Over a dozen British MPs and peers have urged the UK government to stop Saudi Arabia from sentencing a prominent academic to death, as human rights campaigners put pressure on Riyadh to halt capital punishment for non-lethal offences and juvenile crimes.
Saudi scholar Hassan al-Maliki has been behind bars since 2017 on a range of charges, including “conducting interviews with western news outlets” and “owning books” that are “not authorised” by the kingdom.
The father of nine, who has called for a pluralistic Saudi society and political reform, is currently being tried in Saudi Arabia’s specialised criminal court in a case that has been postponed 12 times.
The British rights group Reprieve says he was held incommunicado and in solitary confinement for three months.
The letter, which was signed by 16 MPs and peers and shown to The Independent, demands foreign secretary Liz Truss make “urgent representations ” to Saudi Arabia to ensure that the country’s public prosecutor drops the charges.
“We are deeply concerned that a Saudi public intellectual faces potential execution for thought crimes … Hassan’s execution would mark a huge backwards step in Saudi Arabia’s positive trajectory of reform”, reads the letter, which was signed by MPs and peers including Alistair Carmichael, Peter Bottomley, Caroline Lucas and Baroness D’Souza.
“We therefore ask that you make urgent representations to your counterpart in Saudi Arabia to ensure that the charges against Hassan are dropped, and that a Saudi scholar and historian is not executed for the contents of his library.”
Meanwhile, Reprieve has called on the Saudi authorities to act on promises of reform and ending death sentences for all non-lethal offences, as well as for those sentenced for crimes committed when they were juveniles.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied there are political prisoners behind bars, and has touted its push for judicial reform, including decrees to stop the execution of minors.
The Independent reached out to the Saudi embassy in London for comment but has yet to receive a reply. Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael said threatening Mr al-Maliki with the death penalty for exercising freedom of thought was “an outrage”.
“If Saudi Arabia wants to be taken seriously as a reforming country, then it should at the least be stepping back from such cruel punishments for acts of conscience,” he told The Independent.
“If the UK government wants to be taken seriously as a voice for human rights around the globe, then ministers must raise Hassan’s case at the highest level with the Saudi regime.”
Labour MP Andy Slaughter, who was also a signatory to the letter, told The Independent that the treatment of Mr al-Maliki was “totally incompatible with the reforms espoused by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman”.
“The UK government must stand up for the freedom of expression and make urgent representations to ensure that these trumped-up charges are dropped,” he said.
Jeed Basyouni, from Reprieve, described “a consistent gap between what the Saudi authorities say and what they do with regard to the death penalty”.
“While Mohammed bin Salman poses as a reformer, Hassan faces a death sentence for suggesting similar reforms,” he said.
Since assuming de facto control, the crown prince has touted a slew of reforms aimed at improving the rights record of the kingdom, which has repeatedly been labelled one of the top executioners in the world.
Among the changes was an April announcement by the kingdom’s Human Rights Commission citing a royal decree that it would be ending capital punishment for juvenile offenders.
Recently, the kingdom released Ali al-Nimr, who had at one point faced crucifixion for attending pro-democracy protests when he was 17 years old. Rights groups say he was tortured into giving a false confession.
However, Reprieve says the royal decree, which was made in March and announced in April, has never officially materialised, and they know of at least nine other juvenile offenders who remain at risk of being sentenced to death.
They also know of one other child offender on death row: Abdullah al-Howaiti, who was 14 when he was convicted on murder and armed robbery charges in a trial that Human Rights Watch called “grossly unfair”.
It follows the June execution of Mustafa al-Darwish, who was handed the death penalty on terrorism charges after being arrested on protest-related offences when he was 17.
“For every bit of good news, such as the release of Ali al-Nimr, there is an outrage, like the execution of Mustafa al-Darwish or Abdullah al-Howaiti being sentenced to death,” Basyouni continued.
Basyouni said there were murmurs that Saudi Arabia was planning to end the death sentence for offences that are non-lethal, a change that would halve the number of executions each year.
“But until this is formally written into the law of the kingdom, scores of drug mules, vulnerable migrant workers and political prisoners remain at risk of execution,” he said.
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