The Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has been accused of “coming dangerously close to condoning” the wave of executions of alleged terrorists carried out by Saudi Arabia which have inflamed tensions across the Middle East.
The Government has faced fierce criticism for failing to condemn more forcefully the killing on a single day of 47 prisoners, including the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
To the anger of human rights groups, Mr Hammond yesterday described them as “convicted terrorists”.
The execution of Sheikh Nimr, an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime who denied advocating violence, provoked a diplomatic crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Mr Hammond said on BBC Radio 4 that it was sensible for Britain to “relentlessly” condemn the use of the death penalty but to accept that some countries would not abandon it. Asked if he would offer a tougher condemnation of the executions, he replied: “Let’s be clear that these people were convicted terrorists.”
Pressed on whether the Government treated the Saudi regime “with kid gloves” because of its economic and security importance to the UK, he replied: “It is much more complicated than that.
“We are clear we condemn the use of the death penalty and we make that view very well known.
“But we also understand that Sharia law calls for the use of the death penalty and the reality is however much we lobby countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran... they are not going to end the use of the death penalty.
“So we are much more effective if we focus our lobbying on cases where we might make a difference.”
He said he had urged his Saudi counterpart in talks last year to cancel mass executions and added: “Just for the record, Iran of course executes far more people than Saudi Arabia does.”
In response to The Independent’s disclosure that Saudi Arabia had been omitted from a Foreign Office list of priority countries where it would encourage the abolition of the death penalty, he said: “This was a list, I understand from 2011. We were clear in our most recent human rights report in our condemnation of the use of the death penalty.”
Saudi Arabia’s ambassador recently warned of “potentially serious repercussions” of a breakdown in relations with the UK and complained of a lack of respect for its strict system of Sharia.
Maya Foa, the head of the death penalty team at human rights group Repreive, said Mr Hammond appeared “alarmingly misinformed”.
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
In October 2014, three lawyers, Dr Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bander al-Nogaithan and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih , were sentenced to up to eight years in prison for using Twitter to criticize the Ministry of Justice.
In March 2015, Yemen’s Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was forced into exile after a Shia-led insurgency. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition has responded with air strikes in order to reinstate Mr Hadi. It has since been accused of committing war crimes in the country.
Women who supported the Women2Drive campaign, launched in 2011 to challenge the ban on women driving vehicles, faced harassment and intimidation by the authorities. The government warned that women drivers would face arrest.
Members of the Kingdom’s Shia minority, most of whom live in the oil-rich Eastern Province, continue to face discrimination that limits their access to government services and employment. Activists have received death sentences or long prison terms for their alleged participation in protests in 2011 and 2012.
All public gatherings are prohibited under an order issued by the Interior Ministry in 2011. Those defy the ban face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as “inciting people against the authorities”.
In March 2014, the Interior Ministry stated that authorities had deported over 370,000 foreign migrants and that 18,000 others were in detention. Thousands of workers were returned to Somalia and other states where they were at risk of human rights abuses, with large numbers also returned to Yemen, in order to open more jobs to Saudi Arabians. Many migrants reported that prior to their deportation they had been packed into overcrowded makeshift detention facilities where they received little food and water and were abused by guards.
The Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny access to independent human rights organisations like Amnesty International, and they have been known to take punitive action, including through the courts, against activists and family members of victims who contact Amnesty.
Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for using his liberal blog to criticise Saudi Arabia’s clerics. He has already received 50 lashes, which have reportedly left him in poor health.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Dawood al-Marhoon was arrested aged 17 for participating in an anti-government protest. After refusing to spy on his fellow protestors, he was tortured and forced to sign a blank document that would later contain his ‘confession’. At Dawood’s trial, the prosecution requested death by crucifixion while refusing him a lawyer.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 aged either 16 or 17 for participating in protests during the Arab spring. His sentence includes beheading and crucifixion. The international community has spoken out against the punishment and has called on Saudi Arabia to stop. He is the nephew of a prominent government dissident.
She said: “Far from being ‘terrorists’, at least four of those killed were arrested after protests calling for reform and were convicted in shockingly unfair trials.
“The Saudi government is clearly using the death penalty, alongside torture and secret courts, to punish political dissent. By refusing to condemn these executions and parroting the Saudis’ propaganda, labelling those killed as ‘terrorists’, Mr Hammond is coming dangerously close to condoning Saudi Arabia’s approach.”
Amnesty UK’s head of policy and government affairs Allan Hogarth said: ”Contrary to what Mr Hammond says, there is nothing complicated about this. The death penalty is wrong in all circumstances – no ifs or buts – and that’s a universal principle to which the UK claims to subscribe.”
Philip Hammond (left), with Defence Secretary Michael Fallon in Japan yesterday, called the executed men ‘convicted terrorists’ EPA