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Saudi Arabia: Mass Execution

Volume 820: debated on Monday 14 March 2022

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the mass execution of 81 people in Saudi Arabia on Saturday 12 March, and whether they will make representations over the planned execution of children.

My Lords, we are deeply concerned by the execution of 81 individuals on 12 March. The United Kingdom strongly opposes the death penalty in all countries and in all circumstances as a matter of principle. The UK ambassador has already raised the UK’s strong concerns with the Saudi national security adviser and its Deputy Foreign Minister. Her Majesty’s Government regularly raise concerns with Saudi authorities regarding juvenile death penalty applications. The British Embassy in Riyadh closely monitors all juvenile death penalty cases, and routinely attempts to attend trials.

My Lords, Saturday’s massacre is the largest execution in Saudi Arabia’s history. The Ministry of Interior, in explaining, said that it

“will not hesitate to deter anyone who threatens security or disrupts public life”,

demonstrating just how low the bar is for execution in that country. Child defendants remain on death row, despite the Saudis’ promises to end the death penalty for minors. Abdullah al-Howaiti, a child defendant, is at particular risk. I understand that the public prosecutor continues to seek the death penalty for him. It is reported that the Prime Minister will meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman this week. If that is the case, will the noble Earl confirm that the Prime Minister will put the United Kingdom’s commitment to human rights above any trade deal premised on acquiescence to bloodshed?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raises the issue of the juvenile death penalty. As I said in my earlier Answer, the British embassy at Riyadh closely monitors all juvenile death penalty defendants and regularly attempts to attend their trials. In April 2020, the Saudi Human Rights Commission announced a moratorium on death penalty sentences for individuals who committed discretionary crimes of violence. The noble Lord also mentioned our engagement with the Saudi Arabian Government, and I can say that engagement carries on, at all levels and at every opportunity. At every opportunity in the future, we will continue to raise issues relating to the use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.

My Lords, the Government’s last human rights report highlighted what they considered to be real progress by Saudi Arabia on the use of the death penalty, but that has now been horrifically reversed. Indeed, the Government’s own human rights report singled out that Saudi Arabia does not allow external witnesses to its trials. Last week, the noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, and officials were offering Saudi Arabia greater market access to our aerospace industry and now we are in negotiations to offer it preferential access to the City of London. Will the Government give an indication that they are not just concerned about this but will remove preferential market access for Saudi Arabia in the UK economy for grievous and horrific human rights abuses?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right in how he has described these abuses, and I was personally shocked to read the news over the weekend about the execution of 81 individuals. The noble Lord also mentioned human rights: yes, we are particularly concerned over a variety of human rights issues relating to arrest and the continued detention of individuals, and my noble friend Lord Ahmad raises this on all levels. All these issues are always under review. We have a very close relationship with Saudi Arabia and this enables us to have full and frank discussions over these issues.

My Lords, is the Minister able to say in which areas of concern the Government have been successful in exerting their influence?

My Lords, there are a number of areas where there has been successful engagement with Saudi Arabia—for example, in relation to women’s rights. The UK has consistently called for women in Saudi Arabia to be able to participate fully in society. Since 2018, women’s rights and empowerment have improved significantly.

My Lords, does the Minister share my concern that the Government seem to be running away from trade deals with our European partners, who share our love of democracy and freedom, and are rushing into trade deals with bloodthirsty dictators?

My Lords, it is important to have trade deals throughout the international community. At the moment, with the issues relating to insecure energy supplies, it is particularly important that we keep talking to our close allies across the world.

My Lords, I accept what my noble friend just said. He told us that the ambassador in Riyadh had seen Saudi Ministers, but has the Saudi ambassador in London been summoned to the Foreign Office?

My Lords, I am unsure about the answer to that question; I will get further information to my noble friend. The engagement that we continue to have with the Saudi Government is extensive. Over the last six months, my noble friend Lord Ahmad has visited Saudi and has also had a meeting with Saudi Ministers here in London. Those continual engagements enable us to have these serious conversations.

My Lords, do not these executions—there were 67 in 2021, 27 in 2020 and now these 81—demonstrate a horrific and rather brutal pattern? Sometimes these executions are carried out using the sword, and crucifixion has even been used. The mortal remains of those who have been executed are put on public display. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, even children have been involved. Will the noble Earl undertake to speak to his colleagues in the Foreign Office about engaging scholars at Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo to see whether we can engage people who are academics and have a firm belief in civilised values, so that we can hear Muslim voices being raised against this barbarism?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the point he makes. I will of course pass it on to my noble friend Lord Ahmad, and his office will no doubt investigate it further.

My Lords, will the noble Earl give us a specific undertaking that the Prime Minister, if he sees Mohammad bin Salman in the coming days, will raise this topic and these concerns with him? We all recognise the importance of oil and energy in the present global crisis over Ukraine, but that cannot be a reason for failing to raise these very grave abuses with the man with the greatest authority in that country.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an excellent point, as the whole issue of these executions is at the forefront of our minds, and we continually raise the use of the death penalty at any meetings that take place. We will certainly do so at any meetings in the near or immediate future.

My Lords, has the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate-general in Istanbul been explained, and have those responsible been held accountable to the satisfaction of Her Majesty’s Government?

My Lords, the United Kingdom has always been clear that Khashoggi’s murder was a terrible crime. We condemn his killing in the strongest possible terms, which is why we have sanctioned 20 Saudi nationals involved in the murder under the global human rights regime. The former Foreign Secretary raised the issue during his visit to Riyadh in March 2020. We have consistently set out our grave concerns, both publicly and privately.

My Lords, on human rights in general, and the rights of children in Saudi Arabia, can the noble Earl assure us that the rights of children are being explored? I do not think that I am the only one in the House who feels that this was very cynically undertaken this weekend, as there was a hope that it would be hidden away.

I thank the right reverend Prelate for that question and bringing to our attention the issue of juveniles. However, I find it difficult to believe that, even with what is happening around the world, anybody would be able to hide what has happened over the weekend.

My Lords, would it be totally inaccurate to characterise the Government’s attitude as, “These executions are unfortunate, but other considerations transcend them”? I am afraid the Minister has been very disappointing this afternoon. Surely we can be more effective; we can push the Government of Saudi a bit harder. Would we perhaps be more effective if we worked in conjunction with our European friends and had an agreed approach to Saudi? Are the Government thinking of doing that?

My Lords, I am afraid the noble Lord is inaccurate. If he had had only three-quarters of an hour to prepare for this, he might have the same difficulty with it. It is quite clear that we engage very strongly. I know that noble Lords will think, “Oh, he is repeating the same line again”, but the fact is that we do have very strong relationships with and are a strong ally of Saudi Arabia. The fact that we are in that position means that we can have these full and frank discussions.

My Lords, will the Minister tell us whether his Government are considering sanctions against those who have been involved in the execution of children?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness knows, we always keep the issues relating to sanctions under review, and I would not want to pre-empt anything that could happen in the future.

Does the Minister accept that it is not very reassuring to be told frequently, as we have been in his replies today, that there are ongoing and close discussions with the Saudis on these issues, and that it is the relationship we have with the Saudi Government that enables us to have these endless full and frank discussions on human rights issues? Is it not a disturbing fact that these full and frank discussions seem to have had no effect at all on the behaviour of the Saudi Government?

My Lords, all I can say to the noble Lord is that the situation is indeed dire, in so far as 81 people have been executed over the weekend—as I said, I was personally shocked—and it is a matter that we are following up at the highest level.

My Lords, the noble Earl has twice failed to answer direct questions from my noble friends Lord Collins and Lord Liddle. Will the Prime Minister raise these issues in his discussions? If the noble Earl does not know the answer, will he say whether he would do so himself were he in the Prime Minister’s position?

Luckily, I am not in his position, but I think I did answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. I said to him that, if such meetings happen in the future—I am sure there will be some in the immediate future—these issues will be raised at the highest level.

My Lords, will the Government publish a full report on the judicial and security assistance that the UK provides to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and can the Minister assure us now that none of that assistance played any role in the imposition or execution of these death penalties?

My Lords, the noble Baroness asks a very important question. I do not have any detail relating to that, so I will write to her.

My Lords, it seems to me that the Government need to look for levers to reinforce to the Saudi Administration that this sort of activity and behaviour is simply unacceptable to this country. Maybe if in future we did not allow sports-washing to make a regime sound legitimate, helpful and interested in our culture, the Saudis would learn the lessons. What is happening at Chelsea might be brought home to them, so that they understand that there are consequences for how they behave that will be played out here so that our culture is not subverted in that way.

The noble Baroness makes some really good points as far as sport is concerned and how important it is. She might have been referring to the purchase of Newcastle United. As she is aware, the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund is a significant investor there; it operates across a wide sector. We welcome the PIF’s purchase of Newcastle United, but we never had a role at any point in the club’s prospective takeover. This has been a commercial matter for the Premier League, but the noble Baroness makes some good points relating to culture.