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21 Jan 2004 : Column 477WHcontinued
Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (Lab): I am delighted that the subject of human rights in Saudi Arabia has been chosen for an Adjournment debate. It is obviously a vast subject, and I hope that hon. Members will feel free to contribute to the debate and make known their views. I want to draw attention to Sandy Mitchellmy constituentRon Jones and Bill Sampson, all of whom have faced abuse and torture in Saudi Arabia.
On Friday 6 August last year I received a telephone call from Sandy Mitchell to say that he had been released from jail in Saudi Arabia. He had telephoned for two reasons: to thank me for the contributionvery small, I admitthat I had made towards his release, and to say that he was innocent. The second reason for the phone call was unnecessary. I knew from the papers that he and the others were innocent of the allegation of bombing in Riyadh. The tragic case of Sandy Mitchell and the others centred on the charge that they set off a bomb that killed Christopher Rodway. I wish to put on the record not only my sympathy, but that of all hon. Members, for the family and friends of Christopher Rodway.
A dark tale of torture has been unfolding since the release of Sandy Mitchell and the others last August. It seemed that a new allegation would surface almost every month. New information and evidence would be produced by those who had been jailed. Sandy Mitchell was a senior anaesthetic technician at the security forces hospital in Riyadh. He was arrested on 17 December 2000 and was charged with the bombing and killing of Christopher Rodway. As I said, he was finally released on 6 August last year in response to a plea for clemency that was made to King Fahd. I thank the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and other hon. Members who made representations to the Saudi Government for the release of the men. During his term of imprisonment, Sandy Mitchell had to face solitary confinement, and physical and psychological torture. That was a continuing story for him when he was in prison in Riyadh.
I wish to make it clear at the outset that I do not want to use the debate as an opportunity for an anti-Saudi discussion, nor do the prisoners. Sandy Mitchell and other prisoners speak fondly of the Saudi people. They speak in support of the people they met in prison, but we are against torture and the torturers, which is the focus of my contribution to the debate.
The debate will not go away. I and colleagues will not walk away from the abuses in Saudi Arabia. We are not willing to turn our backs on the people who have faced torture and abuse. It is as straightforward and simple as that. The Government, the House and the British people need to make it clear that they are horrified that, in this day and age, someone can be tortured in a country with which we are supposedly friendly. We should take the chance of today's debate to say that we stand four-square with the victims of torturenot just today, but tomorrow and in the future. That should always be the case.
Mr. Mitchell was immediately faced with a beating from the people who had arrested him. He could not defend himself because his wrists and ankles were cuffed. The beating continued for several hours. He was then taken down to the cells and was chained to a door, so that he could neither sit nor lie down. He was denied sleep and rest for a total of nine days. He said that at about 10 o'clock that evening he was taken back to his house in chains by the security officers who had beaten him. They ransacked his house, and all his personal items, including clothes, cameras and diplomas were confiscated. Most of the items taken have never been returned. His wife and son were, of course, terrified by his arrest and by the state he was in when he was taken back to his house. On his return to the detention centre he was punched, kicked and spat on, and was again chained to the door of his cell so that he could neither sit nor lie down. As I said, he was kept awake for nine days and nine nights.
During Sandy Mitchell's imprisonment his beating consisted of the torturers striking the soles of his bare feet with axe-handles, with a Saudi sitting on his chest at the same time, making it difficult and frightening for him to breathe as his feet were being beaten. He was told that he would never be released if he did not confess to the bombings. He begged his captors to check his alibi for the evening on which they accused him of being involved in the bombing. He felt certain that friends and colleagues could easily convince the police that his alibi was strong and would clear him of any guilt. He demanded a polygraph test because, as a desperate man, he thought taking such a test would prove his innocence and he would be released. This was denied to him, and the torture continued. He said that, during the beating and torture, he was bleeding continually from inside his left ear, his nose and his mouth, and that he lost some teeth.
I do not intend to go on all afternoon. I think what I have said about the torture is enough. That story can be repeated by Ron Jones, by Bill Sampson, and by any of the other prisoners held in Saudi Arabia. Having listened to one case, one can multiply it by seven to obtain an accurate picture of what went on for a very long timeas I say, these men were held for two and a half years.
In addition to the beatings and the psychological torture, we need to consider the solitary confinement in which these prisoners were held during this periodagain, an attempt to break them and extract confessions to something in which they were not involved. We know all of them, and there is no question of it.
Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this valuable debate. I think he underestimates the role that he, other hon. Members and the Government played in securing the release of these men. Does he agree that
Mr. Lyons : My hon. Friend makes a valid point. As I said at the beginning, this is an argument against the torturers, not against the decent people of Saudi Arabia, who want to give support to those who go to work or holiday therenot only British people, but those of other nationalitiesand seem to be a kind race in many ways. We need to insist that people can go to Saudi Arabia in absolute confidence of the legal and judicial system; I will return to that later, because I believe that there is a bigger role for the Foreign Office and for others in making sure it happens.
Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I hope I am not stealing the hon. Gentleman's thunder, but he will be aware that Ron Jones's case, in particular, goes to the Court of Appeal later this yearin May, I think. Is he expecting the Foreign Office or the Department for Constitutional Affairs to intervene in the case being conducted against the Saudi Arabian regime? Is he expecting their intervention to be unhelpful and to argue that the State Immunity Act 1978 overrides human rights legislation? Is it not important to clarify the Foreign Office's take on that appeal and on the basis for intervention? What does it intend to achieve? It is also important that the British Government are not in any way implicated in condoning torture.
Mr. Lyons : I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I will come to it in due course as I want to deal with the detail of that case and with what we would all expect from the Foreign Office and from the Government in these circumstances.
Mr. Mitchell said in his evidence that after about the fifth night he could not endure the beatings and the torture any more. He said he was prepared to sign a confession, no matter what it said. He was given a very sweet cup of tea and asked to sit down and sign a prepared statement of his confession. This was directed by Lieutenant Khalid al Sallah, the translator for Captain Ibrahim al Dali. These two seem to have been the two main torturers of Sandy Mitchell. I will refer to both of them again, as it is important that we identify the torturers and take the appropriate action when we can.
The interrogators also wanted to know, even after Mr. Mitchell had signed his confession, who had been involved with himnot only the other prisoners, but which people from the British embassy had assisted him. He could not believe that this line of questioning was being put to him, that it was suggested that the embassy was somehow involved in a bombing in Riyadh. He continued to be beaten and tortured into the eighth night, even after the confession, because they wanted further information. They said that if he would not help them further, they would bring his wife into the interrogation, because she was Thai and they could
On 25 December 2000 Mr. Mitchell was hooded and taken to what he later discovered was al-Hiar prison. The officer in charge of the prison, when he saw the state of him, had him cleaned up and examined by two doctors. He then had to sign a statement that his injuries when he arrived at the prison had been based on some previous interrogation at another location. The prison was not prepared to accept responsibility for the state of him. He did sign such a statement, which, quite properly, the prison wanted him to do. He was then given some medical help and something for the pain, and he was allowed to sleep for three days. Being denied sleep for so long must have been torture in itself, as well as the interrogation and the beatings.
Mr. Mitchell said that his interrogation and the torturing had sometimes lasted for an unbelievable 14 hours. That was normal for him. Even after he had been taken to the prison, the beatings continued. He was hospitalised on three occasions, first for two days, then for 14 days and then for 15 days. Imagine the extent of the injuries that meant he was hospitalised for that length of time. He was allowed a visit from the British embassy after 46 days. Prior to that visit he was again warned not to complain to the embassy about his treatment or he would face even further beatings and torture. At least then he felt that the embassy had been involved, and would hopefully speak up for him and for the other prisoners and get things moving regarding his case.
Mr. Mitchell was then preparedhe says "drilled"to make a video confession for television as part of his confession, which was rehearsed many times. At first he was told that it was nothing more than a video for the private files. All of us who saw the alleged confession on television were horrified because Sandy Mitchell was reading off an autocue in a very unconvincing mannerand no wonder, because it was the result of beatings and torture from previous days.
So a British citizen was shown all over the world confessing to the bombings in Riyadh, and that suited a lot of internal sources in Saudi at that time. They could claim that the bombings were not the work of domestic terrorists but were quite simply the work of British or other foreign nationals working in Saudi Arabia.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is making a compelling case. One of the issues here is the face that Saudi Arabia shows to the rest of the world, and although I cannot speak in any detail about the case he is referring to, Saudi Arabia certainly does not have a good reputation with regard to any form of religious freedom. Shi'a Muslims are regularly dealt with in a savage manner, and Christians who happen to be working in Saudi Arabia face all sorts of problems. Surely any country that wants foreign nationals to come and work within its boundaries, and
Mr. Lyons : There is an important question of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, which parallels the question of freedom for women to be accepted into Saudi society, and to be able to operate in a normal way. The issue is not just one of religionthere is the question of human rights for the whole population. The Foreign Office needs to address these issues sharply. We as a Parliament need to find a stronger voice when dealing with the Saudis, and the Foreign Office needs to lead that process.
Sandy Mitchell was finally taken to court in July, and before he entered the courtroom he was warned again that if he tried to retract his statement, he would be taken back to the detention centre, and the torture and the beatings would continue. That is what he was faced with at the so-called Department of Justice as he was being taken into court. It took about five months for a lawyer to come and speak to Sandy Mitchell and the other prisoners about the Saudis' abuse of their human rights during their time in prison. It was then that he found out that he had apparently been sentenced to partial beheading and crucifixion. His sentence had already been decided before he even saw a lawyer. That is how expansive Saudi justice is.
I do not intend to go through a lot of the horrific detail involved in this and other cases, but one issue that I must raise is the fact that as Sandy Mitchell and others were being tortured in Saudi Arabia, they noticed that the footcuffs and handcuffs that held them had been made in England. That should make us all feel tremendous shame, and I know that there is all-party support for saying that we cannot allow it to continue. We need to take action to ensure that this stuff is not exported and then used as part of a torture mechanism against any citizen, Saudi or otherwise.
Because we are talking about religious rights, the rights of women, the rights of foreign nationals and the rights of the Saudi population, it is important to record that we salute the work of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Although we are debating this issue today, and may spend some weeks and months on it, they are the custodians ensuring that Saudi behaviour is watched and properly examined every day of the week throughout the year. That is important. We should salute the work in which they have been involved. Amnesty International found a persistent pattern of systematic human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Again, that comes not just from the prisoners, but from the international organisation that knows best.
Before he moves off the issue of torture, I should like to say that I had the pleasure of meeting Sandy Mitchell after he was released. In my professional capacity I was able to judge that he is still suffering from torture. His mental health is in serious need of support. I was
Mr. Lyons : My hon. Friend makes a valid, important point. The experience has not ended for the prisoners. Their release was greatit was a wonderful for all of thembut I am sure that the pain of trying to bring their lives together after two and a half years of imprisonment, torture and beatings will leave a tremendous physical and psychological scar on all of them. Again, we need to think about how best to help people in such circumstances to move back into life and get back to normality. I am pleased that she raised that point. We must deal with such matters properly and more consistently.
In December I asked the Foreign Office whether it would investigate the claims of torture that were made against Saudi Arabia by the recently released British prisoners. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), replied for the Government, saying:
With respect, that is all very well, but I want to know what the Government are doing to take on the Saudis on the question of the torture and beatings of British citizens in their care in prison. We must be sharper. Members of Parliament, the Foreign Office and the Foreign Affairs Committee must sharpen their language and be tougher on such questions. Those tortures and beatings cannot simply be put on the record by the Foreign Office or the Select Committee and dealt with as numbers. We must take up that challenge at all levels, whether it is the Prime Minister, the Minister, or MPs who do so. We must ensure that people are treated properly.
It is important to note that the UN is unhappy with the situation in Saudiit is not just me, other MPs, the British Government, Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International who are worried. In reports, the UN continually refers to the abuses that take place in that country, including the abuse of human rights, torture, beatings and jailings. We must raise those matters at every opportunity.
Since his release, Sandy Mitchell and the others have been referred for medical examination. Despite the fact that we have moved on and it is so long since the torture and beatings, they still want to prove medically that they were tortured and beaten in Saudi Arabia. I do not intend to go through the medical evidence produced by the Parker Institute in Denmark, which is the world centre of excellence to which people are referred when they think they are victims of torture and want to prove it. It is important that these reports should remain private, but I shall speak to the conclusion of that report, which states:
That is not an allegation by any of the men. It comes from medical evidence to support their claims. There should be no question in anyone's mind that everything points to the statements made by Sandy Mitchell, Ron Jones and others, being 200 per cent. true. The report, from such a renowned institute, confirms that in everyone's mind.
As I said to the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), I want to come back to the issue of Ron Jones. The hon. Gentleman correctly said that the case would go to the Court of Appeal on 11 and 12 May. Again, we have been told that the Treasury Solicitor has been instructed to act on behalf of the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the appeal. I am unhappy that we should interfere in a claim against the Saudi Government by a person who was beaten and tortured. We should be doing the opposite: we should do everything we can to assist such a claim. We should not stand in the way of it or raise a constitutional hurdle, but should make sure that those who are responsible for torture and beatings are brought to court and that the victim has his day in court to accuse them.
The Foreign Office website says that torture is abhorrent and illegal. If that is so, it should do nothing on 11 and 12 May to stand in the way of the proper presentation and prosecution of Ron Jones's case. The Foreign Office claims that the State Immunity Act 1978 gives legal protection, but that should never be a reason for the Government not to do something. I hope the Minister will reflect on that point and give it due consideration.
Jim Sheridan : This may seem a naive question. It is right and proper for us to seek assurances from the Government that they will do everything they can to ensure that those who have been subjected to torture and their families receive every support and that the same does not happen again, but did the employers of any of those detained play any role in assisting them or in offering their families support?
Mr. Lyons : I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. My information is that the employers of those who were arrested are under tremendous pressure. As employers in Saudi they did everything they could to keep channels open while their employees were in prison and to support the families, but that is difficult to do in Saudi; it is not an easy role for an employer. I am sure that those involved did everything possible in the circumstances.
I said that I would raise the case of Bill Sampson. I do so because the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) cannot be with us today, as he is detained elsewhere. I know that he would make these points on behalf of Dr. Sampson and I am happy to do so briefly.
At the outset, I said that 6 August, which was when the men were released, was a wonderful day; but there has been tremendous pain and suffering since, because they have had to recall their dreadful, horrific story of torture and beating unnecessarily, as they know that we need to bring the Saudi Arabian Government to account and get justice, not only now but in future. We have to protect human rights in that country for foreign nationals and people living there.
What I say is not against anyone other than the torturers. I have named the two people whom Sandy Mitchell recalls torturing him. They were guilty, and if the Government do nothing about the matter, they will be guilty of human rights abuses and torture. That is the only conclusion that people can come to after listening to the case of Sandy Mitchell and the others. I am sure that all of us in the Chamber demand justice for people who have been tortured. As I said at the outset, we should stand four-square with the victims of torture.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I support everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) said about the treatment of his constituent Sandy Mitchell and the others who were kept in such appalling conditions and suffered such dreadful treatment, including torture. I want to mention a few things that have come my way because of a visit to Saudi Arabia, and some other matters that I hope are worth mentioning and may lead to a better understanding of what is going on there.
Last summer, I was invited to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to meet Government Ministers by the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding. At first, I refused, as I always have doneI have been invited beforebecause of the appalling treatment of women, as well as other human rights considerations. I felt very strongly about the issue of women in particular. However, I thought about the invitation, and uppermost in my mind at the time was what happened on 9/11the demolition of the twin towers in New York. I started to think that perhaps the time had come
I contacted CAABU and decided to go. A few days later, my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden approached me and told me about the plight of Sandy Mitchell and the others. That convinced me even further to go, because he asked me to make representations on his and his constituent's behalf. Shortly after that, there was a very bad situation in Riyadh, in which a compound that housed mainly foreigners was completely demolished by suicide bombers; a number of bombers were involved. That was two days before we were to fly out.
We were invited to the Foreign Office, and the adviser there told us that we really ought not to go and that our lives would be in danger if we did. However, one member of the delegation was a Member of the other place, Lord Redesdale, and in true Brit fashion, he said to us, "Well, you can decide not to go, but I'll go. If we don't, the suicide bombers have won. If they stop us going to and having influence in countries such as Saudi Arabia, they have won their case." That was a good point. Having considered his and my hon. Friend's arguments, but in the teeth of opposition from my son and daughter, I decided that I should go.
We went and, as has been mentioned, we were treated with courtesy and hospitality. We were only there for a weekend. Of about six people, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Ms Russell) and I were the two women on the delegation. We were accepted: we were not asked to dress in a certain way and we were not asked to wear veils or cover our heads. We were treated with the utmost courtesy. I ate so much that weekend, I am sure I put on weight. That is not to trivialise what we are talking about.
During our visit we spoke to seven or eight Government Ministers. To each Minister we made representations on behalf of the British prisoners. We complained about their treatment and the charges that had been brought against them, and we begged for their release. Within weeks of our return they were released. Whether our representations had any impact, I am not sure. Later, I went to the Saudi Arabian embassy in London as part of a delegation that included my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden and other Members involved in these arguments. That probably also helped.
Last summer, after the release of the captives, I was invited to a Saudi Arabian women's daycan you believe itin London. It was a lovely occasion. We heard from all kinds of professionals from Saudi ArabiaI know this is trivial, but they were beautiful women and beautifully dressedwho were very clever and talented. It made me think that Saudi Arabia is moving in the right direction. At the same time, however, I had to consider the fact that women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to travel alone unless they carry a document demonstrating that they have their husband's permission to do so. They are not allowed to drive or vote, and they do not have any seats on the governing council. However, a handful of women now
I made representations in Saudi Arabia on behalf of the Christian community about its right to freedom of worship. I was told by Saudi Arabian Ministers that there was no restriction on freedom of worship. They do not, however, allow buildings dedicated to religions other than the Muslim faith. I would like to discuss that issue with them once more.
I was very encouraged by the conference and lunch that I attended in London, and by seeing those terrific, talented women, who were able to speak up on behalf of the women of Saudi Arabia. This morning, however, I was very saddened to hear on the "Today" programme that the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, who is, I suppose, the Muslim world's equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury, had condemned a group of womenI am sure that they were the same women whom I met in both Riyadh and Londonfor having the audacity to go to a business conference where they spoke, did not cover their heads and did not wear a veil. Apparently the Grand Mufti was very critical of those women. It was suggested that he was threatening about them. Having had contact with the Saudi Arabian ambassador to London with my hon. Friend, I will write to him in the next few days asking for his Government's assurance that those women will not be threatened; in fact, I would like to see such women promoted and accepted as a norm in Saudi Arabian society.
I looked through this morning's newspapers to see whether I could find a report of the Grand Mufti's comment, but I could not do so. I discovered one or two encouraging things, however. Morocco, another Muslim and Arab state, has passed a new law that will give women equal rights; there will also be family rights; and they hope that polygamy will become a thing of the past. In addition, women are now to be allowed to join the committees of the governing councils of the game of golf. So even we and our golfing enthusiasts are coming into the 21st century.
Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) (LD): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) on securing the debate and on showing a great deal of patience and care in setting out the case of his constituent, Sandy Mitchell, and the experience of other hon. Members who have had to deal with the shocking instances involving British detainees in the past year. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) for raising another issue relating to human rights problems in Saudi Arabia. I hope that the Minister will be able to touch on that in his reply.
The broader topic is important but, at the outset, I join others in supporting the efforts of the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden to pursue the issue of compensation and related issues with the Saudi authorities. I hope that the Government will facilitate that, and that the Minister will shed some light on the situation in the Court of Appeal in his winding-up comments.
Before I am critical, perhaps it is only fair to recognise the complexities that exist in Saudi Arabia. The religious situation is extremely sensitive, and we all recognise that. There are difficult internal security realities, not least, as has been mentioned, after 11 September. There are also important regional, strategic security issues, to which all of our concerns relate.
It would be churlish if we did not acknowledge the serious efforts that have been made by Crown Prince Abdullah to move the reform programme forward. His proposals last year for self-reform and the promotion of political participation were an important step forward. The national reform document, and the petition that he accepted from the Shi'a Muslims, also showed signs of progress. None the less, we have yet to see any fruits from that dialogue. I hope that the Government will continue to press for concrete outcomes from them.
The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden rightly paid tribute to Amnesty International. In its most recent report, it highlights many different issues, but describes how torture and ill-treatment remain rife. It also highlights the fact that international non-governmental human rights organisations have been denied access to the country to do anything meaningful.
The Government have not been slow to highlight the weakness of the Saudi position on human rights. On their website, they have focused for some timein language consistent with that used in parliamentary answerson aspects of the judicial system, corporal and capital punishment, torture, discrimination against women and non-Muslims, and restrictions on freedom of movement, expression, assembly and worship. This is not a relationship in which the Government are blinded or turn the other way.
Although I welcome the Government's frank statement on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, I recognise the complexity of our relationship with that country, in terms of trade, security and our joint efforts to combat international terrorism. The overlap between all those different issues sometimes means that none of them is particularly clear. Sometimes they all come together, most obviously in the al-Yamamah projectthe scale of which is vast, but detail about which is limited. My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has repeatedly asked the Ministry of Defence for information and has been repulsed on the grounds of confidentiality or disproportionate cost.
The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden highlighted the fact that export licences from this country are still being allowed for types of equipment that would appear, at face value, to breach the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, by which such things are judged. Criterion two states that the Government will not issue an export licence
The export to Saudi Arabia of footcuffs and handcuffs that were manufactured in this country shows that there is at least one example of the failure of that process. Surely it is time for Britain to get its house in order, because, without that, we make a mockery not just of the licensing system, but of the Government's publicly stated position on human rights in Saudi Arabia.
It is important that we do not lose sight of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden and his hon. Friends regarding Sandy Mitchell, Ron Jones and others. The Government must make every effort to assist them in their case against the Saudi Government. In our dealings with the Saudis, we must continue to urge them to respond positively to those appeals. We must also take account of the point made by the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan), who said that the Saudi authorities must send clear signals to citizens from other countries that they will enjoy the highest standards of international law in all their dealings with them.
On the wider issues, we must also encourage the Saudis to continue with the reform programme, and, in particular, to allow non-governmental organisations and others in to monitor how that is progressing.
We have a strong relationship with the Saudis. That relationship has to be frank, and we have to balance all our different interests carefully. However, without increased transparency and a proper understanding of the commercial and strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia, the concerns about human rights abuses will continue, and our Government's position will continue to appear weak.
Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I am pleased to take part in this important debate. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons), not just on securing the debate in the first instance, but on the way in which he set out his case. We lawyers, or former lawyers, have an expression, res ipsa loquitur, which means that the facts speak for themselves. The power of his case was that he allowed the facts to speak for themselves. The facts are chilling and that is what makes his case so powerful. I congratulate him on raising the cases of Sandy Mitchell and the Jones family over a long time. I hope that the Minister can give some of the reassurances about more effective action that the hon. Gentleman has called for.
A number of cases raise general concern about Saudi Arabia, and that is what I want to address. Nobody can have any doubts about human rights abuses after reading the evidence in the US State Department report. There are also several reports by non-governmental organisations that raise such issueswe have heard about Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for being vigilant on our behalf. The Government have their own assessment of human rights in Saudi Arabia.
Important information about human rights abuses comes from all quarters. In my part of the United Kingdom, the west country, there is a strong defence contingent and many former servicemen and women work or have worked in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf regions. From them, I have received, on a number of occasions and over many years, first-hand testimony of human rights abuses and other difficulties in Saudi Arabia. There is undoubtedly a very worrying situation. We should all be concerned about the brutal and one-sided criminal justice system, unacceptable restrictions on religious freedoms, restrictions on free speech and movement, appalling discrimination against women and non-Muslimsor even the wrong type of Muslimsand a lack of representative Government and anything remotely approaching democracy.
The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) mentioned the comments of the Grand Mufti. I have a piece of paper that was printed from the BBC website that quotes his remarks. There was a conference at the Red sea port of Jeddah at which the chief businesswoman in the country, Lubna Al-Olayan, used her speech to call for female empowerment in the kingdom. She said:
In a difficult and unstable region where the virtuous triangle of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights are thin on the ground, all hon. Members must ask how we and the UK Government can best act to help the situation to improve. I agree that we need a stronger and sharper voice on the unacceptable practices in Saudi Arabia, but the key question is how we can best advocate change.
Our quest for the right approach must be informed by three key principles. First, it is unrealistic to expect quick fixes. It took the people of our country hundreds of years to get the democracy that we have today. We all want rapid change, but we must recognise that such change can take time. Secondly, it is unhelpfularrogant, evenfor us to seek to impose western solutions on what is a very different region and culture. One size does not fit all in this case. Thirdly, we must accept a measure of realpolitik. In the struggles that we
The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, however, is intolerable and unacceptable. I say that even though this country considers itself to be a friend of Saudi Arabia and has strong trade links with it. There must be gradual change and reform. The question is how can we help to achieve that.
The Government have decided how they will tackle this matter. I will now refer to the "Human Rights Annual Report 2002" of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and specifically to the evidence given by the Minister on 28 January 2003I am not sure how those dates tally, but apparently they do. He was asked about Saudi Arabia and, on page 35, he is reported as saying that
I am not saying that a confidential dialogue is not the right course of actionwe all have to live in the real worldbut if we are not careful, the words "confidential dialogue" can become a smokescreen or camouflage to hide behind. It could be another way of saying, "Actually, we are not doing much."
I am not accusing the Minister of that, but I would like him to say a little about what that confidential dialogue includes. How frequent are these confidential conversations? When was the last time that the Minister spoke to a Saudi Minister about human rights? The Minister says that the Government do, from time to time, criticise publicly the Saudi regime, but I would like to know when that last happened. I was unable to find any press cuttings of public criticism.
Saudi Arabia is an important trading partner, in particular in the realm of defence procurement. I note that the Saudi Foreign Minister has been to the UK four times in the past three years, and there have been many ministerial visits to Saudi Arabia in that time. Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean, in her capacity as Minister with responsibility for trade and industry, has been three times in the past two years. The Defence Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have all been to the country in the past two or three years. I would like the Minister to confirm whether on each visit the issue of human rights was raised. It is not so important whether they discussed the cases of individual families or the general situation, but that, on every occasion, the UK Government put down the marker that we find the country's human rights record unacceptable.
I recognise that Saudi Arabia is at the crossroads. The winds of change are beginning to blow fiercely through the country. It is facing a struggle with internal dissent and terrorism. It is grappling with population growth that is outstripping economic growth. Sectarian resentments are beginning to grow, and there is an upsurge in radical Islamic activism. Those are difficult issues for any Government to deal with. We must recognise the fragile state of the entire region, the stability of which is by no means assured.
Although, we appreciate the sensitivities of the country and the region, we none the less want the Minister to take effective action. It is vital that the Saudi Government act firmly and decisively against the threat of terror and global terrorists, and nothing should be used as a smokescreen or excuse to block further progress in giving Saudi citizens more freedoms, rights and justice. That might be achieved through confidential dialogue or through something else, but will the Minister tell us whether he will continue to press the Saudis, using all means possible, to accept the need for change and to flow with the inevitable river of reform?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell) : We have had an exceedingly good debate on what is, undoubtedly, a very serious issue. In particular, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) on securing this debate on human rights in Saudi Arabia. I have listened carefully to all the points.
Jim Sheridan : Thus far, I have resisted the temptation to intervene on the persistent references to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) as "Beersden". It is actually "Bearsden". I do not want my hon. Friend's constituents to be thought of as people hiding in a den, drinking beer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden raised important concerns about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, particularly his constituency concern. He focused on the cases of the British men who were detained in Saudi Arabia until August last year. I genuinely understand his concerns, and I pay tribute to the way in which he consistently supported their cause. He somewhat diminished his role in the process, as he played a key part in advocating their interests.
My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden discussed the men's treatment while in detention. I wish to make it absolutely clear that throughout the case the paramount concern of Ministers and officials has been the men's welfare. We made clear our concerns about their treatment and conditions of detention with the Saudi authorities repeatedly and consistently at all levels. We did so in privatethat goes to the nub of several points that have been made this afternoonas our judgment and assessment were that that was the most effective, practical means of securing the men's release. Of course, we can be challenged over that assessment.
The majority of the families and of the lawyers believed that it was not in the men's best interests to raise the profile of their case publicly. We can be criticised, and different Members will have different judgments, but that is the conclusion that we reached. The fact that finally, albeit after too long a time, we secured the men's release suggests that our approach was sensible.
Let me comment specifically on some of the points that have been made. My hon. Friend spoke about the identities of two individual torturers. We raised with the Saudi authorities the role of named Saudi individuals involved in the men's detention. In respect of my hon. Friend's concern about what would happen if they came to this country, the position is that unless those individuals were found guilty by a court of an offence recognised under UK law, we would have no grounds for arresting them. That is the legal situation. We are aware of the ongoing legal case on the men's detention. We have expressed our concerns about it and the conditions of their detention, and we shall continue to do so.
My hon. Friend also said that he wanted a stronger voice from the Foreign Office against human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia generally. That is a key point. He asked explicitly what we are doing in that regard and I shall give three responses. First, there is undoubtedly a balance to be struck in respect of what might be described as strident, public criticism that could harm the interests of UK citizens. I am not referring to my hon. Friend, but unless we recognised that there is a balance to be struck, we would not be carrying out our responsibilities on behalf of UK citizens appropriately and responsibly. Secondly, in response to the question about what the Foreign Office is doing, people must look at what we have done: we have consistently pursued such matters and made our position clear.
Thirdly, on the generality of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, the issue was consistently brought forward by hon. Members of all parties when the Foreign Office published its annual human rights
My hon. Friend also referred to Bill Sampson and questioned why he was dealt with as a Canadian national. He entered Saudi Arabia on his Canadian passport, and Saudi Arabia, under its statutes, does not recognise dual nationality. That is why it was appropriate and most effective for the Canadian authorities to take up the case. Nevertheless, we were in close contact throughout with the Canadian authorities and, since his release, we have offered to provide Mr. Sampson with appropriate assistance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) mentioned the approaches that she and others have made, both in Saudi Arabia and to the Saudi ambassador in London. I genuinely believe that all such representations, including our own in the Foreign Office and throughout Government, contributed to the work that went on throughout the men's detention to secure their release.
My hon. Friend also referred to the involvement of Saudi nationals in the attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001. Despite differences of view with the Saudi authorities about human rights, it is worth stating on the record that the Saudi Government have at all times condemned those attacks, as they have repeatedly condemned terrorist attacks wherever they occurred and whomever the victims were.
My hon. Friends the Members for East Lothian (Anne Picking) and for Strathkelvin and Bearsden raised the important point that a number of the men concerned are still suffering from torture. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian said that we should be helping to integrate those men back into society. The point was well made. On their release, we arranged for fast-track access to national health service appointments and liaised with the offices of the men's MPs to help them get access to local services. It was right and proper that we responded in that way.
The hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) raised in general terms the issue of selling arms to Saudi Arabia. It is worth saying that all export licences for equipment for Saudi Arabia are assessed case by case against both our own national arms export licensing criteria and the consolidated EU criteria. Most of our strategic exports to Saudi Arabia fall within the ambit that he mentionedthe al-Yamamah projectunder the terms of the Government's memorandum of understanding that was signed in 1985. The equipment that is supplied is judged according to those licensing criteria. Key within that is the point that equipment is not sold if we judge that it could be used for internal repression or external aggression.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) has not spoken today, but she is in the Chamber. She has consistently raised concerns with the Foreign Office on behalf of her constituent, Mr. Ron Jones.
Mr. Moore : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I am sorry that I did not catch him before he moved off the point to which I want to refer. Will he pick up on the specific issue that was raised not only by me, but by the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons), about the supply of equipment that can be used for repression?
The hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) referred to my comments at the Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this year when I spoke about the Government's annual human rights report. I said that we undertake a confidential dialogue with regard to the Saudi authorities and I am grateful for the fact that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that that is not necessarily the wrong approach. He asked how often the dialogue takes place. It takes place exceedingly frequently and at every opportunity we raise such issues at official and ambassadorial levels.
My noble Friend Baroness Symons has explicit responsibility for Saudi Arabia, which is why the hon. Gentleman has not heard me usually referring to such matters. She has raised the matter directly with the Saudi authorities, as have the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. We take such an approach consistently and we shall continue to do so. The hon. Member for South-West Devon also acknowledged from my comments that some progress has been made in Saudi Arabia, an issue to which I shall return.
One of the matters that we need to reflect on is that when dealing with human rights at any time, there are intermingling forces of progress and forces of reaction. We are therefore constantly engaged in making exceedingly difficult judgments about how to promote the forces of progress while, at the same time, making clear our opposition to the forces of reaction. The hon. Gentleman sought a more detailed response in respect of Saudi Arabia. On 24 February, I will give evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee on this year's annual human rights report, when I am sure we shall go into such issues in considerable detail.
Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): My hon. Friend rightly mentioned steering a careful path between encouragement and criticism. We have all been sensitive to that. Does he agree that it is most important for the victims of torture to know that the Government, especially the Foreign Office, are not obstructive to any action that they may feel is necessary? It is not just a matter of sitting back and allowing things to happen, but of supporting people from the United Kingdom who may have been in difficulty, particularly in Saudi Arabia.
The hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale raised the issue of men being shackled by leg irons that were made in England, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden. I am sure that all of us shared the horror and revulsion when that fact was revealed. It is a worrying and serious allegation and it is important that I make some specific comments about it.
In March 1994, an open individual export licence was granted for the export of shackles to destinations that included Saudi Arabia. In an announcement to Parliament on 28 July 1997under a Labour Governmentknown as "the torture statement", the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), committed the Government to taking the necessary measures to prevent the export or transhipment from the United Kingdom of leg irons, gang chains and shacklesexcluding normal handcuffsand electric shock belts designed for the restraint of human beings.
That announcement also committed the Government to encourage European Union member states to impose similar restrictions as a third step towards a global ban. As a forerunner to that announcement, Saudia Arabia was specifically removed as a destination on the export licence on 25 July 1997. I am trying to make it clear that the equipment to which my hon. Friend referred is in Saudi Arabia because of the export licensing regime that existed prior to 1997. All other things being equal, similar equipment could not be exported today.
We greatly welcomed the men's release on 8 August 2003. We were relieved at their return to the UK and to their families. Indeed, Ministers and officials had worked vigorously to secure that outcome. It is worth relating the efforts that we went to when they were released. British embassy officials met them and stayed with them until they boarded the flight to London. We arranged for the men to be accompanied on the flight by a team of British medics and a British embassy official. Police collected members of the men's families from their homes across the UK and drove them to Heathrow airport so that they could meet the men on their arrival. The police then took the majority of the men and their families to their homes or other locations of their choice.
Although the Foreign Office's consular remit and responsibility normally ceases when a British national returns home, on this occasion, given the exceptional circumstances, we offered the men further assistance. As I said, we offered them fast-track access to the national health service. We liaised with their Members of Parliament andrightly and appropriately, given the circumstancesthe Foreign Secretary spoke to each of the men on their return.
The issue of compensation has been raised, and my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden mentioned that, too. I am aware of the men's desire for compensation. It is of course for them to decide how they proceed in that regard, and whether they pursue legal action. Nevertheless, we remain in close touch with the men, their lawyers and the Saudi authorities, and it
Mr. Lyons : It may be true that there are outstanding legal cases, but behind all that, at the end of the day, there is a drive to receive justice rather than compensation. I ask the Minister to reconsider the legal opinion that he has been given in respect of Ron Jones and the two people I mentioned, Khalid al Sallah and Ibrahim al Dali. Surely the Foreign Secretary should consider how we could arrest those people the minute that they step foot in the UK or the EU. That would be a way forward.
Mr. Rammell : I give my hon. Friend a commitment that I will look at that legal advice again. It is clear legal advice, and I will happily discuss it with him in detail, but it would be totally inappropriate for Ministers to give cavalier commitments on something of such importance when we know that, legally, we could not act differently.
The Foreign Office's annual human rights report describes in detail how the Government have responded to human rights challenges around the world, including in Saudi Arabia. Our view is that the promotion and protection of human rights is morally right and firmly in our national interest. By that, I mean that countries that have strong and good human rights records tend to be those with which we have good relations and can do business. We are convincing people that we are taking the right approach on human rights both from a moral and altruistic and from a self-interested point of view.
The annual report on human rights makes it clear that we have human rights concerns in a wide range of countries. We undoubtedly use different approaches to human rights issues in different countries. I know that that sometimes subjects us to criticism, but it is a reality that one size does not fit all. The same approach is not the most effective in every situation. Our experience has been that engaging the Saudi authorities in discussion on human rights issues in private is often more productive and effective than public confrontation. However, let me be clear that private discussions are in no way synonymous with a soft approach. That refers to the issues raised by the hon. Member for South-West Devon.
We have deep concerns about Saudi Arabia's failure to implement basic human rights norms on a wide range of issues, including aspects of the judicial system, corporate and capital punishment, torture, discrimination against women and non-Muslims and restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and worship. Hon. Members have referred to a number of those issues, and it may be helpful if I expand on them.
We are worried that the Saudi legal system's procedures do not meet accepted international standards. Indeed, in a fact-finding mission to Saudi Arabia in October 2002, the United Nations special rapporteur for the independence of judges and lawyers, Mr. Cumaraswamy, met representatives from the Government, the Shura council, the board of senior religious scholars, the bureau of investigation and prosecution, the judiciary, the prison service and the legal professions. His report identified many areas of
We also have concerns about capital and corporal punishment. As hon. Members will be aware, the Saudi judicial system imposes corporal and capital punishment under Saudi sharia law. A number of crimes can be punished by death, including adultery. The judicial and administrative authorities' use of amputationfor example, for theftand flogging remain prevalent. Individuals can be sentenced to flogging for consumption of drugs and alcohol. We believe that the Saudi authorities executed 53 people last year, one of the highest levels of public execution in the world. The Saudi authorities are well aware of our views on the use of the death penalty: we oppose it in Saudi Arabia and everywhere in the world. We also oppose judicial corporal punishment in all its forms.
My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley referred to the plight of women in Saudi Arabia. While women represent more than half the school and university population, they are constrained in the types of job that they can take and in the positions that they can hold in society, and there are severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, to which my hon. Friend referred. There has been some progress. In September 2001 Saudi Arabia ratified the UN convention for elimination of discrimination against women, but we and others have voiced disquiet about the broad reservations that it placed on that ratification. Again, therefore, it is a mixed picture.
Against those wide-ranging concerns must be set some encouraging developments in Saudi Arabia in human rights issues. In May 2002 the Saudis adopted new criminal justice procedures aimed at modernising the criminal justice system. The Saudi Government have shown a greater willingness to engage with the international community and openly discuss human rights issues, and we support and encourage them in that process.
Mr. Streeter : The Minister mentioned the new criminal justice system. In his evidence to the Select Committee in January it was clear that it had not yet been implemented, although it had been introduced in a different way the previous year. Does he know whether it has now been implemented and is working, and are we satisfied?
A number of hon. Members referred to the legal case that Mr. Jones is pursuing. Mr. Jones has asked the Court of Appeal to decide that the United Kingdom's existing legislation regarding the immunity of foreign states from the jurisdiction of UK courts, under the State Immunity Act 1978, is not compatible with the UK's obligations under the European convention on human rights. That request is a legal challenge to the 1978 Act under the Human Rights Act 1998. In accordance with the requirements of the 1998 Act, the Government have a right to be party to the proceedings. The legislation is theirs, so they have a right to be represented. The 1978 Act is the responsibility of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which has asked to be joined as a party. The Government are intervening not to go against Mr. Jones, but to defend existing UK legislation. I shall be happy to talk to hon. Members about that on another occasion.
In conclusion, this has been an important debate on a difficult issue. There have been some positive human rights developments in Saudi Arabia, but there is undoubtedly still a long way to go. We continue to have wide-ranging concerns, but we remain committed to encouraging Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights record. We are encouraged by the ratification of some of the United Nations' human rights treaties, but we should like to see the Saudi authorities go further in implementing those treaties and lifting their exceedingly broad reservations, particularly with regard to women. We continue to press the Saudi Government to ratify the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights, which are two of the six core UN human rights instruments.
We continue to voice our concerns at every opportunity, both privately and publicly. However, as I have stressed on a number of occasions, there must be a balance between explicit public condemnation and private dialogue. The reaction of hon. Members suggests general recognition of that point. If we do not take that balance into account, we shall not serve the interests of UK nationals. In that context, we shall continue to pursue our course of action. I thank every hon. Member who has contributed to the debate, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, who initiated it. This has been a good opportunity to raise issues on an important subject.