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Human Rights (Saudi Arabia)

12.30 pm

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): Two weeks ago, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), spoke at the conference on investing in Saudi Arabia held at the Four Seasons hotel in London. He extended an especially warm welcome to Prince Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki, president of the Saudi General Investment Authority, and expressed his delight at the presence of His Highness in the United Kingdom, which, he told the prince,

During his speech, my hon. Friend made much of the fact that Britain is the second largest investor in Saudi Arabia, with investments of $3.5 billion. He listed a string of well known British companies with investments there, and exhorted British business men to regard Saudi Arabia not only as a market for goods and services but as a joint venture and investment partner. He said:

Hospitality to the Saudi royal family continued this week, during the eight-day visit of Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, governor of the capital, Riyadh, who was welcomed by the Deputy Prime Minister and received by the Queen at Buckingham palace, as well as by the Lord Mayor of the Corporation of London at a luncheon given in the Prince's honour. I understand that Prince Salman also accompanied Prince Charles to a polo match, at which he presented the prizes, and had meetings with other Ministers, including my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Meanwhile, back in Saudi Arabia, a different sort of hospitality was being provided for my constituent, Mr. Mohammed Chaudhry, who continued to languish in a Saudi jail in Riyadh, the area under Prince Salman's jurisdiction, where Mr. Chaudhry has been detained without charge since 23 June last year. As has been well documented by Amnesty International and other organisations, Mr. Chaudhry is just one of many people who have been denied their basic human rights by the Saudi authorities. We must ask why the Government are prepared to subordinate the human rights of people such as Mr. Chaudhry to the interests of the arms trade and other economic considerations? The purpose of this debate is to highlight his plight, which has already been the subject of early-day motion 810, which was signed by 120 Members from all parties, and to give the Government an opportunity to explain to the House what action has been taken to secure justice for that British citizen.

I shall briefly outline the events that led up to my constituent's arrest. From 1988, Mr. Chaudhry was employed on an annually renewable contract as a manager in receipts and storage distribution at Riyadh

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military hospital. Every December, he was responsible for annual stocktaking in the supplies department. Midway during the 1998 stock take, Mr. Chaudhry was mysteriously suspended from duty by his immediate superior, Captain Meshal Al Meshal. No reason was given, but Mr. Chaudhry was asked to return to work after one week. On his return, he found that his job had been taken over, which amounted to constructive dismissal. He felt that he had no option but to hand in his resignation, which was accepted by Captain Meshal.

Mr. Chaudhry believed that Captain Meshal wanted to replace foreign nationals with Saudi staff. He was required to work three months' notice to receive the full benefits of his term of employment, and planned to return home with his wife and two children on 25 March 1999. However, when stocktaking was completed, without further involvement by Mr. Chaudhry, a deficit of 20 million riyal was found. The hospital chief executive, Colonel Musa, dismissed Captain Meshal and reinstated Mr. Chaudhry, who was asked to investigate the deficit. As a result of miscounting by inexperienced staff, which Mr. Chaudhry identified, the deficit was subsequently reduced to 8 million riyal--about £1.5 million. However, the stocktake was never completed as it was cancelled in writing by Colonel Musa.

At about the same time, in February 1999, Shahid Bukhari, a storeman from Pakistan who worked under Mr. Chaudhry, was caught in the act of stealing medical supplies from the warehouse. Everyone working in the supplies department came under suspicion, and Mr. Chaudhry was told that he would not be allowed to leave the country until investigations had been completed. As he was required to remain in Saudi, Mr. Chaudhry's contract, which was due to expire, was renewed until 6 August. He was asked to help with inquiries, which he did willingly. All members of staff, including Mohammed Chaudhry, were questioned by hospital security. During questioning, Shahid Bukhari claimed that one Egyptian and one Saudi national had also been involved in the theft of supplies. The men were arrested and the matter was passed on to the military police, under Colonel Abdullah Al Mughari--the head of security who is believed to be a friend of Captain Meshal-- and then to Colonel Ali Johani from the Ministry of Defence.

Mrs. Chaudhry, who is in Westminster today, says that she was told in a telephone conversation with Simon Lovett, then British consul in Riyadh, that Captain Meshal was given a court martial, fined and imprisoned, and that Colonel Musa was arrested. That has since been found to be inaccurate. Colonel Musa remains chief executive at the hospital, but Captain Meshal was moved within the Ministry of Defence.

The investigating authorities never completed the stock take begun by Mohammed Chaudhry to establish the exact value of missing supplies. Instead, the matter was referred to the Saudi Ministry of the Interior, which took the decision to arrest Mr. Chaudhry, apparently at the request of the military hospital. He was detained on 23 June 1999, five months after the irregularities had first been identified. During the first few days of his imprisonment, Mr. Chaudhry was interviewed twice. He co-operated fully and was assured by Saudi officials that there was no evidence against him. He was led to believe that he would be released after answering all

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their questions. Sadly, that was not to be the case. He remains in prison even though no further interrogation has taken place.

The family fear that the involvement of Colonel Musa, who was arrested and then released, brought a political dimension to the case, and that Mr. Chaudhry is being detained as some kind of smokescreen. The conditions in which he was detained at Sulemaniya police station were appalling--a 12 ft sq basement cell with only one toilet, which had to be shared by 22 occupants. After six weeks he had become infested with bugs. Following the involvement of Simon Lovett, who visited Mr. Chaudhry on 4 and 10 July 1999--but who was not allowed to see him when he visited on 23 and 26 June, as it takes five working days for the British consul to obtain permission for each visit--he was transferred to Malaz prison, where conditions were better.

As can be imagined, Mr. Chaudhry's family, by then back in the United Kingdom and expecting him to follow them home, were distraught at news of his arrest. Mrs. Chaudhry has tried to maintain continuous contact with Simon Lovett at the British Embassy, and Liza Gibb, consular desk officer for Saudi Arabia in London, but her efforts at communication have not always been reciprocated. The family has been fortunate that Mr. Chaudhry's brother-in-law who has also been working in Saudi Arabia has been able to visit him and pass on messages. That relative also appointed a lawyer, but the British authorities have not been able to persuade the Saudis to let him see his client, other than on one unofficial occasion when he was not allowed even to discuss the case.

After Mrs. Chaudhry told me of her husband's plight, I, too, began protracted correspondence with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and received replies from the Ministers responsible for consular matters--first, from Baroness Symons who told me that it was not possible to interfere with the legal process of another country and, subsequently, from Baroness Scotland whom I thank for confirming much of the information given me by Mrs. Chaudhry.

On 29 December 1999, the control and investigation board in Saudi Arabia told the British embassy that Mr. Chaudhry could be released into the custody of his sponsor, the Riyadh military hospital. However, the hospital told the British consul that his contract had been terminated in August, so he was no longer under its sponsorship. The police said that Mr. Chaudhry could be released on bail if an unlimited financial guarantor could be found. None of Mr. Chaudhry's friends was in a position to provide such a guarantee. The embassy wrote to the governor of Riyadh, none other than Prince Salman, asking if one of Mr. Chaudhry's friends could give an appearance guarantee instead.

Eventually, on 22 February, the director of the governor's office, Dr. Nasser Daoud, said that Mr. Chaudhry could be released on bail only on the same conditions as the other defendants in the case, who had somehow managed to secure an unlimited financial guarantor. Meanwhile, I had written to the Saudi ambassador to ask him to meet Mrs. Chaudhry and me. He replied in January 2000, around the time when Mr. Chaudhry was returned to the Sulemaniya police station as discussions about bail were taking place--

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which, to the dismay of the family, came to naught. The ambassador suggested that the matter was best dealt with by the British embassy in Riyadh.

On 18 May this year, as the anniversary of Mr. Chaudhry's detention without charge approached, I wrote again to the Saudi ambassador informing him that, although British consular staff had continued to raise my constituent's case, no progress seemed to have been made either in bringing forward his release or in the Saudi authorities bringing forward any case against him, despite having had 16 months to carry out investigations. I informed the ambassador that preparations were in hand to draw my constituent's plight to the attention of the British Parliament.

I received the ambassador's reply on Monday, in which he noted that the Egyptian and the Saudi who had been arrested had been released on bail after investigations. While the ambassador did not specifically mention it, Mrs. Chaudhry also believes that Shahid Bukhari is free. The ambassador told me that nobody offered bail for Mr. Chaudhry. He said that the British embassy knew about the case and had said that it was not its policy to provide bail. Hence, Mr. Chaudhry remains in custody. The ambassador ended his reply by stating that, because of the unusual situation, Mr. Chaudhry's case is now being expedited.

It would appear that a person caught in the act of stealing and his named accomplices are free, as are Mr. Chaudhry's superiors--the senior military officials who prevented Mr. Chaudhry from properly carrying out the work that he had always completed satisfactorily. At least, however, there is some hope that his case will be expedited. That means that the Saudis are now prepared to release Mr. Chaudhry on an appearance guarantee only, on condition that he remains in Saudi Arabia and is available for questioning while inquiries continue--as if he could go anywhere while his passports and documents are retained.

Understandably, Mr. Chaudhry and his family want to reject that offer. The Saudis have had 18 months to question him and have failed to do so. Furthermore, there is no sign of an investigation taking place. Mrs. Chaudhry is extremely worried that her husband could be kept in Saudi Arabia indefinitely. She wants the whole business brought to a conclusion. She fears for her husband's health if he is left in jail, where he can exercise only once a week. If he is let out, she worries about his safety and wonders how he will survive with no employment. Mr. Chaudhry eventually agreed to bail, but it is still not clear whether he is to be released.

Let us hope that the Saudi ambassador was right when he said that the case was to be expedited. If relations with the Saudis are as cordial as they appear on the basis of the reception given here to members of the ruling family, how can a British citizen be treated as badly as Mr. Chaudhry? Why has it taken 12 months to get bail on reasonable conditions?

Will the Minister explain why the British embassy was not prepared to offer an appearance guarantee for Mr. Chaudhry when another member of staff did so for another British detainee? Why has Mr. Chaudhry had no access to a lawyer? What information has been obtained about the likely length of the continuing inquiry? What guarantee can the Government, who are encouraging better relationships with the Saudi regime,

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give to British citizens that their basic human rights will be protected if they travel to that country? Mrs. Chaudhry, is present today, and I hope that the Minister will respond to those questions.

12.46 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. John Battle ): It is usual to congratulate an hon. Member on winning an Adjournment debate, as if the choice of topic were an achievement in itself. I certainly want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) on her presentation this morning and on the manner in which she set out the facts of the case. I know that she has championed this case assiduously ever since she was informed about the arrest. I have a sheaf of letters in front of me, which were written by my hon. Friend on behalf of her constituent to various Government Departments from 5 July last year. She also tabled an early-day motion. She demonstrates exactly what Adjournment debates should be about--championing the cases of individual constituents, but also highlighting what Members of Parliament view as flaws in the structure of operations.

The case of Mr. Mohammed Chaudhry, who is in prison in Saudi Arabia, is a matter of great concern to me and, indeed, to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office generally. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has closely followed the case and our ambassador in Riyadh has actively pursued it. I have in front of me a chronology of developments--from Mr. Chaudhry's arrest on 23 June 1999 to the proconsul's visit at the police station on 4 July and beyond--and I am happy to make the information available to my hon. Friend. It shows that more than 40 direct representations have been made, as well as regular contact every other week. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that we have actively pursued the case.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has raised the case at the highest levels in the Saudi Government. On Monday this week, he raised Mr. Chaudhry's case directly and personally with the governor of Riyadh: he asked for the case to be expedited and for due legal process. It is wrong to convey the impression that the Government, the Foreign Office and the embassy have stood idly by. That is not true, as the evidence shows, and as I know my hon. Friend would acknowledge.

I do not accept that it is a case of human rights being made subservient to commercial interests in Saudi Arabia. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), said, in a speech to which my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak referred, greater openness will improve mutual understanding, develop common values and increase respect for international standards on human rights. That is why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the case personally with Prince Salman on Monday. I hope that the House will accept in good faith that we do not resile from raising such matters when they need to be raised. Our commitment to human rights cannot be reduced to commercial interests.

The case highlights concerns about human rights in Saudi Arabia. It also highlights the difference that can be made by trying to be proactive, firm and sensitive to

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achieve results. I must emphasise to my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak that no single international law applies throughout the world. Different countries have different laws. French law is different from UK law, as is Sharia law. I underline that point, because we cannot assume that our law can override everyone else's. I know that that point has been taken.

I will summarise the case that my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak has outlined. Mr. Chaudhry was a manager at the military hospital in Riyadh, looking after medical supplies. On 23 June last year, he was arrested, along with three colleagues, following the apparent loss of £3 million-worth of supplies.

Our consul tried to visit Mr. Chaudhry that day, but was not allowed to do so, as the investigating officer was not there. He was unable to see Mr. Chaudhry until after the Saudi weekend, three days later.

The case was investigated twice--once by the police and once by the control and investigation board of the public prosecutor's office. In November, its report was sent to the public prosecutor. In December, it was recommended that all the detained men be freed on bail, pending the final outcome of the investigation. That recommendation did not benefit Mr. Chaudhry. He could not put up the unlimited financial guarantee that the Saudis required, and his former employer, the military hospital, would not sponsor him.

Our embassy lobbied the Saudi authorities at the highest levels to get them to drop the requirement for a financial guarantee. Our ambassador raised the case with Prince Sultan, the Defence Minister ultimately responsible for the hospital in which Mr. Chaudhry worked. The lobbying worked, because the Saudis said that Mr. Chaudhry could be released with only an appearance guarantee. That remains the condition, so the terms changed a little.

Mr. Chaudhry initially rejected that offer. He said that he wanted to be free and allowed to leave the country, or charged. I understand that he has now reconsidered and accepted the offer. We are pressing for his immediate release.

The case raises difficult questions. First, why was Mr. Chaudhry held for almost a year without charge? I emphasise that the Saudi system is radically different from ours: a suspect can be held without charge. We cannot demand that the Saudis change their system. However, we can lobby for our nationals to be given bail, when the length of time in jail becomes unacceptable, as it clearly has in Mr. Chaudhry's case. Therefore, we lobbied hard and our tactics achieved some benefit.

Secondly, why was Mr. Chaudhry not allowed to see his lawyer? We believe that all people charged with criminal offences should have the right to a lawyer to defend them. That is accepted in our law. Speaking to a lawyer is an integral part of our justice system, but that right does not exist in the Saudi justice system of Sharia law. We cannot assume that the Saudis will immediately adopt our practices. We would like that right to be extended internationally to all. In this case, we did what we could to mitigate the problem, meeting frequently but separately with Mr. Chaudhry and his lawyer.

Thirdly, why is the case still going on, given that Mr. Chaudhry has not been reinterviewed since his arrest? Again, we have lobbied the Saudi authorities at

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the highest levels. We have been told that this is a complex fraud investigation and the truth will take time to uncover. We know from our experience in the UK that fraud cases are complex and lengthy. The key point is that Mr. Chaudhry does not now have to stay in prison until the investigation is completed. I think that we can hold that line.

I know that hon. Members wish--as the Government do--that we could do more for Mr. Chaudhry, but there are limits to what we can do. We cannot physically get him out of Saudi Arabia. Mr. Chaudhry is accused of committing a crime in that country. He is therefore subject to Saudi law and justice. We cannot decide whether he is guilty or innocent. That is a matter for the Saudi courts.

Dr. Lynne Jones : May I pick my hon. Friend up on one point? He said that Mr. Chaudhry is considered to have committed a crime, but has not been charged. Surely that is the crucial point.

Mr. Battle : Yes, but there is a difference between the law in the UK and that of Saudi Arabia. In our understanding of law, Mr. Chaudhry has not been charged, but under Sharia law the fact that he has been picked up and accused of a crime is considered part of the process. That is the difference between Sharia law and our law. We cannot simply override the process. We all agree that the situation is unsatisfactory, but what can we do about this man? We cannot give him legal advice. Our consular staff are not lawyers and it is obviously a job for lawyers. Even the legal advice structure is different under Sharia law because there is no habeas corpus in Saudi Arabia. That is the crucial difference. We have built that into our law, but it does not exist there.

We must live with the reality of the situation and press as hard as we can. It does not mean that we can do or have done nothing. Our staff have visited him 38 times and on four other occasions they reached the prison but were not allowed to see him. They have taken him clothes, toiletries and letters from his family. They have supported visa applications for his mother, brother, wife and children to enable them to visit him and arranged for him see a doctor and get medicine. Our embassy in Riyadh has raised his case with the Saudi authorities on 46 separate occasions, often at the highest levels. They have raised the subject of bail. They have urged the Saudis to conclude their investigations. They have complained formally about the quality of some of his food.

Our approach throughout has been determined by the need to do the best we can for Mr. Chaudhry in the constraints of the circumstances. As in the whole of our consular and human rights policy in Saudi Arabia, the key is getting results. We believe that Mr. Chaudhry should soon be able to leave jail on bail as our result of our lobbying. We will continue to press the case and do our utmost for both Mr. Chaudhry and human rights.

Hon. Members may know that we have concerns about human rights in Saudi Arabia. We take, and will continue to take every realistic and responsible step to press for improvements. At bilateral meetings, before, during and after the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1999, British officials encouraged the

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Saudi authorities to co-operate more closely with such UN human rights bodies. At the same time we joined our European Union partners in a public statement of concern at the shortcomings in criminal procedures, freedom of expression, assembly and worship and women's rights. We urged Saudi Arabia to become a party to the remaining core international human rights instruments: the international convention on economic, social and cultural rights, the international convention on civil and political rights.

The UN Commission on Human Rights concluded that Saudi Arabia had responded sufficiently to complaints about human rights violations, including its judicial system, for consideration under the 1503 procedure to be discontinued. I can only emphasise that in welcoming the commission's decision to discontinue consideration of Saudi Arabia under the 1503 procedure, the Saudi Arabian Government announced their intention to accede to those international conventions and covenants. We will continue to press for early accession.

Throughout the whole of 1999 we maintained a policy of constructive engagement on human rights with the Saudi Government through frank and private exchanges, meetings and visits. In April 1999, at the invitation of the British Government, the Saudi Minister of Justice attended a British Council seminar in London on "Britain and Islam" which included debates on aspects of human rights, education, gender, race and religion. The Saudi Minister met the Lord Chancellor and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to discuss human rights and Sharia law and relations between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in the UK and Saudi Arabia.

During a visit to Saudi Arabia in October 1999, my hon. Friend the Minister of State raised human rights with the Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister. They agreed on further bilateral exchanges. That was followed in December by a debate at the UK-Saudi Joint Cultural Committee in London, a forum specifically established to develop relations between Government and non-Government organisations. We intend to keep up the pressure and to continue to focus on human rights and the differences that Sharia and UK law throw up in particular cases such as this one.

On 22 May at the European Union Gulf Co-operation Council ministerial meeting, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary debated human rights with his Saudi opposite number. My right hon. Friend emphasised the importance of the universal declaration of human, economic and social rights and the UN mechanisms designed to protect individuals.

On 20 June, my hon. Friend the Minister of State spelt out the importance of human rights at the investment conference to which my hon. Friend referred. I hope that she accepts that we want Saudi Arabia to ratify the United Nations conventions and we welcome the efforts to bring its law into line with them; but Saudi Arabia is an Islamic country in which justice is based on Sharia law, which has a major bearing on rights in the kingdom. Of course, we must have a dialogue on human rights--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton ): Order. I regret to tell the Minister that time is up and we must move to the next debate.

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