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Raif Badawi

Volume 758: debated on Tuesday 20 January 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the government of Saudi Arabia regarding freedom of speech in the light of the sentence passed on Raif Badawi.

My Lords, we are seriously concerned by Raif Badawi’s case. The UK condemns the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment in all circumstances. We have recently raised Mr Badawi’s case at a senior level with the Saudi authorities. The UK is a strong supporter of freedom of expression around the world. We have raised a range of human rights issues with the Saudi authorities, including the right to freedom of expression.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Before I ask my supplementary question, I need to declare that as vice-president of Liberal International I have worked with the Saudi Liberal Forum, although not Mr Badawi himself. Mr Badawi was imprisoned for such innocuous sentiments as saying that secularism is,

“the most important refuge for citizens of a country”.

His lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, has been sentenced for breaking allegiance to the ruler. As a Muslim I do not recognise either of these so-called offences as being against Islam. Does the Minister agree that the Saudi tweeter who said:

“It’s religious extremism that deserves punishment because it’s what brought us the Islamic State and not liberalism which fights extremism”,

has captured the essence of the argument rather better than the Saudi authorities? Can she tell the House whether the United Kingdom Government have offered political asylum to either Mr Badawi or his lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair?

May I deal with the question about asylum, raised by my noble friend at the end? Clearly, as the House will appreciate, all applications for asylum are considered on an individual basis when they are made. As far as I am aware, no such process has been initiated in this case.

My noble friend goes to the heart of the question about our position in this country on freedom of expression. I have made it clear that we condemn the physical punishment which has been applied to Mr Badawi. My noble friend asked more widely for an overview of our position on what has caused terrorism. In Oral Questions, where necessarily I have to be rather succinct, I can say that our view is that Islam itself is not the cause of terrorism. The Saudi authorities are aware of that. We agree with them that it is not Islam that caused it. It is a perversion of the form of Islam outside Saudi Arabia within Syria and Iraq. The Saudis have tried to assist us in the coalition. Clearly, we have different views about how freedom of expression can carry on in different societies. The Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister have made that clear. We continue to make representations about the treatment of human rights defenders and others within Saudi Arabia itself.

My Lords, the world has been deeply shocked by reports of the treatment received by Mr Badawi. We welcome what the Minister has said this afternoon and we welcome, as we understand it, the Government’s intention to raise the issue with the Saudi Arabian Deputy Foreign Minister in London later this week. Surely, the Government have already made representations to the Saudi Arabian Government, pointing out that the treatment is a breach of international human rights law, arguably constituting torture. Do the Government agree with that? Will the Minister please keep the House informed as to the Saudi response?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, goes to the heart of the problem and I am grateful to him. Saudi Arabia has signed up to the convention against torture and is therefore in breach of that. We have made our own representations on that very clear. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made it clear today in the House of Commons that we deplore this kind of corporal punishment being applied and we will continue to make representations at the highest levels. Later this week, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will make representations to the Saudi Government when their representatives are in London to discuss other matters relating to ISIL. I undertake to keep the House informed as and when any progress is made. Certainly, discussions continue and we have co-operated within the EU on matters of démarche on this issue too.

My Lords, on freedom of speech, does the Minister agree that this is not just about freedom of expression but, under Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, about the freedom to believe or not to believe, as in the case of Raif Badawi? In addition to torture, does she not agree that the reported 90 beheadings last year— 10 in this past month alone—in Saudi Arabia are one reason why groups such as Daesh have been able to take the law into their own hands in places such as Syria, emulating what has been done routinely in Saudi Arabia?

My Lords, one of the priorities of the Foreign Office is that the death penalty should be abolished throughout the world. However, it is clear that Saudi Arabia is not yet in a position where it will consider that. Sharia law is part of the very nature of its operations in the judiciary, and therefore we are not going to move to abolition. However, that does not stop us making strong representations about it. The House can be assured that at every opportunity I make the point that the death penalty does not work—quite simply, it is wrong in itself. The more we can explain that to countries around the world, the more we can improve the kind of result that we had in the United Nations vote before Christmas and the more we can persuade other countries to follow the right route, which is to abolish the death penalty.

My Lords, do the Saudi Government claim that the autonomy of their penal code is unqualified? If so, they will not accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, if it is qualified, is there not a procedure whereby they can be taken through a process in the international community?

My Lords, in this respect, as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, hinted, the Saudi Arabian Government have signed up to the convention against torture but they are in breach of that. The United Nations can consider that and take it into account in any action it feels it wishes to take, if any.