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Professor Mohammed Al-Mas'ari

Volume 571: debated on Monday 29 April 1996

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2.54 p.m.

What decision they have now made on the substantive application for political asylum by Professor Mohammed al-Mas'ari.

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has decided that Dr. al-Mas'ari should be given leave to remain for an initial period of four years.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that Dr. al-Mas'ari is outside his country of origin and that he does have a well founded fear of persecution in Saudi Arabia within the meaning of the United Nations Convention on Refugees? If so, what criterion does he lack that would have enabled the Home Secretary to grant him full refugee status?

My Lords, I cannot confirm that. The noble Lord himself knows that this case has not been considered substantively. Our obligation is to ensure that a person is not returned to a country in which he has a well founded fear of persecution. We have not determined whether Dr. al-Mas'ari does have a fear of persecution and we do not know whether it is well founded. But since we do not seek to return him to a country in which he claims he would be unsafe, we cannot possibly be in breach of our obligations under international law.

My Lords, are the Government considering some additional legislation to require those to whom asylum is accorded to refrain from using this country as a base for hostile actions or propaganda against another country with which normal diplomatic relations exist?

My Lords, perhaps I may refer to what the Prime Minister said when he was returning from the summit at Sharm el-Sheikh in March. He said that we were determined to take steps to ensure that those who foster terrorism and conditions in which it can flourish should not benefit from the protection of the refugee convention. He went on to say that we are also looking at the scope for extending offences relating to incitement and conspiracy, so that they apply to a wider range of acts to be committed overseas.

My Lords, as a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, may I slightly rephrase the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy? Will the Government give an assurance that, while respecting the judgment of the courts, they take every possible action to protect our very important political, financial, commercial and strategic interests in Saudi Arabia?

My Lords, I take absolutely the sentiment underlying the comments of the noble Lord. The relationship between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia remains close and strong. It is a valued friend and ally. Saudi Arabia continues to play a vital role in maintaining stability in the Middle East. The strength of its economy and its role as an oil producer remain important to the economic health of the industrialised world.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Professor al-Mas'ari has always underlined his commitment to peaceful reform in his country of origin? To refer in this context to the Prime Minister's statement at Sharm el-Sheikh, when he was speaking about terrorism and incitement to conspiracy, which are criminal offences under our law, is therefore grossly misleading and has no relevance in the terms of the Question. With regard to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, does she agree that it would be impossible to discriminate against refugees by applying restrictions on their freedom of expression which do not apply to our own citizens?

My Lords, I do not believe that I misled the House in any of the answers that I have made at the Dispatch Box. We are concerned about our relationships with the Saudi Arabians. We believe that those relationships are important and we do not believe that they should be put at risk. But that is not helped by Dr. al-Mas'ari himself, who openly declares that he is trying to bring down the Saudi Arabian Government. We are simply concerned, in whatever activities he undertakes—so far I have no grounds for saying that he is acting illegally—that he does not put at risk a very special relationship that we have with Saudi Arabia.

My Lords, will the Government deport this individual if it can be determined that he has organised acts of terrorism using the UK as a safe haven?

My Lords, if that were the case, we should have resort to other powers under the United Nations convention of 1951. We do not have an extradition treaty with Saudi Arabia. The tests for extradition are very strong indeed but the provisions of the refugee convention do not preclude extradition of persons whose actions are such that they no longer merit the protection of the convention.

My Lords, in the light of the last question put by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is my noble friend aware that the perpetrator of the National Guard bombing in Riyadh has admitted to being the disseminator of al-Mas'ari's faxes?

My Lords, it is just that sort of activity that caused us anxiety over this gentleman. Should evidence of any activity which damages security be forthcoming, we would consider it carefully.

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that another issue is involved in this matter? We should not be concentrating solely on whether or not we believe that the activities of Mohammed al-Mas'ari will do our country damage; we should be concentrating on the fact that when someone is given asylum he becomes a guest and that guest has a duty in return for the hospitality given. That is widely recognised in every country. We should approach this matter in terms of expecting those who receive asylum from us to consider our interests because they have now become guests of our country. It is wrong that we should spend all this time urging commercial interests—though they are important—when there is a simple issue of the duty of a guest to return honest and decent behaviour for hospitality.

My Lords, I know that a great deal of sympathy—which I share—is felt for what has been said by my noble friend. We have international obligations, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, under the convention that if asylum and/or exceptional leave to remain is granted, the United Kingdom law applies equally. But I repeat that it is a privilege to be given exceptional leave to remain and/or asylum and/or citizenship. It is extremely important that security is not threatened and that our relationships with other countries in the world are not threatened.