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UK foreign office minister condemns 'spike' in Saudi executions

David Rutley says a Jordanian man, Hussein Abo al-Kheir, on death row for a drug offence, has 'clearly' been tortured, as Saudi Arabia resumes mass executions this month
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia meet on 15 November at the G20 Summit in Indonesia (Reuters)

A British foreign office minister has condemned Saudi Arabia's recent executions of 20 prisoners convicted of drug offences and said the UK government would continue to raise the case of a Jordanian man believed to be at imminent risk of execution.

Answering questions from members of parliament on Monday, David Rutley, the foreign office minister for the Americas and the Caribbean, said the spike in executions "does not sit comfortably with what was previously said by the Saudi government".

The recent executions occurred despite Saudi Arabia announcing a moratorium on the enforcement of death penalties for drug-related offences in January last year. 

Rutley also told parliament that Hussein Abo al-Kheir, the Jordanian man who is currently believed to be on death row over a drug conviction, had been "clearly" tortured.

"We find that abhorrent and we've raised that issue at the highest level and will continue to do so, not just in his case but in other cases where that might be happening as well," Rutley said.

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Kheir is believed to be facing imminent execution after he was moved to a death row cell last week and made calls to family members to say goodbye.

He was arrested in 2014 for smuggling drugs as he crossed into the kingdom from Jordan, and has said he confessed to the charges only after he was tortured, including being hung upside down and beaten.

Rutley is the second foreign office minister to speak about Kheir's case in recent days.

Lord Ahmad, the minister for the Middle East, said last week that he raised Kheir's case with the Saudi ambassador to the UK last week. Rutley on Monday said Lord Ahmad has also raised his case with the Saudi justice minister during his visit to the UK in January.

Yet while Kheir's case has attracted the attention of British politicians, he is only one of dozens of individuals currently on death row in Saudi Arabia over drug offences.

UK 'too soft'

Given the numbers, former Cabinet member and MP David Davis urged the government on Monday to "step up" its efforts, calling on Foreign Secretary James Cleverly once again to intervene.

“We know already we’ve been too soft with totalitarian states coming back to bite us. We were too soft over Litvinenko and we ended up with the Skripal poisoning," Davis said, referring to the fatal poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2008, and the attempted murder of another Russian dissident, Sergei Skripal, with a chemical agent in Salisbury in 2018.

Davis added: "We have seen how Saudi Arabia behaves abroad, with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi; it is time to make it clear in no uncertain terms to it that it must abide by international civilised standards. If the foreign secretary - and I do say the foreign secretary - does so firmly enough, he will almost certainly save 55 further lives."

Several MPs asked why Saudi Arabia would choose to execute so many individuals right now, a question Rutley said Lord Ahmad raised with the Saudi ambassador last week and was seeking further clarification on.

Maya Foa, director of Reprieve which represents Kheir, said it was time to recognise that the Saudi government has repeatedly lied to the international community and welcomed Rutley's comments while calling for further action.

"Saudi authorities will get away with these lies if countries like the UK fail to hold them to account, which is why this candid admission from a minister about the atrocities being committed is a significant and positive step," she said.

"We urge the British Government to match its words with action, by making all possible representations at the highest levels to stop the execution of Hussein and the many others in his position."

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