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European Court dashes hopes for Saudi torture victims

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that three British men who were subjected to torture in prison in Saudi Arabia cannot pursue a case against the kingdom in the British courts. “This,” commented Amnesty International, “dashes any hope of justice.” The ruling blocks any opportunity for further legal action. A fourth victim died before the case was even decided.


“This is a retrograde step,” said Amnesty’s deputy director of Law and Policy, Tawanda Hondora, “unless the UK government enters into diplomatic negotiations with Saudi Arabia for compensation.”

After more than 10 years of litigation, the ruling comes as a final blow to the expat workers arrested in Riyadh in 2000 and 2001. Ronald Jones, Alexander Mitchell, Leslie Walker and William Sampson were accused of participation in a bombing campaign launched by opposition groups. They were held for periods of between 67 days and more than two and a half years.

During their detention, they claim, they were subjected to constant periods of torture including solitary confinement, beatings, suspension, sleep deprivation, rape and mind-altering drugs.

The men took their case to the European Court of Human Rights after the House of Lords ruled that the case could not proceed on the grounds that Saudi Arabia and its officials could not be sued in British courts under the international law principle of state immunity.

“International law was never intended to provide shelter to torturers,” insists Hondora. “If the British government is serious about leading the fight against torture it must now change the law to ensure that victims can initiate legal proceedings before British courts.” All states, she added, including the UK, must do more to stamp out the global scourge of torture. “Denying justice to victims only fans the practice and gives succour to those who undertake this reprehensible practice. This is a major blow not just for these men but also victims of torture globally.”

Saudi Arabia’s record of torture

A recent report by Amnesty International condemns the worsening state of human rights and especially the increase of torture in Saudi Arabia. Among the myriad criticisms in the report, it was noted that migrant workers and other minorities frequently fall victim to abuse and “excessive use of force” at the hands of the authorities and their employers.

The widespread use of torture against domestic staff, particularly maids, in Saudi Arabia has been given a much-needed focus in the media. Children as young as ten-years-old are exposed daily to torture in their workplace, which, given the nature of their work, is also usually their home. The world heard about some of this when an extreme case of torture against an Ethiopian maid was reported late last year. The domestic worker was reported to have been “hanged from a hook and beaten brutally into a bloody pulp”.

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It is no wonder that over the past year alone some 30,000 domestic workers have fled from their jobs in Saudi Arabia. Most non-European and non-American foreign workers in the Gulf States are treated commonly almost like slaves, with no human rights. Many are kept as virtual captives by their employers and forced to endure very harsh treatment for very little pay.

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