It was around this time last year that Britain’s red carpet was rolled out for the high-pomp state visit of King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s monarch and head of government.
The visit was characterised by the inevitable splendour of these occasions - royals meeting royals, lavish banquets, gold-encrusted carriages, bafflingly complex dining arrangements, and a good deal of controversy. Especially about arms deals and human rights.
Gordon Brown and government ministers kept to tight lines about “shared values” and “fighting terrorism”, but the two-day visit saw a welter of criticism from some backbench politicians, from human rights organisations and from commentators of various stripes.
Amnesty, for one, didn’t “oppose” the visit, but sought to talk about human rights in relation to a country that refuses to even allow Amnesty researchers to go to visit to meet Saudi people face to face.
Others added their voices and King Abdullah and his officials were reportedly “shocked” that they had been so much criticised during their time here.
But should they have been shocked? And were the Saudis actually listening to any of what their critics were saying?
It’s healthy and necessary for world leaders to listen to their critics. Rather than recoiling from these views - were we guilty of some unpardonable lèse majesté breach of etiquette? - Riyadh’s royals really ought to start listening to what people are actually complaining about.
It’s pretty simple. The Saudi authorities display an almost complete disregard for even the most basic human rights. Peaceful critics of the government are often subjected to prolonged detention without charge or trial. There are widespread allegations of the use of horrible torture against detainees. Floggings are imposed by the courts (11 Nigerian men were recently sentenced to 1,000 lashes each). Violence and discrimination against women is common, and migrant workers frequently labour under second-class status and suffer physical abuse from their employers.
Many of these gross abuses are piled one on top of another when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s implementation of capital punishment.
Here’s a typical scenario. A Pakistani migrant worker is accused of a murder or of being a drug dealer. Police arrive, the accused is taken to police cells. They are subjected to relentless questioning, denied sleep or food, kept in solitary confinement and tortured if they refuse to “confess” to their crime.
Fearing for their lives, scared and exhausted, the detainee signs a “confession” in Arabic that they can’t read or understood. They cling to a hope that they can sort out the mess when they can get a lawyer or come to trial.
They never get to sort it out. They’re taken before a court without a lawyer and the judge pronounces them guilty entirely on the basis of their false confession. Even then they may be in the dark. Without even the assistance of an interpreter, they probably won’t know what the outcome actually is. What is the sentence? Is there an appeal? A few months later they go to their deaths with no mercy from the Saudi system and no help from their home country, itself a “death penalty state” and one reliant on remittances from oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
In April 2005, for example, six young Somali men were publicly beheaded one morning after being taken out of their prisons where they had been serving what they thought were five-year sentences (plus flogging) for robbery. In fact, unbeknownst to them or their families, they had also been sentenced to death and the men only discovered the fact they were to be killed on the very morning of their executions.
In the last two years alone, according to Amnesty records (incomplete because Saudi Arabia refrains from publishing capital punishment statistics), at least 253 people have been executed. Of these, at least 127 were foreign nationals from poor and developing countries in Asia and Africa, notably Pakistan. Some 125 of them were poor Saudi Arabians (it’s been impossible to even identify the nationality of the remainder); the richer, better-connected Saudis, meanwhile, tend to barter “blood money” pay-offs to victims’ families and escape execution altogether.
Bucking the international trend toward abolition or reduced usage of the death penalty, and behind only China and Iran in terms of raw numbers, Saudi Arabia is executing more and more prisoners, including many for non-lethal crimes. A Turkish man living in Jeddah, for example, a barber called Sabri Bogday, is facing execution after being convicted (without a lawyer or interpreter) on “apostasy” charges for supposedly insulting Islam. Last November an Egyptian, Mustafa Ibrahim, was executed in Riyadh following what the Saudi Ministry of the Interior described as his conviction for “sorcery” and “witchcraft”.
Despite executing two or three prisoners every single week on average, Saudi Arabia’s grotesque love affair with the executioner’s sword is raising barely a murmur of protest from the international community, including our own government.
As William Sampson, one of the “Saudi Brits” who was himself sentenced to death in Riyadh in 2001 recently told Amnesty, what really appalled him in his own case was the almost “mute observance” of the UK government at what was happening in Saudi Arabia.
And still it goes on. Apparently when it comes to the Saudi royals we are keen to roll out the welcome carpet and blow the ceremonial trumpets of state, but altogether less keen to break the code of silence around Saudi Arabia’s diabolical human rights record.
Read Amnesty International’s new report on executions in Saudi Arabia
Kate Allen is UK director of Amnesty International