Saudi Arabia: The death sentences hanging over six young men should worry supporters of our alliance with the kingdom

With British officialdom so reluctant to say anything that might ruffle this gruesome regime’s feathers, it is up to the rest of us to make our dismay about the case of these six young men heard

The dreadful fate awaiting six young Saudis – condemned to death in 2011 for terrorism and whose sentences were confirmed in October – should disturb and indeed shame all those who continue to defend our close alliance to this despotic country. A letter that we publish today from the mothers of the six youths, and from the mother of a prominent cleric who has also been sentenced to death, notes that the new year marked the point at which their children had spent almost four years behind bars. 

They have also been held in solitary confinement for 90 days now, following confirmation of the verdicts, and “could be beheaded at any moment”, the mothers write, thanking campaigners in the outside world for the interest they have taken in the case, which they say could yet “help save our children from death”.

We hope the mother’s optimism is well founded and that clemency prevails, although if it does, it will hardly be because of anything that our own Government has done. This is, after all, the same government that grovellingly ordered the Union Flag to be flown at half-mast last year following the death of the late King Abdullah.

Fans of the British connection with Saudi Arabia will be quick to point out that the six men were sentenced to death for terrorism, which might suggest that the government in Riyadh has done us all a favour by putting terrorists out of harm’s way. Closer examination of the case, however, which a number of human rights groups have undertaken, suggests the six could not have been less like the Paris bombers and that their only real crime was to protest against the Sunni monarchy’s highly discriminatory policy against the country’s Shia minority, to which they belong.

Were this Iran, or some other less favoured country, the Foreign Office might well have something to say about the matter but, this being Saudi Arabia, the great rock on which British foreign policy in the Middle East has  long rested, the result has been virtual silence. Using less than robust language, the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, last October confined himself to saying that he did “not expect” one of the youngest of those accused, Ali al-Nimr, to be executed.

That month, the Ministry of Justice did drop its contract to train prison staff in Saudi Arabia but that decision was hardly taken voluntarily and was initially opposed by the Prime Minister, David Cameron – and a sudden change of heart on the ministry’s part followed a sustained campaign which, to his credit, the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, lent backing. 

It is worth remembering that three of the six activists were handed the death penalty for crimes committed while they were children,  and that they have also since said that they were tortured into making confessions.

It would be one thing if the case of these six men was an isolated one – the fruit of complex local or religious feuds that we cannot understand and should not interfere with, but this is far from the case.The justice system of our principal ally in the Middle East is if anything getting worse rather than better, with the authorities making ample use of a proclaimed “war on terrorism” to deal with their enemies as they think fit. More than 150 people were executed in 2015, a sharp rise on the 88 executed in 2014. 

With British officialdom so reluctant to say anything that might ruffle this gruesome regime’s feathers, it is up to the rest of us to make our dismay about the case of these six young men heard.

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