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UK lawmakers urge govt. to explain about-face on Saudi torture comments

File photo of Hussein Abo al-Kheir in Saudi prison

A number of British lawmakers have urged the government to explain to the parliament why a Foreign Office minister’s claim about Saudi Arabia’s torture of a death row inmate was struck from the parliamentary record.

MPs raised their concerns on Thursday while addressing an International Human Rights Day debate, questioning whether the measure was adopted due to reported Saudi pressures for the alteration.

David Rutley, Foreign Office minister for the Americas and the Caribbean, told lawmakers last week that 57-year-old Jordanian Hussein Abo al-Kheir had “clearly” been tortured.

Kheir was arrested in 2014 on drug smuggling accusations when he crossed into Saudi Arabia from Jordan. He says he did not commit any crime but was under 12 days of torture to give a confession.

He is only one of dozens of individuals currently on death row in Saudi Arabia over drug offences.

“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 then.

However, four days later, he said there was an “error” in his comments as he should have described the death row inmate’s torture as “alleged”.

‘Not a correction but a withdrawal’

Labour MP Chris Bryant believes the minister has been under the influence of pressures from Saudi Arabia on this case.

“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,” he said.

“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,” added the lawmaker. “I'm guessing the Saudis must be laughing their way to the end of the week.”

Andy Slaughter, another Labour MP, said the u-turn showcases the challenges facing British politicians who want to take action on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.

He criticized the UK government’s “double standards”, noting that Rutley’s changes were not “ministerial correction”, but rather, “That is tailoring your words to suit a barbaric regime.”

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael called on the Foreign Office to provide official explanations to the parliament.

“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," he said.

“Surely, that would be a more appropriate way to proceed,” added the lawmaker.

'UK government avoiding upsetting MBS'

Meanwhile, Maya Foa, director of legal action NGO Reprieve, which is presenting Al-Kheir, has raised the likelihood of UK government’s efforts to avoid upsetting Saudi Arabia and its rulers.

“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,” she told Middle East Eye.

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

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