The Saudi regime just executed 81 people – so why is Boris Johnson cosying up to it?

‘The prime minister’s trip to Riyadh, so soon after a mass execution, shames him personally and shames Britain.’ Boris Johnson arrives at Riyadh airport on Wednesday. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images
‘The prime minister’s trip to Riyadh, so soon after a mass execution, shames him personally and shames Britain.’ Boris Johnson arrives at Riyadh airport on Wednesday. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images

Did Boris Johnson feel a flicker of alarm when the news broke that Saudi Arabia had executed 81 men just days before his in trip to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? The prime minister is not famed for being a man of conscience, but he has a solid grasp of optics. He surely knows that shaking hands with an autocrat who has just overseen a mass killing will harm Britain’s moral standing on the global stage, at a time when this could not be more important.

Since Jamal Khashoggi was lured into 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 since Russian troops invaded Ukraine, there is a sense the calculus has shifted. Increasingly, Conservative ministers and their media outriders are saying the government should do whatever it takes to lessen Britain’s dependence on Russian gas – that it should “make a pact with the devil”, as Crisis Research Institute director, Mark Almond, put it in the Daily Mail.

The timing of the executions is chilling. Less than a fortnight ago, the Atlantic published a lengthy interview with the crown prince touting sweeping modernisations of the Saudi criminal justice system. Staging the largest mass execution in the country’s history so soon after this claim seems a gangster-ish display of impunity: What are you gonna do about it? he seems to ask. The answer appears to be: not much.

By visiting Saudi Arabia this week, Johnson will all but confirm that the Saudi authorities can kill whomever they want, whenever and however, and the west will ignore it. It 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 currently facing a death sentence for the contents of his library.

The 81 executions at the weekend were probably beheadings, but Saudi “justice” is such a black box we can never be sure. The European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights (ESOHR), which keeps a comprehensive record of death sentences in Saudi Arabia, didn’t even know about 69 of the cases. These men were tried, convicted, sentenced and executed in complete secrecy.

Of the 12 we do know about, at least three were likely tortured into making false confessions to terrorism offences after taking part in pro-democracy demonstrations. Aqil al-Faraj, from a prominent dissident family in Qatif, was held in solitary confinement and reportedly beaten all over his body and tortured with electricity and cigarette burns. He was imprisoned for five years, without access to a lawyer, before trial.

United Nations special rapporteurs wrote to the Saudi authorities about the cases of Mohammed al-Shakhouri and Asaad Shubbar, expressing concern at their unfair trials, the prosecution’s reliance on torture confessions, and the fact that they may have been targeted as members of a religious minority.

This is the reality of Saudi capital punishment. The authorities label executed men “terrorists”, but there are political prisoners, non-violent drug offenders and people arrested as children on death row. Abdullah al-Howaiti, who was 14 when he was tortured into confessing to a crime he cannot have committed, has just been sentenced to death for a 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 refused on the grounds that to publish the information might have a “negative impact on the effective conduct of international relations”. Because of this secrecy, we have no idea if UK assistance has supported a judicial regime that relies on torture and executions in Saudi Arabia.

What we do know from ESOHR reports and media monitoring is that in the period this agreement has been in place, the Saudi regime led by King Salman and his son has dramatically increased the pace of executions – there have now been more than 900 since 2015. Just this January, the UK justice minister, Dominic Raab, met with his counterpart, Sheikh Walid al-Samaani, and said he was “glad 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 nobody in his inner circle tell him that there are better and more sustainable ways to deal with the energy crisis than emboldening and empowering a murderous regime?

On Monday, MPs and peers of all parties condemned the massacre in the strongest possible terms and questioned the government’s reluctance to do the same. We must not show our revulsion for Vladimir Putin’s atrocities by rewarding those of Mohammed bin Salman.

Maya Foa is the director of Reprieve, a legal charity that works against grave human rights abuses.

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