Leaked cables from the Saudi foreign ministry reveal how the kingdom tried to manage media coverage of two beheadings in 2013 so its bid to be elected to the UN Human Rights council would be unaffected.
Earlier this month, the Financial Times revealed that the UK "initiated a secret deal" with Saudi Arabia to ensure both states were elected to the UN body. David Cameron later faced an uncomfortable interview with Channel 4 News over the deal, which host Jon Snow described as "squalid". He defended his position by saying he had made it in the interests of national security.
The revelation highlights why Britain is facing mounting pressure over its key Middle East ally. On Tuesday, Cameron was forced to cancel a multimillion-pound contract to advise the kingdom over its prison policy. The prime minister also announced that he would write to Saudi Arabia's rulers about an elderly British man who has been held in jail there for 14 months and reportedly faces 350 lashes for carrying homemade wine.
The UK has also been criticised by civil rights groups who accuse the government of not adhering to a European Parliament resolution on Saudi Arabia, BuzzFeed News can reveal.
Saudi Arabia is facing growing international condemnation over the death sentences against Ali al-Nimr and Dawoud al-Marhoun, two juvenile protesters who were both arrested aged 17. Campaign groups say they were tortured in order to extract confessions.
The leaked cables – which were posted on the WikiLeaks site earlier this year – show how Saudi Arabia has managed this pressure over previous executions.
They reveal that while Britain was championing the Saudi cause in 2013, the kingdom was pondering the best way to defend two recent beheadings should the rest of the world start asking questions about them.
One of the cables discusses the execution of Eid al-Dhafiri, a Saudi citizen who was convicted of murder after stabbing a man to death. It was sent to the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) by the kingdom's media directorate.
It notes: "The official speaker for the French Ministry of Foreign [sic] has issued a statement on 15/1/2013 that states: 'France condemns the execution by sword of Eid Al Dhufairi on the 13 of January in Saudi Arabia and expresses its concern about the continually increasing number of executions in this country."
The cable goes on to point out that the statement "has not been published in any media outlet yet including the French news agency and others".
This leaves the MOFA with two options, it says:
1. Either responding by a statement by the speaker for the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while taking into account that this course of action will attract the attention of the media to the original French statement.
2. [This option is ticked] Or responding with an official memo handed to the French Ambassador via a high ranked official in the Ministry, and then later issuing a statement if it transpires in the media.
In the end, it seems the proposed tactic worked: There were no news reports in which France's condemnation of the execution was published.
The second cable, also sent to the MOFA, relates to the execution that year of a Sri Lankan migrant who worked as a maid, called Rizana Nafizq.
Attached is the copy of a note from the UN Secretary General in response to questions regarding the execution of the Sri Lankan migrant worker in the Kingdom, Mrs. Rizana Nafiq, which contained that the Secretary General felt horrified because of the execution and worried about the reports that state the presence of violations regarding the detention and trial of the mentioned (Mrs. Nafiq), as well as the rise of the death penalty cases in Saudi Arabia.
The cable adds: "He also notes that women in Saudi Arabia do not enjoy equal rights to men in the eyes of the law or in terms of access to justice." It goes on to add that "this issue has had intense negative coverage in the world media focusing on the fact that she was executed for a crime committed under the age of 18, in violation of international agreements ratified by the Kingdom ... according to the ... Secretary General".
The advice offered to the MOFA is "the issuance of a statement by the relevant authorities that refutes these allegations so that silence is not interpreted as admission of guilt, especially since the Kingdom approaches the elections for UN Human Rights Council where this case would affect the Kingdom's chances of success".
Maya Foa, head of Reprieve's death penalty team, told BuzzFeed News: "These cables demonstrate clearly that pressure from Saudi Arabia's allies has an effect – the Saudi authorities are aware of the revulsion caused by gross human rights abuses, and are forced uncomfortably on the defensive when other countries protest their beheadings and floggings."
Cameron's decision to cancel Britain's bid for a £5.9 million contract to advise the Saudi Arabian prison system was taken following a row between two senior cabinet ministers. Justice secretary Michael Gove was opposed to dealing with the regime, while foreign secretary Philip Hammond argued that cancelling the contract would risk the Saudis stopping sharing intelligence with the UK.
Britain is also facing criticism for not doing more to intervene in the case of the two young Saudi protesters who are due to be executed. Six days ago, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling on Saudi Arabia not to kill Ali al-Nimr and Dawoud al-Marhoun, along with others arrested at protests. It called on all member states to "deploy all their diplomatic tools and make every effort to immediately stop the execution".
Maya Foa told BuzzFeed News: "The European Parliament's resolution will have been heard loud and clear in the Kingdom – as will the British government's 11th-hour decision to cancel its misguided prisons deal." She added: "MEPs are right to call on EU member states to do more to stop these executions. Britain in particular should be using our very strong Saudi links to save Ali and Dawoud – and UK ministers must also come clean about our continued activities within the Saudi 'justice' system."
Zena al-Esia, a researcher at the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, said: "This adopted resolution which was motioned by MEPs sends a strong message to European member states, and acts as a clear signal to the individual member states to play a more influential role in the development of human rights in Saudi Arabia."
However, such pleas may fall on deaf ears. Earlier this month, Sir Simon McDonald, permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, said human rights no longer had the "profile" within his department they had "in the past".
A Foreign Office spokesperson told BuzzFeed News: "The British Government is very concerned about the case of Ali Mohammed Al Nimr. We have raised this, as we do regularly with human rights cases, with the Saudi Arabian Government at the highest levels. The UK opposes the death penalty around the world."
Alan White is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alan White at email@example.com.
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