The UK Foreign Secretary has been accused of “parroting Saudi Arabian propaganda” after he refused to condemn the mass execution of 47 people in the conservative kingdom.
The government says it has expressed its “disappointment” at the killings, which included a prominent Shia cleric and sparked a diplomatic fallout across the Middle East.
Appearing on the BBC's Today programme, Philip Hammond was asked if Britain was willing to be “more robust” in denouncing the actions of its ally.
But he instead preferred to point to the fact that Iran “executes far more people than Saudi Arabia does”, and said: “Let us be clear, first of all, that these people were convicted terrorists.”
According to rights groups, at least four of the 47 were arrested and killed in relation to political protests, including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr himself.
But when this was put to Mr Hammond, he suggested there was no point objecting to all Saudi executions because “Sharia law calls for the use of the death penalty and however much we lobby countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran… they are not going to end its use”.
The Foreign Secretary also revealed that he spoke to his Saudi Arabian counterpart in December about reports in this newspaper and others that a mass execution was about to take place. “I urged him that they should not go ahead,” he said, but to no avail.
Human rights groups said it was “appalling” that Mr Hammond refused to go beyond the standard assertion that the UK “does not support the death penalty under any circumstances”.
Maya Foa, head of the death penalty team at Reprieve, said the minister appeared to be “alarmingly misinformed about the mass executions”, repeating the Saudi crown prince’s line from an interview with the Economist where he described all those killed as “terrorists”.
“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.”
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 Mepham, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, told the Huffington Post that “British policy on Saudi Arabia has reached a new low”.
“It is appalling that Phillip Hammond refused to condemn the mass beheadings that took place in Saudi on January 2, including the execution of the prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
“Yet pressed on the case in this morning’s BBC interview, the Foreign Secretary chose not to criticise Saudi executions but rather to contextualise, explain and seemingly excuse them.”
Reprieve said its figures showed that of the 158 people killed by the Saudi state in 2015, 72 per cent were convicted of non-lethal offenses such as political protest or drug-related crimes.
It added that, despite Mr Hammond’s “welcome” lobbying on their behalves, three juvenile offenders – Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher – remain on death row “and could be executed at any time”.Reuse content