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Saudi Arabia’s Execution of Hussein Abo al-Kheir

Volume 729: debated on Thursday 16 March 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on Saudi Arabia’s execution of Hussein Abo al-Kheir.

Saudi Arabia, of course, remains a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office human rights priority country, in part because of the continued use of the death penalty. It is 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 UK Government have consistently raised the issue of the death penalty, including the case of Jordanian national Mr Hussein Abo al-Kheir, with the Saudi authorities. The Minister for the middle east and north Africa and for human rights, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, has actively raised concerns about the death penalty and the specific case of Mr al-Kheir with the Saudi authorities on multiple occasions, including doing so with the president of the Saudi Human Rights Commission in December 2022 and when he visited the kingdom in February 2023. Lord Ahmad also raised the case with the Saudi ambassador to the UK, including in November 2022 and in January of this year.

On learning about the imminency of the execution, which took place on Saturday 11 March, Lord Ahmad again spoke to the president of the Saudi HRC, the Saudi vice-Foreign Minister and the Saudi ambassador. 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. We will continue to discuss human rights and the death penalty, including individual cases of concern, with the Saudi authorities.

Hussein Abo al-Kheir had been on death row since 2015. He had been tortured into a false confession and always maintained his innocence. When I was told this weekend that his execution was imminent, I urgently wrote to the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the junior Minister, Lord Ahmad, the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the Saudi ambassador to the UK, calling for intervention to prevent Hussein’s execution—I received no formal reply, although I understand that a letter has arrived in my office since I have been in the Chamber. Hussein was subsequently executed. A response given on Tuesday to questions from the Father of the House appeared to suggest that, despite my representations, only low-level attempts were made to talk to the Saudis over the weekend. In 2015, the Foreign Secretary’s predecessor, Philip Hammond, intervened himself, successfully, to prevent the execution of a Saudi youth activist, and he prevented many more executions by so doing; that intervention saved Ali’s life. I firmly believe that a stronger intervention over the weekend could have saved Hussein’s life and perhaps more to come.

Saudi Arabia continues to be one of the most prolific users of the death penalty, killing more than 130 individuals in 2022. Since 1 March this year, the Kingdom has executed 11 people, including for non-violent drug offences. That goes against Saudi Arabia’s informal moratorium on the use of the death penalty for drug-related offences. Being soft with totalitarian states comes back to bite us, as we know from the Russian example. We must make it clear to our ally that it must abide by international standards of civilised behaviour; doing so might just save the lives of those who remain on death row.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for describing the number of letters he has sent and pointing out that a response has been had. I am pleased that that is the case. I assure him that a range of interventions were made, as I described, at the most senior level by Lord Ahmad. That describes the energy with which he has made these representations, so we can be confident that a great deal of energy was expended in that effort. Of course, we cannot speculate as to the particulars of the case. My right hon. Friend mentioned the apparent spike in cases. Again, it might not be useful to speculate, but it might be that a pre-Ramadan surge of cases is adding to the apparent uptick. I understand that the moratorium relates to drug use rather than drug smuggling, and this case pertained to an allegation of and conviction for smuggling rather than use, which I think is relevant. It is not useful to speculate further on the particulars of this case, but we do make clear our continued opposition to the use of the death penalty, and our close working relationship with the Saudi authorities allows us to do just that in a way that allows us to appeal for clemency.

I thank the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for his characteristic defence of these principles in the House and for securing this urgent question.

On behalf of the Labour party, I extend my condolence to the family of Hussein Abo al-Kheir, a Jordanian national who leaves behind eight children. Labour stands unequivocally against the death penalty wherever it is used in the world. The taking of human life as punishment, regardless of the crime, is a gross breach of a person’s human rights.

Mr al-Kheir was arrested in 2014 for alleged drug smuggling; however, because there was no proper trial with a proper defence and he had no legal advice, it is very difficult to know the exact detail of the case. He consistently denied the charges. While he was in custody, he was allegedly so severely beaten and tortured that he lost his eyesight. Moreover, he was denied basic due process and was unable to instruct a lawyer throughout his time in custody. Despite interventions from the Government and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, his execution went ahead on Sunday.

I reiterate the point made earlier: has the UK become less robust on the question of human rights in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since 2015? Saudi Arabia is a founding member of the Arab League, which is bound by the Arab charter of human rights; what urgent actions are the Government taking to ensure that our partners comply with the Arab League and its human rights charter?

In the run-up to Ramadan, what extra measures are the Government taking to open dialogue with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, so that we can avoid a repeat of last year’s execution of 100 people? In the strategic dialogue with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, will the Minister press for the value of the sanctity of human life, a principle that we in this House all agree on?

I join the hon. Lady in vocally opposing the death penalty. That is at the core of all our diplomatic work so we entirely share that view. As she said, we do not know the exact details of this case, so it is not useful to speculate, but we can be sure that we continue to engage through our mission in Riyadh and other multilateral channels.

To answer the hon. Lady’s question directly, we are certainly no less robust than we were previously in our absolute determination to oppose the death penalty around the world, and at bilateral fora as well as multilateral fora. She mentioned the Arab League and the advent of Ramadan; that gives us even more urgency in the representations we make. We will continue to press and engage at the multilateral and bilateral level to oppose this practice.

Will the Government learn from this tragic case the lesson that in dealing with Saudi Arabia an energetic junior Minister is an inadequate substitute for the real thing—either the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary? Does the history not show that we have made a big mistake in not putting up our top team?

I think history shows that energetic junior Ministers can make a difference in terms of building relationships, but of course our alliance with Saudi Arabia is of such import that it merits a great deal of senior attention, which is why it gets it.

We on the SNP Benches pass on our condolences to the family of Mr al-Kheir. No matter what alleged crimes may have been committed, the SNP is unequivocally against capital punishment.

Exactly a year ago, the Saudi regime executed 81 men in a single day, and Saudi’s international partners, including this one, issued empty statements about the importance of human rights. Yet again, this morning the Minister has at times sounded like a Saudi Government spokesperson.

Mr al-Kheir was charged with drug offences, but the UN working group on arbitrary detention found that his detention lacked legal basis. For too long the Government have been content to disregard the Saudi regime’s appalling human rights record in the name of £2.8 billion-worth of arms exports since 2019. The Saudi’s UK-made warplanes, bombs and missiles are playing a central role in the Saudi-led coalition’s attacks on Yemen. We have called many times for that to cease. What will it take for that to end?

Finally, Mr al-Kheir’s case was raised in the House of Commons in November, when the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) stated that the Saudi authorities had “clearly” tortured him and described his treatment as “abhorrent”. The following week, the Under-Secretary of State asked for his words to be struck from the record, saying that he had spoken in error. Will the Minister guarantee that everything that is put on the record will stay there and that UK Ministers will not bow down to pressure from the Saudi Government?

I join the hon. Gentleman in his opposition to the death penalty. We are all agreed on that—we are unequivocal. He mentions human rights in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and I can assure him that that is at the core of our sustained and continued bilateral engagement. He mentions the words of the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), on a previous occasion in this House. It is important to note that he did correct the record subsequently.

This barbaric execution was in breach of the Saudi authorities’ commitment to stop using the death penalty in drugs cases. They have also promised to stop executing minors, but Abdullah al-Howaiti was 14 when he was arrested and tortured, and 17 when he was sentenced to death. If his sentence is upheld soon, he could be executed at any time. We have heard from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) how the Government intervened successfully in the case of another minor. Will the Government now make representations, through the Foreign Secretary, to try to save Abdullah’s life?

The right hon. Gentleman mentions the moratorium. My understanding is that that was for the use of drugs, not the smuggling of drugs. That is important to note, I think. He mentions the individual case of a minor. I am very pleased to give him an assurance that I will ask my ministerial colleague Lord Ahmad to follow that up and write to him with an update on that particularly alarming case.

Forgive me if I am a little irritated, but this feels like human rights for slow learners. Surely it makes no difference whether it is for the smuggling or for the use of drugs—the death penalty should not be tolerated. Since 2015, we have not had a single public condemnation or appeal from a Prime Minister or a Foreign Secretary in relation to a Saudi death penalty case. Is that as a result of a change of policy? I have to say to the Minister that I suspect that the Saudi Arabians actually know that we do not like the use of the death penalty. They are not embarrassed by private representations, but they might be embarrassed by public representations, which have made a difference in the past.

Why did the Foreign Secretary not make representations to stop this execution, given that that approach has succeeded in the past?

I have described the fact that energetic ministerial attention was given to this. I cannot speculate on whether or not the Foreign Secretary was made aware of the particular calls that were being made and the particular level of engagement, but his concern and interest in this is surely undoubted.

Has the Minister considered any human rights or wider implications for diplomacy following the Saudi-Iran deal brokered by China in the past few days?

We watch this with interest and we applaud diplomatic progress in all its forms. I think this points to the crucial role that Saudi Arabia has as a responsible actor and as a nation that wants to maintain peace and stability in the Gulf region. That is why it is a particularly valued partner.

The execution of Mr al-Kheir by the Saudi regime after reports of a forced confession to drug offences is an outrage. Given that this is a regime that publicly flogs, beheads or crucifies those convicted of the so-called crime of homosexuality, we should hardly be surprised by this latest horror. Is the Minister proud that this blood-soaked regime, which has no regard for human rights, is the UK’s biggest arms customer, with £2.8 billion- worth of arms licences approved for sale to the Saudis since 2019 by the UK Government?

We are proud that we continue very energetically to advocate for the advancement of human rights in Saudi Arabia, and our particularly close relationship with the Saudi Arabians allows us to do that. If we did not have a close relationship, we would not be able to help the Saudi Arabians advance human rights in their own country, so it is for the benefit of both sides.

I send my condolences to Mr al-Kheir’s family. Concerns have been raised that Saudi Arabia is using the death penalty to silence dissidents and protesters convicted of non-lethal offences, while claiming publicly to be applying the penalty only to murder. What conversations have Ministers had around the misinformation that is being spread to the international community regarding that?

I do not think that we can usefully speculate about that— the intent of the use of that. It is useless to speculate. But we do continue to engage to argue against the use of the death penalty. That is our long-standing position and we continue to make that point to our interlocutors.

I thank the Minister for his responses to the questions. In 2015, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, publicly called on the Saudi Arabian authorities to prevent the execution of a child defendant called Ali al-Nimr. Ali at that time was spared the death penalty and was released in 2021. Intervention on that occasion worked well and saved a life. Since 2015, the UK Government—I say this very respectfully—have failed to speak out publicly about similar cases. Can the Minister confirm whether there has been a change of policy not to raise these cases publicly?

Our policy is unchanged. We resolutely continue to oppose the death penalty. We make that very clear. That has been our long-standing policy position and that continues to be the case.

It is, Mr Speaker.

I am sure that, inadvertently, the Minister has not quite led the House properly. The agreement on drug offences was on all drug offences, not simply taking drugs.