Did Did Boris Johnson feel a spark of alarm when news broke that Saudi Arabia had executed 81 men just days before his trip to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? The Prime Minister is not known to be a man of conscience, but he has a solid command of optics. Surely he knows that shaking hands with an autocrat who has just overseen a massacre will hurt Britain’s moral standing on the world stage, at a time when it couldn’t be more important.
Since Jamal Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 and murdered, Western leaders have mostly stayed away from the kingdom and avoided photo ops with the crown prince.
But in the weeks following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, one senses that the calculus has changed. Increasingly, Tory ministers and their media forerunners are saying the government should do whatever it takes to reduce Britain’s dependence on Russian gas – that it should “do a pact with the devil,” as Crisis Research Institute director Mark Almond put it in the Daily Mail.
The timing of executions is frightening. Less than a fortnight ago, The Atlantic published a lengthy interview with the crown prince touting sweeping modernizations of Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system. Staging the largest mass execution in the country’s history so soon after this complaint seems like a gangster-style show of impunity: what are you going to do about it? he seems to be asking. The answer seems to be: not much.
By visiting Saudi Arabia this week, Johnson will all but confirm that Saudi authorities can kill whomever they want, when and how, and the West will ignore it. This virtually guarantees that more people whose only crime was to challenge the status quo will be executed. People like Hassan al-Maliki, a religious scholar who is currently facing a death sentence for the contents of his library.
The 81 executions over the weekend were likely beheadings, but Saudi “justice” is such a black box that we can never be sure. The European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), which keeps a comprehensive record of death sentences in Saudi Arabia, was not even aware of 69 of the cases. These men were tried, convicted, sentenced and executed in total secrecy.
Of the 12 we know of, at least three were likely tortured to make false confessions to terrorist offenses after participating in pro-democracy protests. Aqil al-Faraaj, from a prominent dissident family in Qatif, was held in solitary confinement and reportedly beaten all over his body and tortured with electric shocks and burned with cigarettes. He was imprisoned for five years, without access to a lawyer, before his trial.
United Nations special rapporteurs have written to Saudi authorities about the cases of Mohammed al-Shakhouri and Asaad Shubbar, expressing concern about their unfair trials, the fact that the prosecution relies on confessions of torture and to the fact that they may have been targeted as members of a religious minority.
This is the reality of Saudi capital punishment. Authorities call the executed men “terrorists”, but there are political prisoners, non-violent drug addicts and those arrested as children on death row. Abdullah al-Howaiti, who was 14 when he was tortured into confessing to a crime he could not have committed, has just been sentenced to death for the second time.
In 2014, the UK and Saudi governments signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ on judicial cooperation. My organisation, Reprieve, made a freedom of information request for the document – but it was denied on the grounds that releasing the information could have a ‘negative impact on the effective conduct of international relations’ . Because of this secrecy, we have no idea whether British aid has supported a judicial regime that relies on torture and executions in Saudi Arabia.
What we know about ESOHR reports and media monitoring is that during the period this agreement was put in place, the Saudi regime led by King Salman and his son has dramatically increased the pace of executions – there are now more than 900 since 2015. in January, UK Justice Minister Dominic Raab met with his counterpart, Sheikh Walid al-Samaani, and said he was “happy to hear about Saudi Arabia’s progress” on judicial reform and human rights. He was taken for a fool.
The Prime Minister’s trip to Riyadh, so soon after this mass execution, shames him personally and shames Britain. Will no one around him tell him that there are better and more lasting ways to deal with the energy crisis than to embolden and reinforce a murderous regime?
On Monday, MPs and peers from all parties condemned the massacre in the strongest terms and questioned the government’s reluctance to do the same. We must not show our disgust for the atrocities of Vladimir Putin by rewarding those of Mohammed bin Salman.