Ministry of Justice
Justice Minister Michael Gove is asking a High Court challenge to one of his ministry's programmes to be delayed, as he investigates human rights allegations being made against it. Reuters

The UK's Ministry of Justice has told the High Court that a judicial review into a controversial deal between the MoJ and Saudi Arabia should be delayed, because the ministry is already investigating it. But court documents obtained by IBTimes question whether the programme follows the UK government's rules on protecting human rights.

In July, IBTimes revealed that Justice Secretary Michael Gove launched a review of the Ministry of Justice's (MoJ) Just Solutions International (JSi) programme in June.

The controversial programme came under scrutiny early this year after it was revealed the MoJ bid on a £5.9m ($9.2m) contract to analyse staff training needs within Saudi Arabia's prison system and develop training programmes.

The MoJ also bids for contracts in Oman and other countries with questionable human rights records.

Why is Saudi Arabia hiring the Ministry of Justice?

JSi is the commercial brand of the MoJ's National Offender Management Service (Noms) – the executive branch of the MoJ, which is responsible for managing prisons and probation service in England and Wales.

JSi was created in 2012 to "enhance the UK's bilateral relations with the countries it would engage with" while "generating earnings for HM Treasury". Through the programme, Noms provides consulting services in its areas of expertise — including prison services, offender management, and general criminal justice advice — to foreign governments.

In late June, the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) brought a High Court challenge against JSi arguing that Gove's predecessor, Chris Grayling, had "no power to create or operate" JSi and that it violated the government's human rights rules. GCHR took up the case after a UK citizen known as AB abandoned it. AB alleged that he was tortured in Saudi Arabia, but could not continue the case against the MoJ because his legal aid was revoked.

"In the circumstances, it might be considered appropriate to postpone further conduct of these proceedings… until after the review has been completed," reads the MoJ's response to the High Court challenge, which was issued on 29 July.

The results of Gove's review are expected at the end of August.

A MoJ spokesperson said the ministry has "argued that the court should reject this judicial review".

A checklist for human rights violations

Gove may be looking at whether the JSi deal with Saudi Arabia meets the government's human rights rules.

Every contract bid JSi makes must meet the UK government's Overseas Security and Justice Assistance (OSJA) guidance created in 2011. This document requires that "human rights risks and international law considerations are addressed" when "policy decisions are taken on UK engagement in justice and security assistance overseas" by the government.

The document includes a checklist to evaluate whether the government should work with, and support, a county's judicial system. Among the human rights violations to consider are the use of the death penalty, unlawful or arbitrary arrest or detention, and unlawful interference with democratic rights, such as freedom of assembly or expression.

Policymakers are also asked to consider whether there is "any reputational or political risk" to the government fulfilling a contract.

Another key question bureaucrats must answer is: "Are there any human rights concerns about the institution/unit that will receive the assistance?"

Saudi Arabia's track record on several of these fronts is questionable. It has reached a record number of beheadings and executions in 2015, and it has dismissed global opposition to its flogging of blogger Raif Badawi for sharing his secular views online. A recent Human Rights Watch report "documented longstanding due process violations in Saudi Arabia's criminal justice system that makes it difficult for a defendant to get a fair trial even in capital cases", while Amnesty International also documents widespread human rights violations in the country's justice system.

According to court documents, this assessment of JSi's bid for the £5.9m Saudi contract "was conducted with the active involvement of both the MoJ and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office".

Saudi contract bid still on the table

On 11 September 2014 the MoJ signed a Memorandum of Understanding on judicial co-operation between the UK and Saudi Arabia. After feedback from Saudi authorities, the UK updated the contract proposal and submitted its final draft on 27 February 2015. Saudi authorities have yet to respond to say whether the UK will be awarded the contract.

The bid is still on offer, but the judicial review of the JSi programme could create further complications.

"We are conducting a review in this area and the court may decide to postpone any further proceedings until that is completed," said a MoJ spokesperson. "It would not be appropriate to comment further while the matter is still before the courts."

MoJ Summary of Grounds for Resistance for High Court challenge to Just Solutions International