David Cameron has revealed in a letter to an SNP MP that the UK has raised concerns about Saudi Arabia’s plans to execute three juvenile protesters “at a very senior level”.
The kingdom faced international condemnation last year over the death sentences handed to Ali al-Nimr and Dawoud al-Marhoun, two juvenile protesters who were arrested in 2012 aged 17, and 19-year-old Abdullah al-Zaher, who was arrested just before his 16th birthday. Campaign groups say all three were tortured in order to extract confessions.
The prime minister said the UK had raised the case with Saudi leaders. In a letter sent to Margaret Ferrier MP this week, he said Britain "was confident" the young men would not be executed.
Maya Foa, director of the death penalty team at human rights group Reprieve, told BuzzFeed News: "It's welcome to see the UK intervening to prevent the execution of Ali, Dawood, and Abdullah for the so-called 'crime' of political protest."
She added: "The prime minister is right to be troubled by these cases – all three juveniles were sentenced to death after shockingly unfair trials, which relied on 'confessions' they signed under torture. The Saudi government should take heed of the international community's concerns, and commute these death sentences once and for all."
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: "We are concerned by reports of imminent executions in Saudi Arabia. The UK is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances.
"We have regularly raised the cases of Ali al-Nimr, Darwood al-Mahoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher at the highest levels, most recently on 12 March. Our expectation remains that they will not be executed."
The sentences put pressure on the British government last year over its relationship with its key Middle East ally. In October 2015, Cameron cancelled a multimillion-pound contract to advise the kingdom over its prison policy, with many insiders saying human rights concerns held by the justice secretary, Michael Gove, had won out over the Foreign Office's interests.
That same month, the Financial Times reported on a "secret deal" between Britain and Saudi Arabia that ensured both nations were elected to the UN human rights council. Cameron then faced an uncomfortable Channel 4 News interview in which host Jon Snow described the deal as "squalid". He also had to write to Saudi Arabia's rulers about an elderly British man who was understood to be facing 350 lashes for carrying homemade wine.
More recently, the government has faced criticism over its arms deals with the country. The Committee on Arms Export Controls is to investigate the use of UK manufactured arms in the ongoing bombing of Yemen.
Last month, the House of Commons international development committee wrote to the international development secretary, Justine Greening, expressing serious concerns that the UK's sale of weapons was undermining its aid donations. Days later, BuzzFeed News reported that the British government was not denying its weapons had been used to execute dozens of protesters at the start of 2016 – one of whom, Nimr al-Nimr, was the uncle of Ali al-Nimr.