Archive for April, 2018


Crown Prince Signals Possible Limit on Non-Murder Executions

Saudi Arabia has executed 48 people since the beginning of 2018, half of them for nonviolent drug crimes, Human Rights Watch said today. Many more people convicted of drug crimes remain on death row following convictions by Saudi Arabia’s notoriously unfair criminal justice system.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman said in an interview with Time magazine on April 5 that the Saudi authorities have a plan to decrease the number of executions, but that they would not limit executions to people convicted of murder. Nearly all executions in Saudi Arabia that are not for murder are for non-violent drug crimes.  The prince said the country would consider changing the penalty from death to life in prison in some cases, but not in murder cases.

It’s bad enough that Saudi Arabia executes so many people, but many of them have not committed a violent crime, said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. Any plan to limit drug executions needs to include improvements to a justice system that doesn’t provide for fair trials.

Saudi Arabia has carried out nearly 600 executions since the beginning of 2014, over 200 of them in drug cases.  The vast majority of the remainder were for murder, but other offenses included rape, incest, terrorism, and “sorcery.” In Saudi Arabia, death sentences for murder are usually based on the Islamic law principle qisas, or eye-for-an-eye retributive punishment, while judges hand down death sentences for drugs at their own discretion (the Islamic law principle ta’zir). Judges rely on a 1987 fatwa by the country’s Council of Senior Religious Scholars prescribing the death penalty for any “drug smuggler” who brings drugs into the country, as well as provisions of the 2005 Law on Combatting Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which prescribes the death penalty for drug smuggling.  The law allows for mitigated sentences in limited circumstances.

International standards, including the Arab Charter on Human Rights, ratified by Saudi Arabia, require countries that retain the death penalty to use it only for the “most serious crimes,” and in exceptional circumstances. In 2012, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions stated that where used, the death penalty should be limited to cases in which a person is intentionally killed and not used to punish drug-related offenses.
Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases in which Saudi courts sentenced defendants to death following unfair trials. In one such case, a Saudi court sentenced a Jordanian man, Waleed al-Saqqar, to death in December 2014 for smuggling drugs across the Saudi border from Jordan in his truck.

Poor trials process

The judgment following al-Saqqar’s trial reveals that the trial lasted only one day, and a source with direct knowledge of the case told Human Rights Watch that the entire trial lasted about five minutes. The source said that a judge asked al-Saqqar to confirm his identity and state whether the truck belonged to him, then issued the death sentence. Al-Saqqar did not have a defense lawyer.  The source said that the judge did not allow al-Saqqar a chance to explain the circumstances, which he viewed as a mitigating factor.  The source said that in April 2013 al-Saqqar met a Saudi man at the Jordanian Free Zone near Zarqa city who offered to pay him 300,000 Saudi Riyals (US$80,000) to smuggle several bags of agricultural hormones to Saudi Arabia.  The Saudi man said that his workers were urgently waiting for them and would need them before he could get permission from the Saudi Heath and Agricultural Ministries to legally import them. Al-Saqqar agreed to the arrangement.

On April 11, 2013, Saudi authorities stopped al-Saqqar after he entered Saudi Arabia from Jordan at the al-Haditha border crossing and searched the truck.  According to the trial judgment, the authorities discovered 144,000 pills identified as captagon (fenethylline), a banned substance in Saudi Arabia. According to the official judgment al-Saqqar assisted Saudi authorities in an attempt to locate and apprehend the person inside Saudi Arabia responsible for receiving the drugs, but authorities were not able to apprehend him.  The source said that the case remains on appeal.

Human Rights Watch has documented longstanding due process violations in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system that makes it difficult for a defendant to get a fair trial even in capital cases.  In cases Human Rights Watch has analyzed, authorities did not always inform suspects of the charges against them or allow them access to evidence, even after trial sessions began.  Authorities generally did not allow lawyers to assist suspects during interrogation and often impeded them from examining witnesses and presenting evidence at trial. The problems were compounded for non-Arabic speaking foreigners, who in the absence of a lawyer face overwhelming obstacles to understanding court procedures and submitting defence documents.

The Death Penalty Worldwide Database, which collects information on executions across the globe, shows that Saudi Arabia has one of the highest execution rates in the world and applies the death penalty to a range of offenses that do not constitute “most serious crimes,” including drug offenses, adultery, sorcery, and apostasy. Saudi Arabia trails only Iran in the Middle East in in the number of its executions.  Saudi Arabia regularly features in our monthly reports.

Human Rights Watch along with Amnesty, opposes capital punishment in all countries and under all circumstances. Capital punishment is unique in its cruelty and finality, and it is inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error.  In 2013, following similar resolutions in 2007, 2008, and 2010, the UN General Assembly called on countries to establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, progressively restrict the practice, and reduce the offenses for which it might be imposed, all with the view toward its eventual abolition. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also called on countries to abolish the death penalty.

Text from Human Rights Watch – 24 April 2018

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How will our rights be affected post Brexit?*

UPDATE: 26 April

An article in the current edition of Prospect by Vernon Bogdanor entitled ‘Brexit will erase your rights’ (May 2018) discusses

in detail the effects of leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court, the avowed government policy.  One of the important effects is that the ability of judges to disallow legislation which conflicts with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights will no longer be possible.  Bogdanor makes the point that we shall be moving away from a codified and protected system to an unprotected one.  This is probably the first time this has happened.

For people keen on the sovereignty issue and see all things European to be harmful,  then this is what they seek.  For them the supremacy of parliament is a key principle.  But what has been happening over many decades – and preceding our entry into what was then called the Common Market – was that judges were becoming more willing to interfere in some aspects of legislation.  Because we have signed up to the European Charter, where our legislation conflicts with that, then judges are willing to rule against it.  The fundamental problem the UK has is a lack of a constitution.  The charter was a kind of stand-in constitution against which the legislative process could be tested.

The Human Rights changed that.   In regards to the HRA, Professor Gearty stated that:

In the breadth of its ambition and in the potential reach of its terms, British Law has never seen anything like this piece of legislation’.  The way in which the Human Rights Act 1998 changed the legal landscape was by inserting a new method of interpretation into British Law which required the courts to read and give effect to legislation in a way which is compatible with the Convention rights ‘so far as it is possible to do so’(s3); requiring that the courts take into account decisions of the Strasbourg Court when determining a question concerning a Convention right (s2); allowing the Court to make a declarations of incompatibility (s4); making it unlawful for public authorities to act incompatibly with the Convention (s6); and by creating a cause of action for breaches by a public authorities and providing for remedial damages for breaches. (s7 and s8).  (Church Court Chambers)

For critics of the involvement of the European Court, there is a kind of misty eyed reverence to the British system which does of course have many strengths and has evolved over many centuries.  This was particularly noticeable during the Magna Carta celebrations two years ago.  But historians will know that it has been a struggle for some simple rights and laws of benefit to ordinary people, to be enacted.  Legislation such as the factory acts and public health for example, took decades to enact against fierce resistance by vested interests in parliament.  Full enfranchisement itself did not happen until 90 years ago in 1928.

Recent events surrounding the Windrush scandal have shown a legislature and an executive all too willing to inflict misery on thousands of people.  The idea that parliament is there to protect the welfare of ordinary people such as those who came here in the ’50s, does not stand up to examination.  There is thus a real concern that once we exit the ECJ and the Withdrawal Bill becomes law then some of our rights will be taken away.    This will not happen straight off but over time using the infamous Henry VIII powers.  The role of the courts will be weakened.  The Charter of Fundamental Rights will no longer apply and we will be at the whim of parliament.  The key issue behind the scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation was that although there were two immigration acts, a lot of the day to day nastiness was done administravely.  So the idea that parliament is sovereign is flawed.

One of the curious anomalies of our political discourse is that people do not usually trust politicians.  If someone at a public meeting said ‘I think we should trust politicians’ it would likely engender laughter and ridicule.  But by removing our country from the aegis of the charter we will be giving power to politicians and the executive which amounts to trusting them with our rights.  Since parliament is rife with self-interest, secretive lobbying by special interest groups, the revolving door enabling ministers and others to take up lucrative positions with organisations which they were supposedly in control of, and behind closed door influence from powerful media barons: to expect it to take interest in the rights of ordinary individuals is a big ask.  There are honest politicians and many with consciences but they are few against the party machines.

Bognador ends his piece by saying that ‘the tide of history is towards greater protections, but the coming change threatens to make us more lawless.  And it may well be that a country, which wasn’t primed for this sort of change, will not be content with that.’

The arguments over the role of European law and the remit of the ECJ might seem esoteric, the sort of thing lawyers get enthused about and no one else is the least bit interested in.  But the effects of a loss of control over the executive and a dysfunctional parliament will eventually be experienced by all and there won’t be anyone to protect us.


Update: See the Amnesty blog post on the reaction of young people to the threat to human rights post Brexit.

*Amnesty has no position on whether to remain or leave the EU: this blog is just about human rights if we leave


Showing of the film Hooligan Sparrow in June

We are pleased to be able to show the documentary film Hooligan Sparrow at the Arts Centre on Thursday June 14 starting at 7:30.  It will be free but it will be ticketed and we are currently exploring ways to get tickets.  There will be a parting collection to help cover our costs.

The film is set in China and the danger is palpable as intrepid young filmmaker Nanfu Wang follows maverick activist Ye Haiyan (a.k.a Hooligan Sparrow) and her band of colleagues to Hainan Province in southern China to protest the case of six elementary school girls who were sexually abused by their principal.

Marked as ‘enemies of the state’, the activists are under constant government surveillance and face interrogation, harassment, and imprisonment.  Sparrow, who gained notoriety with her advocacy work for sex workers’ rights, continues to champion girls’ and women’s rights and arms herself with the power and reach of social media.

Filmmaker Wang becomes a target along with Sparrow, as she faces destroyed cameras and intimidation. Yet she bravely and tenaciously keeps shooting, guerrilla-style, with secret recording devices and hidden-camera glasses, and in the process, she exposes a startling number of undercover security agents on the streets.  Eventually, through smuggling footage out of the country, Wang is able tell the story of her journey with the extraordinary revolutionary Sparrow, her fellow activists, and their seemingly impossible battle for human rights.

(text taken from the website of the film)

Please keep an eye on this site and or on Twitter and Facebook (salisburyai) for details of how to get the tickets.   If you are interested in joining us this would be a good opportunity to make yourself known to a member of the group before or after the showing.


Parliament’s concerns are very partial

This week saw parliament reconvene and a major debate take place concerning the attack on chemical weapons facilities in Syria.  These attacks took place in a coordinated way by British, French and American forces and the reason for them was claimed to be the crossing of a ‘red line’ by Assad because of his use of chemical weapons in his latest attack.  This led to calls for parliament to be recalled and considerable debate about whether we should have joined in the bombing.  The Labour leader Jeremy Corbin called for a War Powers Act to be enacted to clarify when a prime minister could and could not engage in military actions.

The death and destruction in Syria is appalling.  The use of barrel bombs dropped on civilian areas has caused terrible damage and thousands of innocent citizens have been killed.  The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that over 217 thousand civilians have been killed; over 13 thousand have been tortured to death and over 27 thousand children have been killed.  Of those, 80% were killed by Syrian forces and 6% by Russians.  These figures have been broadly supported by the Syrian American Medical Society and White Helmets, an aid agency working in the country.  There has been universal condemnation including by the UN’s Secretary General.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, another conflict is underway also causing considerable death and destruction.  As we noted in an earlier post, thousands have died, cholera is widespread, and the country is being steadily bombed back to the stone age.  Millions have been displaced and medical and other humanitarian supplies are prevented from entering the country because of a blockade.  There has not however been much in the way of outrage from parliamentarians about this and no calls to recall parliament.

Another key difference is while Assad is treated as a pariah, the Saudis who are carrying out the Bin Salman sits flanked by Theresa may and Boris John <figcaption> Boris Johnson and Theresa May rolled out the red carpet for the Saudi Crown Prince. c. Getty Images/Bloomberg </figcaption> </figure> son, with members of his entourage and other Government Ministers seated in rows behind bombing of Yemen – including schools, hospitals, civilian facilities and weddings – are feted in the UK, get to meet the Queen and receive visits by Prince Charles and other members of the royal family.  This is because we are major suppliers of weapons to the regime.  RAF personnel are involved in some way helping the Saudis. (Picture: Campaign Against the Arms Trade)

It was claimed that the justification for the bombing of Syria was the crossing of the red line.  This suggested that Assad had used chemical weapons for the second time and we had to send a message to deter him.

One problem: it is not the first or even the second time he has done this.  The SNHR estimate that he has used them on 207 occasions and on 174 occasions since the Ghouta attack.

207 chemical weapons attacks by Assad

The very notion that a red line has been crossed is therefore not tenable as Assad has regularly used these weapons, on average three times a month.  In addition to chlorine he has on occasion used Sarin.

Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives or have lost loved ones in these terrible conflicts.  The destruction of buildings will take decades to do and billions to repair.  In one case we continue to profit from the supply of arms and roll out the red carpet to those who are responsible: in the other case we say a red line has been crossed – which it has on many, many occasions – and bomb the country.

New followers

Posted: April 16, 2018 in "Human rights"
Tags: , ,

It is gratifying to have seen, over the past few months, a steady increase in the number of people following this site.  If you are one of those, welcome.  We hope you find the mix of local group news and some comments on international human rights issues, interesting.

We are always pleased to see new members join the group and as we have said before, the best way is to come along to one of our events and make yourself known.  It is free to join us in Salisbury.  We welcome people from the Salisbury area generally including Amesbury and the Plain, Downton and as far west as Tisbury and Mere.

We also have a Twitter page and we are on Facebook – both can be found with the salisburyai name.


Amnesty International’s death penalty report containing many details and statistics about the use of this practice is now available as a free download.  As the report notes, China executes many of its citizens but the details are a state secret so any world-wide report is missing this data.


April minutes now available

Attached are the minutes of the last group meeting thanks to group member Lesley for compiling them.  We discussed the Celebration event (now cancelled); a summary of the death penalty report; North Korea; the film at the Arts Centre and future events generally.

April minutes (Word)


If you are interested in joining the group then either the film or the market stall are both opportunities to come along and introduce yourself to group members.  See the minutes for details of forthcoming events.  Also follow us on Facebook or Twitter – salisburyai


UPDATE  The Amnesty death penalty report is now to hand and can be accessed here.

The latest death penalty report is now available thanks to group member Lesley for the work in compiling it.

Note that China remains the world’s leader in executions but the details and statistics are a state secret.

Report (Word)


If you would like to join the local group you would be very welcome.  Keep and eye on this site and on Facebook and Twitter for details of activities and come along and make yourself known.  It is free to join the local group.


We have reluctantly decided to cancel an event – planned for June this year – which was designed to highlight the positive aspects of the Human Rights Act and the benefits we all receive from human rights legislation generally.  It was to consist of a week of talks and other events in Salisbury with the overall theme of emphasizing how human rights have improved the lot of citizens in the UK.  It was arranged during the anniversary week of Magna Carta.

The idea for the event was spurred by the negative press this legislation receives and the drubbing that European institutions get from our media.  It is connected loosely to the Brexit debate where one of the guiding principles of those who wish to leave the EU is to be free of what they perceive as interference in our justice system by the European Courts.

In planning the event we had assumed that legal firms in Salisbury would be willing to support it and it was something of a surprise that none would.  Indeed, the majority did not reply to our requests.  One firm even hosts a human rights organisation but still did not reply.  We did eventually secure some financial support (from Poole) but it arrived probably too late for us to be able to do the planning.

So it will not now take place which is a pity.  Salisbury has recently become associated with the poisoning issue and allegations that Russia was to blame: highly likely in view of their previous behaviour and the nature of the attack.  At base is the issue of human rights.  Russia – if it is them – is a state in which lawlessness is now the norm.  There is no free press and corruption is the order of the day.  ‘Dirty’ money is looted by the Putin regime and much of it finds its way into the City of London.  Journalists are murdered and anyone looking like they might be a threat is prevented from standing in elections.

In the UK, despite many unsatisfactory aspects in our political process and the revolving door corruption, we are still able to vote them out – a luxury the Russians do not enjoy.  Ordinary people have more rights as a result of the Human Rights Act than previously yet they are constantly told that the act is a menace and needs to be got rid of.   It is sad that we were unable to celebrate this fact.