile. I guess that ordinary constituents listening to this and reacting to the barbarism will want to know whether there is a bottom line. Is there a point at which this becomes a friendship not worth having?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there is a moral dilemma here. Moral dilemmas are never a choice between black and white; they are a choice between different shades of grey, and there is deep murkiness here that we do not like. I hear exactly what the hon. Gentleman says, and we will continue to make the points and keep up the pressure I have been describing today.

Amnesty International has said that there was a welcome reduction last year in the number of executions worldwide, but clearly what Saudi Arabia is doing is going in the opposite direction. The worst offenders are China with more than 1,000, Iran with several hundred, and then Saudi, Vietnam and Iraq. What steps can we take internationally, in the UN and elsewhere, to get back to the good trend of a reduction in the number of executions?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the trend has been thrown into reverse gear. That is what the EU statement today says specifically in respect of Saudi Arabia. We do not just want the trajectory to be going downwards; we want it to be down at zero. That is our ambition and I hope, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, that the UN can play its part in making a resounding noise of condemnation in relation to those who use the death penalty in any circumstances.

While it is always a pleasure to see the Minister at the Dispatch Box, it really is nonsense that the Prime Minister has not been able to replace the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) in such a key role for the Government at this time.

These reports are highly distressing. Does the Minister agree, however, that the UK will undermine its efforts to persuade our security allies such as Saudi Arabia to reform this draconian justice system if it does not itself apply the fundamental values of British liberty and fair due process to its own citizens, even those—perhaps particularly those—who have been radicalised in the UK and have gone abroad to commit terrorist acts in other countries? Should they not be brought back here to be tried, rather than be subjected to a judicial process way below the standards we would accept here in the UK?

I accept that we are one Minister down in the Foreign Office at the moment, and that may well be because my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) is in fact irreplaceable.

On due process, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that this is straying slightly from the focus of this urgent question, but when someone is subject to the law and the process of the courts in the UK, I think we can be proud of our judicial system and the fairness it contains.

I thank the Minister for his very helpful responses. The Minister will know that Saudi Arabia has a death penalty in law for those who convert from Islam to Christianity. Freedom of religious belief has been very much in the minds of all of us in this House—including the Minister, I know—and of those outside this House as well. The death penalty for someone pursuing their religious belief and conviction is unbelievable in this day and age, especially in the light of the murderous intent of those against Christians in Sri Lanka. What discussions has the Minister had with the Saudi Arabian Government about removing the death penalty for changing religion?

Our objective is for the Saudi Arabian Government to remove the death penalty for absolutely everything. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made very clear statements in defence of religious freedom everywhere, particularly in defence of Christians, who are increasingly being persecuted across the world. As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, the atrocities in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday were, to a large extent, against Christians who were worshipping on Easter Day. I hope that the voice of the Foreign Office and the application of our foreign policy will be to defend human rights, religious freedom and—as my right hon. Friend has said as well, and importantly—media freedom.