Argus title : We’ll turn a blind eye to torture if the price is right
Vincent Cable, Acting Leader of the Liberal democrats, is a mild-mannered politician. No one could have imagined that he would become a people’s hero. Yet a hero he certainly is.
While other party leaders have grovelled to King Abdullah al-Saud of Saudi Arabia, feudal leader of a brutal torturing state, Cable alone has refused to meet him at the Queen’s state banquet.
Gordon Brown stuffed himself into white tie and tails to meet him. Kim Howells, the Foreign Office Minister who claims we have “shared values” with the Saudis, was grateful to be there. David Cameron oiled his way to the table without difficulty. Only Vincent Cable would have none of it.
Gay activist Peter Tatchell summarized the reasons “As well as flogging and executing gay people, Saudi leaders are guilty of detention without trial, torture and the public beheading of women who have sex outside of marriage. Migrant workers are de facto slaves. The media is heavily censored. Trade unions, political parties and non-Muslim religions are banned. The country is a theocratic police state.”
Money is at the heart of things. Saudi Arabia has huge reserves of oil, is one of the largest procurers of defence equipment in the world and is Britain’s biggest trading partner in the Middle East, while the UK is its second biggest foreign investor. It recently agreed to buy 72 Eurofighter Typhoon fighter planes from the UK at a cost of £4.43bn.
Vincent Cable remained unimpressed. Describing Saudi Arabia’s human rights record as “appalling”, he challenged Gordon Brown to confront the King on such issues as discrimination against women, the death penalty, torture and the ill-treatment of homosexuals. He also referred to the regime’s arms deal with the British firm BAE and the row over alleged corruption surrounding it.
Tony Blair’s government forced the Serious Fraud Office, on alleged national security grounds, to drop an investigation into this alleged corruption. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, part of the King’s entourage at Buckingham Palace, was accused of receiving secret payments of £1bn. BAE denied wrongdoing as did Prince Bandar.
Vincent Cable has called on Gordon Brown to reopen the investigation. Cable has been criticized both for damaging trade relations and for boycotting the state banquet. “Juvenile gesture politics!” fumed the Tory’s Liam Fox, but he was unjust. Mr Cable is too serious a man for adolescent gestures. He simply seems to have made a very principled decision that it would be wrong to go.
Other prominent individuals – including political leaders and some members of the Royal family – appear mesmerised by the extraordinary wealth of the Saudis. The Prince of Wales is reported to have accepted a donation of £5 million for one of his charities. On a recent visit to the country, the Duchess of Cornwall was given a superb ruby and diamond necklace, reported to be worth well over a million pounds.
Supporters claim that Saudi Arabia is slowly making changes and is a bulwark against terrorism. The truth is that the Saudis promote the extreme form of Wahabi Islam which is at the ideological heart, not just of their own state, but also of extreme groups such as the Taliban and al-Qaida. There is also evidence that the Saudis bankroll a number of Islamist madrassas in Britain and donate large numbers of extremist publications promoting Wahabi Islam to British universities and libararies. It seems perverse to argue that this awful feudal society based on an extreme, brutal and misogynist form of Islam will be a bulwark against terrorism.
It is particularly grotesque that the King has been welcomed into the country by a female monarch. As journalist Johann Hari recently wrote: “life in Saudi Arabia is worst of all for women. While King Abdullah offers praise for Britain’s female head of state, in his country all women are kept in effect under house arrest. They are banned from driving, from leaving the house without a male guardian, even in a medical emergency, or from holding a passport. Whenever women try to struggle free from these rules, the “Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” – a posse of uniformed thugs who stalk the streets – beat them with batons.”
Amnesty International is impatient of those who suggest that significant improvements have been made. They say: “Women in Saudi Arabia, whether Saudi Arabian or foreign, emerge time and again as victims of discrimination and human rights violations because of the gender bias in law, social mores and traditions. While women have gained some ground in terms of economic rights, their civil and political rights are systematically violated.
“Strict segregation of the sexes, an integral part of Saudi Arabian society, has adverse and unequal effects on women, who are denied equal educational opportunities and may work only in certain vocations.”
One of the most appalling illustrations of Saudi state misogynism was in 2002 when a fire broke out at a school in Mecca. In common with most girls’ schools it was kept locked in order to prevent sexual ‘misconduct’. The guards refused to open the gates despite the girls’ screams and religious police prevented girls from escaping, in some cases beating them back into the school because they were not properly veiled. Fifteen girls died and more than fifty were wounded.
Johann Hari quoted a female Saudi writer called Badria al-Bisher who wrote: ” Imagine being a woman whose nose, arms, and legs are now broken by your husband, and when you submit a complaint to a judge saying: He beats me! He’d casually reply by saying: Yes? What else? ….”
Torture is endemic in Saudi Arabia. Vincent Cable asked Gordon Brown to raise the issue and seek an apology over the arrest and alleged torture of the British expatriate engineer Sandy Mitchell.
Sandy Mitchell was chief anaesthetic technician at the Security Forces hospital in Riyadh, when in 2002 he was arrested, handcuffed and manacled and taken into custody. There he was to remain for almost 3 years.
He was accused of the car bombing of a British engineer called Christopher Rodway in November 2000 – an attack which had in fact been carried out by al-Qaida. He was tortured until he confessed, forced to read out his confession on TV then sentenced to death in 2002 after a 10-minute trial.
He told a Guardian journalist “”All during the night I would be tortured. They punched, kicked and spat at me, and later hit me with sticks. They used an axe handle to beat the soles of my feet. I would have confessed to anything to stop the pain.”
Throughout his imprisonment, he believed he would be executed by means of al-Hadi, a form of crucifixion that involves tying the victim to an x-shaped wooden cross and then being partially beheaded by a sword. The body is left to rot in public as a warning to others.
After his release Mitchell retracted his confession and an inquest later exonerated him. However, he speaks with shame about his experience. He said: “They presented me with names I had never seen and I said what they wanted. I carry that guilt.”
He was freed following an al-Qaida attack in May 2003 by nine suicide bombers on a compound in Riyadh. Two days later, five Saudis were transferred from Guantánamo Bay in exchange for his release. The UK government has not apologized for abandoning him in Saudi Arabia and since his return has opposed his efforts to seek redress from the Saudis.
The UK is keen to protect its business interests. Other former prisoners have described Saudi use of shackles and chains, in contravention of UN regulations on prisoners. Amnesty International reports that some restraints are stamped “Hiatts”, a UK company.
It reports: “despite Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record, foreign governments have been willing to supply the country with equipment that could be used to torture or ill-treat prisoners” confirming that in 1993 “the UK government granted two licences for the transfer of electro-shock weapons to Saudi Arabia…”
“It appears that the lure of profitable business with Saudi Arabia has led foreign governments to ignore their moral and legal obligations to human rights, both by allowing the Saudi Arabian authorities to receive equipment that facilitates torture and ill-treatment, and by remaining silent about the country’s human rights record.”
The Labour MP John McDonnell asked recently: “Why is it that in the same breath the prime minister condemns the lack of democracy in Burma and the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe, but remains silent when it comes to the Saudi dictatorship?”
The answer is not just money. It is cowardice.