The UK government has been accused of failing to publicly condemn a death sentence handed to a young Egyptian, who was arrested on trumped-up charges as a teenager, and instead discussing the safety of British holidaymakers.
In a letter regarding the fate of Ahmed Saddouma, who was arrested in 2015 at the age of 17 and tortured into confessing to "terrorist" crimes he did not commit, the Foreign Office (FCO) ignored calls to take stronger action. Instead, it went on to say it was "in the UK's interest to pursue a constructive relationship" with Egypt because the country is a popular destination for British tourists.
Saddouma's sentence was commuted to 15 years following an appeal in Cairo on Saturday, more than four years after he was taken from his family home and abused. He was originally sentenced to death last year in a mass trial of 30 people. Among the charges was involvement in the attempted assassination of a judge that took place three weeks after his arrest.
International law prohibits issuing the death penalty to people under 18. Yet Saddouma has become one of more than 2,440 people sentenced to death in Egypt since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in 2013, according to human rights group Reprieve. Ten of those were children.
Reprieve, a human rights group, said the decision to commute his sentence was an "important step" — but not justice.
Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake raised concerns with the FCO in April in a letter shared with BuzzFeed News, urging the government to "issue an immediate call for urgent action to ensure the release of Ahmed Saddouma".
He claimed that the British government "has a duty to speak out" because of its assistance in counterterrorism training in Egypt, and asked for details about any contact the government has had with the Egyptian authorities over his case.
But he said his questions went unanswered in a response received on May 20. Conservative MP Andrew Murrison, minister for the Middle East and North Africa, wrote that Egyptian officials had assured they were "looking into this and similar cases".
"It is in the UK’s interest to pursue a constructive relationship with Egypt. An estimated 418,000 British tourists visited Egypt in 2018, whose safety and security is the Government’s paramount concern," he wrote. "The UK will continue to call on the Egyptian authorities to adhere to the highest standards of criminal justice. We shall be closely monitoring the verdict of Ahmed Saddouma's appeal on 8 June."
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Brake accused the government of "turning a blind eye" to abuses in its response.
"Mentioning the importance of security for British holidaymakers while dodging responding to a shocking case of a juvenile facing torture and a death sentence makes a mockery of the Government’s supposed commitment to human rights," he said.
He added, "Tougher action must be taken to hold the Egyptian Government to account, rather than turning a blind eye to the long list of abuses which have happened under President el-Sisi."
The FCO response was dubbed "ludicrous" by Reprieve, which wants the government to issue a statement condemning the use of the death penalty for "crimes" committed by children.
Reprieve director Maya Foa told BuzzFeed News: "If the UK Government cannot bring itself to take a stand against this blatantly unjust and illegal death sentence, its claim to provide moral leadership is an empty pose.”
The government's travel advice website states that "terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Egypt", and refers to a knife attack that killed three foreign tourists at beach resorts in Hurghada, Egypt, in 2017. An attack had occurred there the previous year, and in the popular tourist destination of Luxor in 2015, but neither resulted in fatalities.
BuzzFeed News understands that a British official will attend Saturday’s hearing.
A FCO spokesperson said that the government is continuing to raise Saddouma’s case with the Egyptian government and will monitor the verdict of his appeal.
“The UK strongly opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, especially for juveniles,” they said.