EXCL: Ministers under fire after UK allows £2.5m of spy equipment sales to Saudi government
Ministers approved the sale of more than £2.5million-worth of snooping equipment to Saudi Arabia in the past year despite concerns over its human rights record, PoliticsHome can reveal.
New data released under Freedom of Information show that the Department of International Trade granted five export licenses for telecommunications interception equipment to the kingdom between September 2017 and September 2018 - in spite of the country being listed on the UK's human rights watchlist.
Campaigners accused the Government of "empowering authoritarian agencies" by allowing the sales.
The figures show that in late 2017 the department granted two temporary licenses worth £152,000 for equipment destined for use by a Saudi "law enforcement agency".
Meanwhile, in April of this year, it signed off on three permanent contracts totalling £2.4m for use by the Saudi government.
The department’s latest disclosure does not list a particular product type - but previous UK exports of spy tech have included controversial IMSI-catchers, which are capable of eavesdropping on telephone conversations, accessing private information stored on mobile phones and conducting indiscriminate surveillance of individuals attending events such as political demonstrations.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of International Trade said: "The Government takes its export responsibilities very seriously operating one of the most robust export control regimes in the world.
"Risks around human rights abuses are a key part of our licensing assessment and the government will not license the export of items where to do so would be inconsistent with any provision of the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria.
"All export license applications are considered on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated Criteria, based on the most up-to-date information and analysis available, including reports from Non-Government Organisations and our overseas networks."
Figures released by the department for the period meanwhile show that it took an average of 15 days to greenlight export applications for controlled goods to the country.
Edin Omanovic, head of Privacy International’s state surveillance programme told PoliticsHome that the disclosure proved the UK’s current regulations were "woefully inadequate".
"To protect against abuses, the use of any surveillance technology must have a clear legal basis in line with human rights law, and be subject to sufficient safeguards and oversight," he said.
"Without such basic protections, resulting abuses are inevitable and entirely foreseeable.
"Even the UK government, which has spent years passing one of the most extreme surveillance laws in the world, has ostensibly recognised that such powers have to come with sufficient protections.
“It is shocking therefore that the same government can approve these same capabilities to countries around the world, some of which lack basic adherence to rule of law."
The campaign chief added: "Some of these countries have a track record of targeting commercially-available surveillance technology against activists and journalists. Such exports should absolutely not have been approved.
"By empowering authoritarian agencies, it not only undermines people’s human rights, but the work of activists, journalists, and opposition groups which is key for promoting democratisation and the UK’s own long-term security interests.
"It’s further proof that the current regulations which are supposed to ensure that human rights considerations are taken into account are woefully inadequate."
Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who sits on the Commons committee on arms export controls, said the spy tech sales were evidence the government was "running roughshod" over arms export laws.
"Britain’s export of mobile phone interception kit to repressive regimes across the world is a very worrying phenomenon because they are effective tools to hunt dissidents and disrupt public protest,” he said.
“Unregulated use of ISMI catchers have even raised questions around privacy and civil liberties here in Britain, so it is incredible the government is licensing this stuff to Saudi Arabia, which the FCO considers a human rights priority country, and is ruled by a man who recently ordered the murder and dismemberment of a dissident."
He added: "It appears the government is running roughshod over its own arms export control law, which clearly states that it is illegal to licence goods if there is a clear risk they could be used for repression."
Earlier this year a Foreign Office report into human rights raised concerns about a "deterioration in freedom of expression and freedom of the press" in Saudia Arabia.
The report also highlighted the cases of four individuals who were tried and executed for protesting against the government.
The UK government has so far resisted calls to halt sales of arms and other equipment to the Kingdom after the country’s leadership was implicated in the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in the country’s embassy in Istanbul.