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British minister's U-turn on Saudi torture comments sparks criticism from MPs

Government accused of bowing to Saudi pressure after claim kingdom tortured Hussein Abo al-Kheir struck from record
The Palace of Westminster, house of Parliaments and Elizabeth Tower in central London (AFP)

British MPs have called on the government to provide an explanation in parliament after a Foreign Office minister's claim that Saudi Arabia "abhorrently" tortured a death row inmate was struck from the parliamentary record.

"If there is evidence that the Foreign Office now has that shows that what the minister then said is incorrect, there is a mechanism for them to come to the chamber and explain why the mistake was made," Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael said on Thursday.

"Surely, that would be a more appropriate way to proceed."

David Rutley, Foreign Office minister for the Americas and the Caribbean appointed in October, told MPs last week that Hussein Abo al-Kheir, a 57-year-old Jordanian man at risk of imminent execution in Saudi Arabia, had "clearly" been tortured.

"We find that abhorrent and we 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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Four days later, according to Hansard, Rutley said "an error" had been identified in his comments and that he should have described Kheir's torture as "alleged".

Speaking in an International Human Rights Day debate on Thursday, several MPs criticised the change in the record and cast doubt that it was a correction of fact, particularly following reports that the Saudi government pressed for the alteration.

'It wasn’t correcting the record at all. He was withdrawing his comment on Saudi Arabia and whether the gentlemen concerned had been tortured'

- Chris Bryant, Labour MP

Labour MP Chris Bryant said: "It wasn’t correcting the record at all. He was withdrawing his comment on Saudi Arabia and whether the gentlemen concerned had been tortured, which all the evidence shows he was."

"What I fear has happened is that basically they’ve been told off by the Saudi government and they’ve decided that the Saudi government has more say in this than we do and I think that’s nonsense," he added.

"I'm guessing the Saudis must be laughing their way to the end of the week."

Labour MP Andy Slaughter said the revision was a "perfect example" of the challenges facing British politicians who want to take action on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. "The government adopts double standards," he said.

Rutley's changes, he added, are "not a ministerial correction".

"That is tailoring your words to suit a barbaric regime."

Shadow Minister for the Middle East and North Africa Bambos Charalambous told MEE after the debate that the revision was "completely unacceptable" and demonstrated "the weakness of this Conservative government".

"The Foreign Office should come clean and urgently explain why the record has been corrected," he said.

The Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office did not comment on the record for this story.

Kheir is believed to be facing imminent execution over drug offences, which he says he didn't commit but was tortured for 12 days into giving a confession, including being hung upside down and beaten. The 57-year-old was arrested in 2014 and accused of smuggling drugs as he crossed into Saudi Arabia from Jordan.

Lord Ahmad, British minister for the Middle East, said last month that he had raised Kheir's case with the Saudi ambassador. 

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.

Maya Foa, director of legal action NGO Reprieve, which is presenting Al-Kheir, told Middle East Eye: "Since when was the Saudi government allowed to edit statements to parliament? This looks very much like the British government has abandoned its policy of opposing torture in all circumstances to avoid upsetting Mohammed bin Salman."

"We need to know what the Saudi ambassador asked and why the Foreign Office agreed to change the record," she added. "The paper-thin explanation that the minister simply mispoke fools no one. Do they oppose torture or don't they?" 

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