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Saudi Arabia: Death Penalty and Spike in Executions

Volume 723: debated on Monday 28 November 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on Saudi Arabia’s use of the death penalty and the recent spike in the number of executions taking place.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the urgent question.

Saudi Arabia remains a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office human rights priority country, particularly because of the use of the death penalty and restrictions on freedom of expression. We seek to engage the kingdom and support positive reform, and Lord Ahmad, the Minister responsible for our middle east and north Africa policy, visited the kingdom in February to advance UK strategic engagement on human rights specifically. Key areas included promoting freedom of religious belief, lobbying on individual human rights cases of concern and encouraging justice reforms. Saudi Arabia is committed to an ambitious programme of economic and social reform through Vision 2030, which has already delivered significant change, including increased freedoms and economic opportunity for women. However, the human rights situation is likely to remain a key issue in our engagement for the foreseeable future.

It is a long-standing UK policy to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances in all countries as a matter of principle. The Saudi Government are well aware of the UK’s opposition to the use of the death penalty. The Saudi authorities have executed around 150 individuals in 2022, a marked increase on the 67 executions last year. On 12 March 2022 Saudi Arabia executed 81 people in a single day, and the British ambassador raised UK concerns with Saudi authorities at both ministerial and senior official level in Riyadh on 14 March. The then Middle East Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), also raised concern over the 81 executions with the Saudi ambassador to the UK. More recently, Saudi Arabia has executed 20 individuals for drugs-related offences since 10 November despite Saudi Arabia’s moratorium on the death penalty for drugs-related offences announced in January 2021.

Lord Ahmad, the Minister responsible for the middle east and human rights, requested a meeting and spoke to the Saudi ambassador last week, on 24 November. He raised UK concern over the recent executions and pushed for the 2021 moratorium for drugs-related offences to remain in place. During the meeting Lord Ahmad also raised an important case for my right hon. Friend, that of Hussein Abo al-Kheir, who is assessed by respected international non-governmental organisations to be at risk of imminent execution. There are allegations of torture and forced confession in this case, and the Minister reiterated His Majesty’s Government’s long-standing position on the death penalty and the importance of ensuring the 2021 moratorium was upheld.

Through Ministers and our embassy in Riyadh we regularly raise the death penalty as a key issue of concern with Saudi Arabia. We will continue to do so, and no aspect of our relationship with Saudi Arabia prevents us from speaking frankly about human rights.

I thank the Minister for his description of Lord Ahmad’s work so far, which is welcome, but I have to say that in the context of the current circumstances we may have to step this up somewhat.

As the Minister said, despite assurances of a moratorium on the death penalty for non-violent drug offences, announced by Saudi Arabia’s own Human Rights Commission, Saudi Arabia has executed 20 people for drugs-related offences in just two weeks. We believe there are 55 other people currently at risk of the death penalty.

I wish to raise in particular the case of Hussein Abo al-Kheir. Mr al-Kheir is a poor Jordanian national, who is elderly and in poor health. He was arrested in 2014 for, supposedly, drug offences. He was tortured into a false confession, including being hung upside down from the ceiling and beaten. He has served seven years on death row and was told just days ago that he will be moved to a condemned cell. The UN working group on arbitrary detention has found his detention to be without legal basis and called for his release. He is clearly at risk of imminent execution, possibly with the Saudis thinking that the world’s attention is distracted by the World cup or something else. Al-Kheir’s case demonstrates the unabashed brutality of the regime: 147 people have been executed this year alone, including 81 on one day.

We know already that being too soft with totalitarian states comes back to bite us. We were too soft over Litvinenko’s murder, and we ended up with the Skripal poisonings. We have seen how Saudi Arabia behaves abroad, with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi; it is time to make it clear in no uncertain terms to it that it must abide by international civilised standards. If the Foreign Secretary—and I do say the Foreign Secretary—does so firmly enough, he will almost certainly save 55 further lives.

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising these issues and for doing so with his characteristic passion and conviction. His record on civil liberties and human rights is well known, and I want to reassure him once again that Lord Ahmad raised the case of the Jordanian national Mr al-Kheir with the Saudi ambassador on 24 November—so just last week he requested that meeting and had the conversation—and earlier in the year, on 25 January, Lord Ahmad raised the same case with the Saudi Justice Minister during the Minister’s visit to the UK. Our embassy in Riyadh has raised this case with relevant authorities and we will continue to monitor it and raise it at the highest levels.

Labour unequivocally condemns the recent executions in Saudi Arabia and the use of the death penalty anywhere in the world. In the last two weeks, executions have been taking place on almost a daily basis in Saudi Arabia. In total, according to the UN, 144 people have been executed in Saudi Arabia this year alone, which is a record high for the kingdom, and more than double the number last year. The recent executions have been for alleged drugs and contraband offences following the Saudi authorities ending a 21-month moratorium on the use of the death penalty for drug-related offences. That is deeply concerning, especially after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s public assurances that the kingdom would minimise use of the death penalty altogether.

The UK should join the international community in condemning these executions in the strongest terms. What steps have the UK Government taken to raise our concerns about the resumption of executions and the wider crackdown on freedom of expression and activism with the Minister’s Saudi counterparts? I note the Minister’s comments about the meeting with Lord Ahmad, but this needs to be an ongoing process. How do the Government intend to use the close relationship between our countries to press for a change in Saudi Arabia’s approach? I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) in calling on the Government to do everything in their power to prevent the imminent execution of Hussein Abo al-Kheir. What steps have they taken so far to secure that goal?

We must oppose the death penalty in all countries and in all circumstances. Will the Minister confirm whether the Prime Minister raised the importance of standing up for human rights, which should be at the heart of British diplomacy, when he met the Crown Prince earlier this month at the G20?

It speaks volumes when we have condemnation coming from both sides of the House. I am grateful to the hon. Member for his contribution and for joining us in condemning this spike in use of the death penalty. We are seeking further clarification of its cause at the highest level. That was part of the conversation that Lord Ahmad had, because, as the hon. Member said, that does not sit comfortably with what was previously said by the Saudi Government. We are seeking that clarification as a key priority. As I said, we are raising this matter at the highest possible levels.

It would be good for the House to know whether the Crown Prince—the Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia—thinks that he is personally involved or uninvolved in what is going on. It is now four years and seven weeks since Jamal Khashoggi was murdered. I think it is time that our friend—our ally—Saudi Arabia got to know that whenever a senior member of its country comes abroad, unless such executions stop, they will be associated with them.

May I also make the point that any suggestion that a confession was gained by torture makes it invalid? We know from our past that seven times a year, people convicted of a capital offence were innocent or should not have been convicted. I suspect that the same applies in Saudi Arabia.

The Father of the House makes important points. As he is aware, the UK has always been clear that Khashoggi’s murder was a terrible crime. We called for a thorough, credible and transparent investigation to hold those responsible to account and imposed sanctions against 20 Saudis involved. I cannot speculate about future designations or sanctions as that would reduce their impact, but he can be assured that we will speak up clearly and call out any confessions secured under torture, which are abhorrent and against all that we stand for.

The SNP is a party of international law, and we condemn the death penalty wherever it occurs. We think it is a barbaric punishment that never fits the crime. I must say to the House that, in Saudi’s case, it is personal for me: I grew up in Riyadh in the late ’70s and ’80s and know the Saudis well, so forgive me, but I am immune to the flannel and hypocrisy that we are used to hearing when talking about Saudi in this place.

We are united in our condemnation of the spike in judicial murder. I think we need to see some consequence to what is happening. We have seen 138 individuals executed this year, which must be sending a signal internally on the part of the regime to potential dissidents or somebody else. What is causing the spike now? I would be curious to hear the Minister’s assessment of that. If there have been this many judicial murders in a key partner of the UK, does he really think that it is a suitable partner to be receiving billions in arms exports from this country?

I thank the hon. Member for his comments, which are always well grounded, particularly when we talk about the middle east and north Africa—I remember our recent debate on Yemen. He asked a very good question about the spike in executions, on which we are seeking further clarification. As I said, that does not sit easily with what the Saudi Government have said, so we are seeking further clarification—[Interruption.] I am grateful for the mobile phone notification that things are happening on the Opposition Benches. That has distracted me from the other points that the hon. Member made. He mentioned his concerns about arms sales. I reiterate that the UK operates one of the most comprehensive export control regimes in the world and that every licence application is vigorously and rigorously assessed against strategic export licensing criteria. Risks around human rights abuses are a key part of our assessment.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on asking this urgent question, and thank you for granting it, Mr Speaker. The fact that the fate of an elderly impoverished Jordanian in a Saudi jail who has had his confession extracted under torture still matters to the House, and that you are prepared to bring it immediately to our attention as the hook on which to discuss this wider issue in Saudi Arabia, reflects huge credit on the House of Commons collectively under your leadership.

Those of us who count ourselves as friends of Saudi Arabia and who want Britain to have a friendly, close relationship with Saudi Arabia find it astonishingly frustrating that Vision 2030, under the leadership of the Crown Prince as the executive leader of the Government—that was a great visionary statement, including on the delivery of religious freedoms and the delivery of more freedoms for women—is accompanied by the kind of appalling barbarity that is formally being meted out, allegedly in the judicial system. I want to reinforce the question that the Minister has been asked: what is the explanation for the astonishing schizophrenia in the presentation of Saudi Arabia?

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution and question. We welcome the socioeconomic reforms in Vision 2030, but as I said, we continue to have concerns about human rights and we are particularly concerned about the spike. As I said, Lord Ahmad is seeking to understand how that fits with previous statements by the Saudi Government. He will continue to ask those questions, and we will continue to seek answers to them at the highest level.

I echo what the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said about the case of Hussein Abo al-Kheir, and I pay tribute to the work that Reprieve has done to raise this and other cases. How much can we rely on the Government to do that when the Foreign Office has just doubled the amount of taxpayers’ money handed to the Saudis under the Gulf strategy fund? That was after the Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister told the BBC:

“What you…call a dissident, we call a terrorist.”

Some of that money is going into counter-terrorism, so are the Government not sending out, at best, mixed messages? Do we not need a much clearer line if we are going to stop further executions?

Our long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia is underpinned by very frank engagement, as the hon. Member can see from points that I and others in the Chamber have raised. We regularly raise concerns when our values differ, as they do on these matters, and no aspect of our relationship prevents us from speaking candidly about human rights.

Will the Minister make a commitment that he and his fellow Ministers will continue to push for progress in Saudi Arabia on all areas of human rights, not exclusively, but including on the death penalty, women’s rights and freedom of religion or belief?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is not just about the very sad spikes in executions; we seek to engage on a much wider agenda on human rights, not least on the freedom of religion or belief. We will continue in the grown-up relationship that we have, in which we can confront values that we do not think sit with ours and help to move that agenda further forward.

I have lost track of how many times we have been round this course with regard to Saudi Arabia in recent years. Every time, we get the same formulations from those on the Treasury Bench. They are the right things to hear, delivered in the right earnest tone, about raising things at the highest possible level and monitoring the situation, but still the situation keeps getting worse. Surely it is apparent that whatever we are doing, it is not working. Now is the time, before Hussein Abo al-Kheir is executed, to take a different approach and work with other countries, especially in the region, to ensure that there are not just words but consequences for Saudi Arabia if it continues to act as a rogue state.

We continue to raise concerns, as the right hon. Gentleman says. I am pleased that the country is making some progress on economic engagement for women; that is not something that is always talked about, because obviously there are other, wider concerns about human rights, but there is progress there. As I said to the hon. Members for Stirling (Alyn Smith) and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), we now need to understand why we have seen this spike in executions, unfortunately, when there is progress elsewhere. There is much more work to be done, for sure, but we do not understand yet the reasons why we have seen this particular spike.

The Minister says that we are trying to understand what is going on and that Saudi Arabia is committed to reform. It is pretty clear what is going on: Mr al-Kheir was hung upside down and beaten on his hands, his stomach, his head and his face in order to extract a confession for which he is now at risk of execution. The Minister also knows that we have repeatedly heard how the Saudi authorities use torture in order to prove guilt. I have a very simple question that does not require the Minister to understand further what is going on: do the Government accept that Saudi Arabia uses torture, as all the international non-governmental organisations that have reported on the matter have said? If so, what do they propose to say about that?

We have already expressed our concerns, particularly about Mr al-Kheir’s case, in which clearly torture was used. We find that abhorrent. We have raised that issue at the highest level and will continue to do so, not just in his case but in other cases in which that might be happening as well.[Official Report, 2 December 2022, Vol. 723, c. 12MC.]

I add my voice to those calling for a halt to the execution of Hussein Abo al-Kheir and others who are facing execution for drug offences. I would also like to mention the excellent work that Reprieve does in this area.

May I raise another case with the Minister? The UN working group on arbitrary detention has determined that a child defendant, Abdullah al-Howaiti, who was arrested and tortured into providing a false confession at the age of just 14, is being held without legal basis and should be released immediately. Has his case been raised with the Saudi Government? Will the Minister and the Foreign Office put their support behind the determination of the United Nations?

If the hon. and learned Lady is happy to meet me after this urgent question, I will gladly follow up on that particular case. On the broader point about death penalties for juveniles, the Government raise concerns regarding juvenile death penalty defendants as a matter of priority with the Saudi authorities. The British embassy in Riyadh closely monitors the cases of all known juvenile death penalty defendants and regularly attempts to attend their trials. If the hon. and learned Lady has a minute after this, I will gladly follow up directly with her.

I am afraid that Saudi Arabia has form in carrying out executions when it thinks that the world is distracted and is not looking, as it did in 2016 with the mass executions early in the new year. Past Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries have publicly raised the cases of those facing execution in Saudi Arabia and have helped to save lives, as I did in the cases of Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher. Will the Minister do the same today and call for Saudi Arabia to halt the execution of Hussein Abo al-Kheir and others who are facing execution for drug offences?

We join in that call. We abhor the use of the death penalty, and we speak out against it not just in the case of Saudi Arabia, but in the case of all countries that continue to use it, particularly in situations relating to drug penalties and drug crimes. We will continue to speak out: we need to call this out.