Saudi Arabia is reaching a record number of beheadings in 2015 and the country is flogging blogger Raif Badawi. But the UK may be offering its support to the Saudi justice system privately while publicly condemning it.
In December 2014, government documents revealed a commercial consulting branch of the UK's Ministry of Justice submitted a £5.9m proposal to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that August. The idea was to analyse the training needs of the Saudi Arabian prison service.
At the same time, this group — known as Just Solutions international (JSi) — also bid on a project for the Royal Oman Police to design a new prison. Just before December 2014, JSi won a £848k bid to help Macedonia's probation services.
These revelations are not new. But when asked about the issue of whether the UK is, was, or would continue to bid on contracts in Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Justice is silent.
"We don't provide a running commentary on ongoing discussions," said a Ministry of Justice spokesperson. "We have not signed any contract with the Saudi government, or sold any services to them."
That doesn't mean they aren't currently bidding on contracts there or considering future bids.
Contracts signed with overseas governments need to pass through a set of criteria set out by the UK Foreign Office. However, that didn't stop some £1.6bn worth of weapons being exported to the Middle Eastern monarchy from the UK in 2013, making it Britain's largest arms market.
"I thought it was disgusting," said David Allan Green, a lawyer and legal commentator for the Financial Times, on how he felt when he found out about the contract bids. "It's wrong that we're using state resources to help one of the most barbaric legal systems in the world work more efficiently."
These legal resources, he said, "would be better employed domestically". On 17 June, UK MP's debated a March report on Britain's prison service that that shows a spike in violence and severe overcrowding in the country's jails. "Can the UK really claim to have any particular expertise in offender management, in view of the regular damning inspection reports?" Green asked on his blog.
A potential deal also "creates a conflict of interest because on one hand you have the government trying to promote human rights around the world", he continued, and "on the other hand they have an actual financial interest in those regimes".
The government "has clammed up about it", he said after the ministry refused to release a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that it signed with Saudi Arabia in September 2014.
— UKinSaudiArabia (@UKinSaudiArabia) September 11, 2014
A Freedom of Information request made by Green asking for details of the UK's proposal to the Saudi justice system was rebuffed because it "would create an actionable breach of confidence", the government wrote.
Amnesty International also commented on the proposal in a report. The group was told by the Ministry of Justice that it has a duty to "work with overseas governments and help them develop their criminal justice systems" while bringing "funds to the public purse".
But it said there was scant evidence of human rights safeguards on such a programme.
The human rights case of blogger Badawi, who is being flogged by the Saudi government for praising secular governance, has come to the fore in recent days after the Saudi Supreme Court upheld his punishment of 1,000 lashes on 7 June.
As Badawi's wife pled for clemency for the 31-year-old man from Saudi King Salman on the eve of Ramadan, the UK Foreign Office issued a statement defending the blogger.
"We are extremely concerned about Raif Badawi's case and have discussed it at the most senior levels in the government of Saudi Arabia, most recently on 9 June," a spokesperson wrote.
But this was little comfort to Green that the UK justice system will never support such regimes through its JSi programme. He said: "It's a wrong that needs to be addressed."