Urgent Question - 13/10/15 - Andy Slaughter - Saudi penal system

It took media exposure of the shameful case of 74 year–old Karl Andree, the Brit sentenced to 350 lashes, to get David Cameron’s Government to finally abandon its contract with Saudi Arabia’s notorious prisons.

 

Earlier today, I forced Michael Gove to answer questions in the House of Commons on why his Government was taking Saudi money to make their barbaric justice system more efficient.

 

By the time Gove sat down he had agreed to end the prison deal and Cameron was writing to protest at Mr Andree’s treatment.

 

British diplomats are working hard to urge that Mr Andree, who has three times been diagnosed with cancer, will not be flogged but questions remain to be answered. 

 

Why did the government even think about helping out the Saudi prison service, where beheadings, crucifixion , amputation and other tortures are routine?

 

Last month Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn wrote to the Prime Minister urging him to cancel the contract because of another case – that of 17 year-old Mohammed Al-Nimr sentenced to be beheaded for taking part in a peaceful protest – but Mr Corbyn is still waiting for a reply.

 

David Cameron should be standing up for British citizens and British values abroad, not kowtowing to regimes which use medieval punishments to terrorise and oppress their and our citizens.

 

You can read the full text of the debate here.

13 Oct 2015

Saudi Penal System

1.18 pm
Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State if he will withdraw from the contract for training needs analysis with the Saudi penal system in the light of recent concerns, particularly the cases of Mohammed al-Nimr, Raif Badawi and Karl Andree?

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Michael Gove): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is important that the resources of the Ministry of Justice are targeted at our programme of domestic public service reform, so, as has previously been announced, we have wound up the work that Just Solutions International, the commercial arm of the National Offender Management Service, has been engaged in. This is in line with our ambition to ensure that the Department’s resources are firmly focused on our domestic priorities. On the commercial work that Just Solutions International had been engaged in with Saudi Arabia, as the House is aware, the final bid was submitted this April, but discussions have been going on since then. We have now reviewed the issue further and decided to withdraw our bid.

Andy Slaughter: The power of the urgent question. What a pity, though, that once again a Secretary of State has to be dragged before the House and that what he said was not volunteered by way of ministerial statement. The Secretary of State is trying to establish a reputation as a prison reformer, and now perhaps as a champion of human rights as well. That would be highly commendable and would be better if our prisons were not in a downward spiral of violence, idleness and despair and if the right hon. Gentleman were not intent on repealing the Human Rights Act.

On 25 September, the Leader of the Opposition wrote to the Prime Minister, raising the case of Mohammed al-Nimr. The Secretary of State will be aware that Mr al-Nimr was 17 when he was arrested for peaceful protest and sentenced to death by beheading and then crucifixion. Three weeks later, the Leader of the Opposition is yet to receive a response. That letter also asked for the ending of the contract, so perhaps that response could now be forthcoming. More importantly, Mr al-Nimr remains in solitary confinement, awaiting execution.

The case of Raif Badawi—a blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for criticising the Saudi regime—is similarly shocking, and today we add to the list the case of Mr Karl Andree. Mr Andree is a 74-year-old British citizen from south London who has been sentenced to 350 lashes by the Saudi Government after spending more than a year in custody. I do not know whether the Secretary of State heard the interview on the “Today” programme this morning with Mr Andree’s youngest son, Simon, which was all the more powerful for being rational and understated. He said there was no doubt in the family’s mind that 350 lashes would kill his father, who needs medical care for his cancer, which he has had three times, and his asthma. Simon said: “I think my father is at the bottom of the list and the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to the Government." He continued: “I feel that all the business dealings with Saudi Arabia and the UK are probably taking priority over it. All I can say is that the primary responsibility of the British Government is to their citizens. He is a British citizen and I ask the Government to plead for clemency, for him to be released.”

Will the Secretary of State therefore go further—welcome though his comments were—and explain why the Government ever contemplated entering such a contract; why the reasons for continuing the contract were initially given as “commercial considerations”, subsequently corrected to the “wider interests” of Her Majesty’s Government; why the Prime Minister has not responded to the letter from the Leader of the Opposition; and what is being done in each of the three specific cases I have raised?

We know that these are not isolated cases. Indeed, guidance given to British prisoners in Saudi says that the death penalty can be imposed for a wide range of offences, "including murder, rape, armed robbery, repeated drug use, apostasy, adultery, witchcraft and sorcery and can be carried out by beheading with a sword, stoning or firing squad, followed by crucifixion.”

Amnesty International says that at least 175 people have been executed in the last year. It is simply not good enough that human rights get no regard. Of course this is a balancing act, but in the end, the Secretary of State has to take responsibility and he needs to answer the further questions I have put to him today.

Michael Gove: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising these serious issues and for the appropriately sombre and serious way in which he couched his questions. First, this Government take very seriously questions of human rights, and in particular the obligation to protect the human rights of British citizens abroad. That is why the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who has responsibility for the middle east, has been talking to Mr Andree’s family, and it is also why the Government have been interceding at the highest level in all three of the cases that the hon. Gentleman raises.

It is important that that sensitive and diplomatic work is carried on in circumstances that ensure that we can influence not just the Saudi Government, but other Governments, in a way that allows them to make progress in a manner consistent with ensuring that our case can be made effectively. That is why I believe that the actions of the Minister for the middle east—and indeed those of the Foreign Secretary and the diplomatic service—in ensuring that human rights considerations can be carried forward have been right and wise.

It is also important to bear in mind that there is security co-operation between Britain and Saudi Arabia, which has, as the Prime Minister and others have pointed out, saved British lives in the past. We would never compromise our commitment to human rights, but we must also recognise that it is in the interests of the most important human right of all—the right to live in safety and security—that we should continue with necessary security co-operation with the Saudi and other Governments.

The hon. Gentleman asks why no letter of reply was written to the Leader of the Opposition. I can only apologise for any delay in writing to him, and I hope that today’s statement goes some way to raising the concerns that he understandably raised in his party conference speech and in correspondence. More broadly, I want to assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the whole focus of the Ministry of Justice will be on maintaining the rule of law, upholding human rights and making sure that our citizens are protected effectively with a justice system in which all can take pride and have confidence.

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