Britain should treat Saudi Arabia as a pariah state

Free Raif Badawi and end links with the Saudi tyranny

By Peter Tatchell

Daily Telegraph – London, UK – 17 June 2015


It is exactly three years ago today that the pro-democracy blogger Raif Badawi was arrested and imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Earlier this month, the Saudi Supreme Court upheld the draconian sentence handed down for his ‘crime’ of setting up a liberal website: ten years jail and 1,000 lashes.

Meanwhile, Badawi’s lawyer and brother-in-law, Waleed Abu Al-Khair – himself a human rights activist and founder of the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia – had his 15 year jail sentence confirmed in February.

This is happening in a country that successive British governments have allied with, diplomatically and militarily, despite its tyrannical nature and its sharp divergence from our stated democratic, liberal and human rights values. Our foreign policy on Saudi Arabia doesn’t match what we say we stand for.

Indeed, as well as Raif’s and Waleed’s persecution, “Amnesty international has documented” ten different forms of gross human rights abuse perpetrated by the regime in Riyadh.

Despite UK government silence, human rights campaigners have kept the Badawi case in the public eye. English PEN has been holding weekly vigils outside the Saudi Embassy in London, and the Amnesty International petition calling for his release has over 1 million signatures. People worldwide are sharing the #FreeRaif appeal on social media, calling for his immediate, unconditional release.

Badawi is one of the human rights heroes of our age. He has been awarded several prizes, including PEN Canada’s One Humanity Award, and has been nominated for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. Numerous Nobel laureates have voiced their support for Raif, as have well-known public figures such as Patti Smith, Jimmy Wales, Salman Rushdie and Noam Chomsky.

The UK and global campaigns in support of Badawi have clearly had irritated and unnerved the Saudi Arabian regime. Last week, its London Embassy issued a rambling press release, decrying the international protests as ‘outrageous, ridiculous interference.’

Clearly, the Saudi authorities don’t like the way democratic societies work. The petition signatures, ThunderClap, letters, vigils and cartoons for Raif Badawi are the collective expression of ordinary people, of all religions and none, standing in solidarity with a fellow human being who is being victimised because he has the ‘wrong’ opinions.

What the Saudi Government calls ‘interference’ the rest of us call free speech and the defence of human rights. Perhaps if they actually read Raif Badawi’s blog, instead of censoring it, they would better understand what is happening and why.

There are also British ministers who might benefit from reading Raif’s writing. On the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, David Cameron paid lip-service to the idea of human rights while making plans to extend mass surveillance, repeal the Human Rights Act and extend the UK’s decades-long special relationship with the Saudi dictatorship.

Meanwhile, the UK Ministry of Justice’s commercial arm is currently finalising an agreement to provide consultancy to the Saudi Arabian prison service. It hopes to secure a £5.9 million fee for advising a judicial system that unrepentantly carries out detention without trial, torture, floggings and public beheadings.

Saudi Arabia is currently the UK’s largest arms export market. It is nonsense to claim, as ministers do, that this military cooperation is about nothing more than the Saudis’ right to self-defence. The reason we do not arm Iran or North Korea is that arms sales are inescapably an expression of political support and commitment to regime survival.

Furthermore, the UK has £12 billion invested in Saudi Arabia and continues to invite Saudi investment in the UK – particularly in the properly market – which currently totals over £62.5 billion.

When our Government promotes such deep commercial engagement with Saudi Arabia it lends the regime credibility. Worse, it sends a terrible message to reformists inside the country: when they risk everything to speak out for democracy, Whitehall does nothing to help them and everything to entrench the position of their oppressors.

It is time David Cameron’s government ceased its support for a Saudi state that violates the human rights of its own citizens – and which poisons Islam by exporting extreme Islamist ideology around the world, including to the UK.

Today, on this third anniversary of Badawi’s arrest, “we will be taking our campaign to Downing Street, with a delegation” including representatives from Campaign Against the Arms Trade, English PEN, Index on Censorship, International Front for Secularism and the Peter Tatchell Foundation.

Our letter to the Prime Minister urges him to publicly call for the release of Raif and other political prisoners, and to condemn all human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. We also want David Cameron to make trade with Riyadh conditional on the regime’s respect for human rights and ethical norms of governance – particularly in relation to the sale of weapons that could be used to oppress Saudi citizens. These demands will be reiterated at a public meeting this evening in the Houses of Parliament with MPs, peers and campaigners.

Until it conforms to international human rights standards, Saudi Arabia should be treated as a pariah state. Arms sales must end, the British ambassador should be recalled, and key regime figures sanctioned internationally.