Boris Johnson urged to drop planned Saudi Arabia Brexit trade deal after 81 people executed

Boris Johnson has been urged to scrap plans for a post-Brexit trade accord with Saudi Arabia amid concern about the government’s mass executions.

The oil-rich autocracy executed 81 people over the weekend, thought to be the largest such killing in the country’s history.

Human rights campaigners have accused the prime minister of trying to trade “oil for blood” with the trade push – which comes while political prisoners and children are among those still facing death row.

In the House of Lords on Monday peers said plans to give Saudi traders preferential access to the City of London’s markets should not go ahead.

It comes as Boris Johnson is reportedly planning a trip to the country to emphasise trade opportunities, especially in oil and gas.

Lord Purvis, a Liberal Democrat peer, told the Lords: “Last week [minister] Lord Grimstone and officials were offering great market access to our aerospace industry to Saudi Arabia and now we are in negotiations to offer them preferential access to the City of London.

“So will the government give an indication that it’s not just concerned about this but that it will remove preferential market access to Saudi Arabia in the UK economy, for grievous and horrific human rights abuses?”

But the Earl of Courtown, responding for the government, appeared to suggest the government had no plans to step back from is approach to Saudi Arabia.

“All these issues are always under review but we do have a very close relationship with Saudi Arabia and this enables us to have full and frank discussions with them over these issues,” the deputy chief whip said.

Lord Watts, a Labour peer, said the government “seems to be running away from trade deals with our European partners who share our love of democracy and freedom” and warned that ministers appear to be “rushing into trade deals with bloodthirsty dictators”.

But the Earl of Courtown replied that it was “important to have trade deals throughout the international community and particularly at the moment with the issues relating to insecure energy supply it is really important that we keep talking to our close allies across the world”.

Lord Collins, whose urgent question sparked the exchange in the upper house, said the Saudi Arabian government’s warning that it would not “hesitate to deter anyone who threatens security or disrupts public life” demonstrated “just how low the bar is for execution in that country”.

Saudi Arabia was as recently as 2020 thought to have enacted an unannounced moratorium on the death penalty, but has since moved away from the policy.

The country’s government says the 81 people were “terrorists” but observers say the definition used is absurdly broad.

The state SPA news agency said the accused were given the right to an attorney and were guaranteed their full rights under Saudi law during the judicial process. Crimes ranged from from joining militant groups to holding “deviant beliefs”.

Soraya Bauwens, deputy director of campaign group Reprieve said: “Boris Johnson is trading oil for blood. Despite the Saudi Government’s claims that these executions related to terrorism charges, nearly three quarters of these 81 men were executed for non-lethal offences.

“Some were pro-democracy protesters, tortured into false confessions, whose real ‘crime’ was challenging the status quo. Many more political prisoners and child defendants on death row are at risk.

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“We cannot show our revulsion for Putin’s atrocities by rewarding those of Mohammed Bin Salman. Johnson must cancel his trip, condemn the killings and call for an immediate moratorium on the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.”

Downing Street has said the government will be “raising” Saudi Arabia’s executions with the regime in Riyadh.

Tory government peer the Earl of Courtdown said: “We are deeply concerned by the execution on 81 individuals on 13 March. The United Kingdom strongly opposes the death penalty in all countries and in all circumstances as a matter of principle. The UK ambassador has already raised the UK’s strong concerns with the Saudi national security advisor and their vice foreign minister.

“HM government regularly raises concern with Saudi authorities regarding juvenile death penalty applications. The British embassy at Riyadh closely monitors all juvenile death penalty cases and routinely attempt to attend trials.”