The UK Ministry of Justice's program to sell its services to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and other states faces a challenge in the High Court.
It comes after a UK citizen known as AB alleged he was tortured in Saudi Arabia and filed his own case, but couldn't continue after his legal aid was revoked.
The Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) has taken up his fight and is now crowdfunding a challenge against Just Solutions (JSi) — a commercial branch of the Ministry of Justice. The UK government program bids on contracts to support legal systems around the world with advice on building prisons, training programs, and more.
"We think that the operation of the Ministry of Justice commercial arm is unlawful because it has no legal authorization," said Adam Hundt, a partner at Deighton Pierce Glynn Solicitors who represents the human rights organisation.
In setting up JSi, the program has not been subject to any parliamentary checks or approvals, Hundt argues, and "elected politicians have been denied the opportunity to discuss how such a vehicle should operate".
In the case of Saudi Arabia, the MoJ has "refused to disclose human rights compliance," Hundt said, of a £5.9m bid it made to the Saudi Kingdom in August 2014. The proposal was to carry out an analysis of the training needs and teaching programs in the Saudi Arabian Prison Service. The group also submitted a large bid to help the Sultanate of Oman design a new prison.
"We don't provide a running commentary on ongoing discussions," a Ministry of Justice spokesperson told IBTimes UK. "We have not signed any contract with the Saudi government, or sold any services to them," they added, pointing out "contracts signed with overseas governments must pass the strict criteria set out by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office".
"Specifics of payments for commercial contracts delivered cannot be provided as they are commercially sensitive," the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, MP Andrew Selous, wrote when asked for more information about the program's bids in February.
"In this case they have refused to disclose human rights compliance," said Hundt. Freedom of information requests from journalists and lawyers have so far been blocked from gathering more information about the program. Hundt said the legality of creating the organisation without Parliamentary approval is in question. At trial, what he and the human rights group want is for a judge to rule "whether they need legal authorisation to do what they're doing or not".
The next stage of the case will see the government formally respond to the challenge three weeks from now on 20 July.
The challenge is prompted in part by the case of the anonymous UK citizen AB, and partly by the international outcry against the Saudi government's treatment of blogger, Raif Badawi, whose sentence of 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for praising secular governments was recently upheld by the Saudi Supreme Court. It was also revealed earlier this month that Saudi Arabia has carried out a record number of beheadings this year.
Hundt said the case of AB shocked him. "His legal aid was withdrawn retrospectively" by the UK, he said, after "it had been brought to the case worker's attention that a mistake had been made to grant legal aid. I haven't come across something like that before".
Melanie Gingell, a member of GCHR's advisory board, said that the group is forging ahead with legal action where AB's case left off because the public "have a right to know exactly what role the UK government is playing in these systems".