The UK government has been accused of appeasing the Saudi Arabian regime after it refused to confirm whether or not it has a recording of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, following a VICE freedom of information (FOI) request.
Campaigners called on the UK government to "come clean over exactly what they knew and when" about the murder of the Washington Post columnist.
Khashoggi, a government critic, was murdered by a group of Saudi state henchmen in the nation’s Istanbul consulate on the 2nd of October, 2018. On the 10th of November, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he had given tape recordings of the killing to foreign governments. "We gave them the tapes. We gave them to Saudi Arabia, to America, to the Germans, the French, to the British, to all of them," he said.
That same day, VICE sent a freedom of information (FOI) request to the Cabinet Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), asking for a copy of the recording and the transcript.
The Cabinet Office quickly replied to say they did not have this information. After 20 working days, the FCO said that they were applying a public interest test extension – giving them another 20 workings days to consider what decision is in the public interest. When these 20 working days were up, they did not make a decision, but applied the public interest test extension again on the 10th of January, and then again on the 6th of February.
The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) states that the public interest test extension should not be applied more than once, except in "exceptional circumstances" and if it can be justified.
While the ICO does not comment on specific cases, the Campaign for Freedom of Information criticised the FCO for this delay. "They ought to be able to say what their position is in a much shorter time than they have so far taken," said spokesperson Maurice Frankel. "And I can’t see any reason why they should be exceeding 40 working days and are still trying to work out where the public interest balance lies."
While the FCO was considering the FOI, the recording was reportedly leaked to Turkish website Haberturk, which reported extracts from it but did not publish the recording itself.
The transcript reportedly reveals that Khashoggi was accused of being a "traitor" by the alleged leader of the 15-man execution squad, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb. Sounds of fighting, arguing and torture are then heard, and four phone calls are reportedly made by Mutreb to Saud al-Qahtani, then a close adviser to Saudi crown prince and UK ally Mohammed bin Salman. Al-Qahtani was subsequently fired.
On the 21st of February, the FCO responded to the FOI, saying that they would neither confirm nor deny whether they have the recording and transcript. So that’s over four months deciding whether or not to release a document that they won’t even tell us they have.
They justified this using exemptions 23(5), 24(2), 27(4) and 38(2) of the FOI act. These exemptions relate to the protection of "national security", the desire not to disclose information provided to various intelligence bodies like the Security Service and the concern not to damage the safety or physical or mental health of an individual.
Commenting on this decision, critics accused the FCO of trying to keep stories about Khashoggi out of the media to avoid embarrassing the Saudi government and damaging the UK-Saudi relationship.
The Liberal Democrats Foreign Affairs spokesperson Tom Brake said: "Whilst national security is a clear priority, we also need a guarantee from the UK government that they are not withholding information simply because it would embarrass our allies or jeopardise arms deals. There is a cloud hanging over the ethics of Saudi UK dealings, which the present Tory government have done nothing to dispel."
The Saudi regime are long-time allies of the UK government and have been by far the biggest buyer of UK-made arms for decades. These arms sales have been criticised by the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Scottish and Welsh nationalists, as well as the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. This criticism has been heightened by Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen, which began in March of 2015 and has reportedly killed at least 56,000 people.
In 2017, former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that this criticism of Saudi Arabia in parliament was "not helpful" in the government’s campaign to sell Typhoon fighter jets to the Royal Saudi Air Force.
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade told VICE: "Despite the terrible bombardment of Yemen, and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the UK government has continued its uncritical political and military support for the Saudi regime. The murder was an appalling crime and was rightly condemned around the world. Downing Street and the FCO must come clean about exactly what they knew and when. For far too long, Downing Street has prioritised arms sales and cozy relations with the Saudi regime above the human rights and lives of Saudi and Yemeni people. It’s time to end this shameful relationship."
Dr David Wearing, author of Anglo-Arabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain, said the UK government does not want stories about Khashoggi in the press.
"UK-Saudi relations have come under severe critical and public scrutiny in recent months. The killing of Khashoggi and the atrocities committed in Yemen by the UK-supplied Saudi air force have been a major embarrassment to the UK government. Ministers are desperate for these stories to go away before the political costs of maintaining this strategic relationship become prohibitive. This explains their reluctance to disclose this information, which would likely be damning."