British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday canceled a £5.9m deal for the Ministry of Justice to provide prison services to Saudi Arabia, following growing political pressure and international outcry at the Gulf state's human rights abuses.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn last month called on the Ministry of Justice to scrap the deal, citing the case of pro-democracy protester Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who was sentenced to execution by crucifixion at the age of 17 after being tortured into a "confession." Dawoud al-Marhoon was also sentenced to die at the age of 17 under similar circumstances, and both executions are imminent.
Recently-appointed Justice Secretary Michael Gove vigorously lobbied against the contract, which was submitted earlier this year by Justice Solutions International, the commercial wing of the Ministry of Justice, to provide a training program for Saudi corrections officers. However, Prime Minister David Cameron had strongly supported the deal—but then scrapped it just before it was to be debated in the House of Commons.
"This deal, if it had gone ahead, would have meant the UK was complicit in the same system that is threatening to execute juveniles Ali al-Nimr and Dawoud al-Marhoon for the 'crime' of protesting."
—Kate Higham, Reprieve
Cameron's move comes amid mounting international concern over the Saudi government's brutal prison and execution system, in which "crimes" such as adultery are punishable by death, and neither children nor people with mental disabilities are spared. Between August 2014 and June 2015, at least 175 people were executed by the Saudi state "after unfair trials lacking basic safeguards," according to Amnesty International.
Downing Street also said Tuesday that the Prime Minister will write a letter of concern to the Saudi government over the pending punishment of 360 lashes for Karl Andree, a 74 year old accused of transporting homemade wine.
Cameron's cancellation of the contract was welcomed, but many expressed concern about the continued close relationship between the two states.
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"David Cameron has been shamed into a U-turn on this terrible contract, but why on Earth was it set up in the first place?" asked Corbyn on Tuesday. "We should be sending a strong message to repressive regimes that the UK is a beacon for human rights and that this contract bid is unacceptable in the 21st century, and would damage Britain’s standing in the world."
"It is extremely welcome that the Prime Minister has dropped the MoJ's Saudi prisons bid—the decision could not have come soon enough," said Kate Higham, caseworker for the human rights organization Reprieve, in a statement released Tuesday. "This deal, if it had gone ahead, would have meant the UK was complicit in the same system that is threatening to execute juveniles Ali al-Nimr and Dawoud al-Marhoon for the 'crime' of protesting.
"Britain’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, however, remains extremely strong," Higham continued. "Cancelling the bid has sent a clear message that the UK does not support Saudi Arabia’s gross violations of human rights, and David Cameron must now use this moment of opportunity to prevent the brutal executions of Ali and Dawoud."
The UK government remains a major supplier of weapons to the Gulf monarchy via government-to-government contracts in which UK Ministry of Defense civil servants work in Saudi Arabia and are paid by the Saudi government to secure contracts, as highlighted by the Campaign Against Arms Trade. The transactions continue as the Saudi government unleashes its weapons on the people of Yemen, in what human rights organizations say amounts to war crimes.
What's more, leaked diplomatic documents reveal that, in 2013, Britain and Saudi Arabia entered a secret deal to ensure that both were elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council.