Labour has written to Justice Secretary Michael Gove demanding that the agreement signed between the UK and Saudi Arabian governments over judicial cooperation be published and abolished following the mass execution of 47 people in the Gulf state on Friday.
The ‘memorandum of understanding’ – signed in September 2014 – tied the two countries into cooperating on judicial matters and Downing Street confirmed that the cooperation continues, despite Mr Gove cancelling the Government’s £6m prison training contract with Saudi Arabia last October.
Ministers are reluctant to cut ties with such a powerful ally in the Middle East and the Prime Minister's spokeswoman said maintaining on-going relations with Saudi Arabia was important in order to be able to raise concerns over human rights abuses.
But in an open letter to Mr Gove, Andy Slaughter, shadow human rights minister, said the mass executions on Saturday was proof that cancelling the prisons contract had “no effect” on pressurising Saudi Arabia to reform its hard-line justice system.
He said it would be “inappropriate” for the UK “to be seen to be cooperating with the Saudi justice system” and told him to release the yet-unpublished memorandum of understanding.
“Serious concerns have been raised not only about the sentences and the manner in which the executions were carried out but also whether due process has been followed and whether the defendants received a fair trial,” Mr Slaughter added in the open letter to Mr Gove.
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.
David Cameron finally broke his silence over the mass executions after being heavily criticised for his "shameful" and "extraordinary" failure to condemn the killings, which included the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
Asked for the Prime Minister's reaction, his spokeswoman said: “The Government has set out its position clearly over the weekend and that we’re opposed to the use of the death penalty under any circumstances.”
The spokeswoman added: “We have a range of bilateral cooperation with Saudi Arabia and that continues.
“We have broad areas of cooperation where we would work in line with many governments around the world to look at how we can advance our interests and to help with the development of other countries’ judicial systems."
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “No work has been undertaken by the Ministry of Justice as a result of the Memorandum of Understanding."
Here is the letter in full:
You may be aware of my interest in the Memorandum of Understanding on Judicial Cooperation between the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia signed on 10 September 2014 by your predecessor, Chris Grayling, and the Saudi Minister of Justice.
Thus far your department has declined to publish the Memorandum but, in response to Parliamentary Questions tabled by me in October 2015, Dominic Raab confirmed ‘initial exploratory discussions’ have taken place on judicial cooperation with Saudi Arabia and that these are ‘ongoing’ via the British Embassy in Riyadh. (WPQs 13724 and 12217 refer).
In the light of recent events, in particular the execution on 1 January of 47 Saudi and foreign nationals by beheading at various prison sites in Saudi Arabia, I hope you agree with me that it would be inappropriate at present for the UK to be seen to be cooperating with the Saudi justice system.
Serious concerns have been raised not only about the sentences and the manner in which the executions were carried out but also whether due process has been followed and whether the defendants received a fair trial.
In particular, the execution of Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr and three young Shia men whose offences appear to be taking part in political protests and demonstrations against the current government have caused dismay and outrage around the world.
I would be grateful if you could confirm:
• Whether discussions are still taking place between UK and Saudi officials under the terms of the Memorandum, and if so what those discussion entail?
• Whether you think it appropriate now to suspend any cooperation on judicial matters with Saudi Arabia in the light of the recent executions?
• Whether you will now publish the Memorandum so a better-informed discussion of this country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia on judicial matters can take place?
Your measured response to the Urgent Question I tabled on 13 October 2015, and your decision to withdraw from the prison contract with Saudi Arabia and disband the MoJ unit that negotiated it was widely praised and appreciated. It contrasted however with the Foreign Secretary’s statement to Al Arabiya News in Bahrain on 1 November that the status of British-Saudi relations was ‘business as usual’ and that he ‘would have preferred the contract with Saudi Arabia to have been entered into as a sign of good faith’.
To clarify the UK Government’s position I urge you to take the further steps I have suggested, especially given the recent actions of the Saudi justice system.
Finally, you will also be aware that the Leader of the Opposition has requested the Prime Minister on several occasions to seek assurances from the Saudi authorities that sentence of death will not be carried out on Ali Al-Nimr, Dawood Al-Marhoon and Abdallah Al-Zaher, who were minors at the time of their alleged offences. Although this is primarily a matter for the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, I hope that you will also make what representations you can to your opposite number in Riyadh on behalf of these three young men.
Andy Slaughter MP
Shadow Minister for Human Rights
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- Saudi Arabia
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- Michael Gove
- Justice Secretary Michael Gove
- Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr