EXCL Ministers granted exports of phone hacking kit to Saudi Arabia after Jamal Khashoggi murder

Posted On: 
17th May 2019

The Government allowed exports of telephone hacking kit to Saudi Arabia in the months following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, PoliticsHome can reveal.

Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in October last year - his remains have never been found
Credit: 
PA Images

The Department for International Trade authorised a £53,000 sale of telecoms interception equipment to the Kingdom in December last year.

Washington Post columnist Mr Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, was murdered in the country's consulate in Turkey on 2 October.

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The gruesome details of how he died were revealed before the DIT approved the sale.

Saudi authorities initially denied any knowledge of the killing, but were later forced to admit involvement after a Turkish investigation concluded Mr Khashoggi had been strangled and dismembered during a visit to the diplomatic outpost.

But despite vocal condemnation of the killing from the British government, ministers continued to allow exporters to provide the Kingdom with phone hacking equipment in the months following the murder.

Figures from Liam Fox's department also showed £11m-worth of military equipment was sent to the Kingdom in the last quarter of 2018, including multiple licenses for military communications equipment and information security software.

Concerns have now been raised by associates of Mr Khashoggi that his calls and messages were being intercepted by Saudi security services.

Last month, fellow Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz began legal action against Israeli-cyber firm NSO group for selling malware to oppressive regimes after he found his Whatsapp chats with Mr Khashoggi had been compromised.

UK 'COMPLICIT'

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 gathered within range of the devices.

Andrew Smith from the Campaign Against Arms Trade called for the Government to end its "complicity" in abuses carried out by the regime.

"The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi was condemened around the world," he said. "However, despite the appalling nature of the killing, it has done nothing to stop the arms sales.

"Spyware and surveillance equipment is often used against human rights defenders and campaigners. There is no way of knowing how this equipment will be used in the future or who it will be used against.

He added: "Over the last four years, the Saudi regime inflicted an awful humanitarian crisis on Yemen, and waged an intensive crackdown against campaigners and journalists in Saudi Arabia.

"It is long past time for arms-dealing governments like the UK to end their complicity in these terrible abuses."

A Department for International Trade spokesperson said: "We operate one of the most robust export control regimes in the world and keep our controlled goods exports to Saudi Arabia under carful and continual review."

"All export license applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria, taking account of all relevant factors at the time of the application.

"We will not grant a license if to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria."

SPYWARE SALES

However, the department's own figures show it took an average of only 12 days to greenlight applications for controlled goods sales to the country in the last months of 2018 - including shipments of military assault craft and anti-armour ammunition.

In February, a report from the cross-party House of Lords international relations select committee concluded that arms shipments from the UK were "highly likely" to have been responsible for "significant" civilian casualties in the bloody war between Saudi Arabia and Houthi rebels in Yemen.

And they hit out at the government for relying on "assurances by Saudi Arabia" as a sufficient monitoring system for how the exports were being used, saying it was "not an adequate way of implementing the obiligations for a risk-based assessment set out in the arms trade treaty".

In December, PoliticsHome revealed that £2.5m worth of UK spyware equipment had been sold to the regime between September 2017 and September 2018 - despite UK government concerns about human rights abuses carried out by Saudi authorities.

Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who sits on the Commons committee on arms export controls added: "I simply ask the government if it can licence the export of surveillance equipment to a highly repressive royal court that hunts down dissidents and dismembers them with bone saws, what is the point of the UK having export controls?"