Government responds by trying to block NGO from bringing case
A High Court challenge has been launched by a Bristol solicitor against the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) for bidding to sell its services to the Saudi Government through the MOJ’s “commercial arm”, Just Solutions International (JSi).
The Saudi bid was made public in a departmental mid-year report published in December last year and has been the subject of widespread criticism. The Ministry of Justice has refused requests for information about the bid on the grounds of commercial sensitivity, and has blocked a Freedom of Information Act request for information about JSi, on the grounds that it would be “too expensive” to find the relevant emails (despite the fact that JSi is within the Ministry of Justice).
The legal challenge had initially been brought by an individual, known as AB after the High Court ordered that his identity be kept secret, who had been detained and tortured by the Saudi authorities. His case had been funded through Legal Aid, but the Legal Aid Agency, an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice, decided to withdraw Legal Aid just days before the Ministry of Justice was due to provide its initial response to the legal challenge, in a move his solicitor, Adam Hundt of Deighton Pierce Glynn, described as “unprecedented in my experience.”
AB subsequently withdrew from the claim, and the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), a NGO that works to provide support and protection to human rights defenders in the Gulf region, stepped into the breach to act as Claimant, to enable the case to continue.
However the Ministry of Justice has since confirmed that it intends to oppose GCHR’s application to act as claimant in the case, as well as the Centre’s application for costs protection. Costs protection can be granted by the courts to allow important public interest litigation against the State to be brought by a claimant who would not otherwise be able to bring the challenge, because of the potentially crippling bill for the Government’s legal costs which they would have to pay if they lost the case.
In GCHR’s case, Melanie Gingell, their UK spokesperson says, “We are a small NGO, and the resources that we have are dedicated to supporting the work of human rights defenders in the Gulf region. Without costs protection the price of holding the British government to account for its actions in this case will just be too high for us to continue.”
The abuse of human rights in Saudi Arabia is well documented with scores of people being arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned and tortured every year. The death penalty is imposed for a wide range of non-lethal crimes, including the “offences” of sorcery, apostasy and homosexuality. Among those executed are minors and individuals with mental illness.
Political and democracy activists In Saudi Arabia face lengthy jail sentences and flogging for peaceful campaigning. In a recent case that has prompted worldwide condemnation, Raif Badawi, a Saudi activist and blogger, received a sentence of 10 years imprisonment and 1,000 lashes for advocating freedom of expression through a blog post. His sentence was recently upheld by the Saudi Supreme Court. Incredibly, the UK government now appears to be defending Raif’s flogging, claiming that “we have to recognise that the actions of the Saudi government in these respects have the support of the vast majority of the Saudi population”. It’s a far cry from the speech the same minister gave on World Press Freedom Day, days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, when she spoke of “the importance of defending the right to freedom of expression exercised by an increasingly broad spectrum of individuals, including bloggers, social media activists and traditional media organisations.”
Since the JSi-Saudi bid was first made public, MOJ negotiations to provide prison services to Oman and Bahrain, two Gulf states with similarly dire human rights records, have also been reported. Meanwhile, with the UK government’s JSi bid on the table, Saudi Arabia has also been hiring for more executioners to meet demand caused by a surge in the number of executions it has carried out this year.
This news doesn’t seem to have deterred those behind the bid at the MOJ: in a statement regarding the legal challenge, a spokesperson stated, “We have not signed any contract with the Saudi government, or sold any services to them”, but failed to deny that negotiations with Saudi Arabia about the bid are ongoing. Why would they bid if they didn’t want to sign a contract or sell services to them?
Melanie Gingell of GCHR stated:
“By providing services to the Saudi prison and probation service the UK is lending legitimacy and indirectly supporting such abuses. It is hypocritical of the government to publicly condemn barbarity such as is meted out to Raif Badawi, while at the same time implicitly condoning such activities by bidding to provide services on a commercial basis to those who perpetrate the abuses. ”
GCHR’s legal challenge focuses on the lack of any identifiable legal authority permitting the MOJ to offer public services and expertise to foreign states for a fee. Adam Hundt points by way of analogy to NHS authorities’ power to offer private healthcare services for a profit:
“The power held by healthcare authorities to sell their services is strictly circumscribed by primary legislation, and was the subject of fierce and comprehensive Parliamentary debate before becoming law. By comparison, JSi’s activities have taken place shrouded in secrecy, and without parliamentary debate or approval. If the UK is to sell its public services to regimes that behead people for sorcery, stone women to death and flog people for expressing pro-democracy views, then one would expect Parliament to be consulted and given the opportunity to impose appropriate parameters on such activities.”
“By opposing GCHR’s application for costs protection, the Ministry of Justice is trying to price them out of seeking justice. First the MOJ have avoided Parliamentary scrutiny, and now it’s trying to avoid scrutiny of its actions by the Courts.”
GCHR face the prospect of paying the government’s legal costs if it loses the case, which could run into tens of thousands, so it will be unable to pursue it without raising some funds. They are looking to do this by crowd-funding, and have set up a webpage through which donations can be made (www.gofundme.com/saudiprisons). Any additional money not needed for the case will be donated to the Free Raif Badawi Campaign.
You can also follow the case on Twitter with the hashtag #stopfloggingjustice.