Downing Street spokesperson says UK govt can still continue to engage with Saudis on this issue
LONDON: Britain said on Tuesday it had abandoned a bid to provide training in Saudi Arabia’s penal system, as it raised concerns with Riyadh over a 74-year-old Briton facing a flogging.
“The government has decided that it won’t be proceeding with the bid,” a Downing Street spokesperson told reporters.
The potential £5.9 million ($9 million/7.9 million euro) contract was to provide a “training needs analysis”.
The Saudis have been informed, the spokesperson said, adding: “We can still continue to engage with the Saudis on these issues.”
Downing Street insisted the decision was separate from the case of Karl Andree, 74, who has been told he could face 350 lashes in public after serving a year behind bars for being caught with home-made wine.
The spokeswoman said move was linked to the winding up of Just Solutions International, a commercial offshoot of the Ministry of Justice.
The decision “reflects what is the best way to prioritise what we want to do at the Ministry of Justice, the domestic reforms we want to carry out,” she said. Newspapers reported on Tuesday that ministers had been at odds over the contract.
The Times said Justice Secretary Michael Gove wanted to pull out of the deal agreed by his predecessor, but Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond thought it would make Britain look untrustworthy to a key ally.
The spokeswoman said Andree’s sentence was “extremely concerning” and Prime Minister David Cameron was “writing today to the Saudis to further raise the case”.
There has been a “gradual stepping up of government activity” on the issue, she said. Andree’s family said they welcomed Cameron’s intervention after they appealed for clemency.
“He’s done his time now; he should be released. This lashing sentence — we fear, because of his age, he won’t survive it,” his son, Simon, told BBC radio.
“He’s a frail old man… enough is enough.” He had implored Cameron to intervene personally, but feared his father was “at the bottom of the list”.
“I feel that all the business dealings with Saudi Arabia and the UK are probably taking priority,” he said.
The Sun newspaper said that despite having served his sentence, Andree was still in jail as Saudi officials wait to carry out the flogging.
The cancer-surviving grandfather of seven has lived in Saudi Arabia for 25 years, working in the oil industry.
His wife Verity has returned to Britain for full-time care due to her worsening Alzheimer’s disease.
Saudi Arabia is Britain’s most important trade partner in the Middle East and was its biggest market for arms exports last year.
Earlier Tuesday, the main opposition Labour Party had been granted an urgent question in parliament asking whether Gove would withdraw from the deal in the light of Andree’s case, and that of blogger Raif Badawi, sentenced to 1,000 lashes, and protester Mohammed al-Nimr, facing execution.
“David Cameron has been shamed into a U-turn on this terrible contract, but why on Earth was it set up in the first place?” said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“We should be sending a strong message to repressive regimes that the UK is a beacon for human rights and that this contract bid is unacceptable in the 21st century, and would damage Britain’s standing in the world.”