A leading Scottish university has been condemned for a secretive contract with Saudi Arabia after a new report revealed that the Gulf state executed 184 people last year – including by beheading and crucifixion.
Amnesty International has urged Stirling University to reconsider its business partnership with Saudi Arabia after reporting that the regime conducted the third highest number of executions anywhere in the world in 2019. There were 184 executions compared to 149 in 2018.
The human rights group described the rise as “alarming”. Campaign Against Arms Trade called on the university to apologise for accepting money from a “dictatorship responsible for decades of oppression”. Stirling University did not respond to our request for a comment.
The Ferret reported in March that Stirling University had taught English to air force cadets from the King Abdullah Air Defence Academy in Taif, Saudi Arabia, which is run by the state’s Ministry of Defence.
The contract was delivered through the university’s joint venture with Into University Partnerships (UP), which encourages links with industry. Into UP and Stirling University each own 50 per cent of Into Stirling LLP, which operates on campus.
Critics condemned the university and called for it to end the partnership, citing multiple war crime allegations levelled at the Royal Saudi Air force in Yemen and the state’s record on human rights.
Stirling University said at the time it would not comment on students. It has since refused to disclose details of the contract after a series of questions were submitted by The Ferret under freedom of information legislation.
Fresh criticism has now been levelled at the university following Amnesty International’s new report on executions.
The report reveals that Saudi Arabia executed the highest number of people that Amnesty has ever recorded in the country including six women. The killings included the mass execution of Shia dissidents after torture and unfair trials, the report says.
Beheading is a common form of execution in Saudia Arabia. Crucifixion following an execution is reserved for crimes seen by the authorities as even more serious. In 2019 it emerged that a prisoner was executed and crucified, one of 37 people executed on charges of terrorism.
Naomi McAuliffe, Amnesty International’s Scotland programme director, said the Stirling University “may wish to consider” its on-going joint venture with Into UP “in light of Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record”.
She added: “We are also particularly disturbed about the growing use of the death penalty by the Saudi regime as a weapon to silence political dissidents and oppress the country’s Shi’a Muslim minority. On 23 April a mass execution was carried out including 32 Shi’a men convicted on spurious terrorism charges after trials that involved confessions extracted through torture.
“Stirling University prides itself on creating global citizens. We urge them and any other Scottish institution representing the country on the international stage to seriously consider the human rights impact of any business partnerships.”
Into UP has proven controversial because it is an arms length firm that sets up international partnerships for students to study in the UK. University and College Union (UCU) has opposed UK universities partnering with Into UP, arguing that joint ventures could affect their reputations.
Saudi executions ‘horrific and repressive’
Mary Senior, Scotland official for UCU, said: “Amnesty International’s report highlights well publicised criticisms of the Saudi government. Universities need to be open about who they’re working with and ensure that human rights are being respected.
“The story also brings into question the use of private companies in universities especially when they’re delivering courses and teaching and raises important questions about the accountability of these public private partnerships. Universities should be about education first and foremost rather than profit.”
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said the executions in Saudi Arabia “underline the horrific and repressive character of the Saudi regime”. He called on Stirling University to “send a positive message” by ending its business relationship with the Saudi military.
He added: “Its brutal and authoritarian rule is something that should be condemned by Stirling University and any institution that values free speech and democracy. The Saudi Air Force has played a particularly appalling role in Yemen, where the bombardment it has led has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
“Public institutions need to have standards and work for the public good. Even now, Stirling University has the chance to set a positive precedent.
“It should offer a firm apology to human rights campaigners in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and publicly declare that it will no longer be taking money from a dictatorship that has been responsible for decades of oppression.”
Scottish Greens external affairs spokesperson, Ross Greer, said: “Amnesty are right to condemn Stirling University for this relationship and the failure of university management to respond to the concerns we had raised is just unacceptable.
“This is a brutal regime which bombs school buses and hospitals in Yemen whilst brutally executing its own citizens, including children. Stirling University may be getting a good payout from the King Abdullah Air Defence Academy, but its actions are morally bankrupt.
“Brutal regimes guilty of war crimes and human rights abuses should not be courted like this. Stirling University should instead listen to the Universities and Colleges Union and completely revaluate these arms-length partnerships.”
Into UP did not reply to our request for a comment.
The figures contained in Amnesty’s report also show that the number of executions doubled in Iraq last year – from at least 52 in 2018 to at least 100, largely due to executions of those accused of being members of the Islamic State armed group.
Iran was once again the world’s second most prolific executioner after China, where the exact number of people executed is kept secret.
Despite the numbers increasing in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Amnesty’s report shows that the global trend is an overall decline in capital punishment. Worldwide execution numbers decreased for the fourth consecutive year – down five per cent to 657 from 2018’s figure of 690, making last year a ten-year low.
Announcing Amnesty’s new report, Clare Algar, its senior policy director, said: “Saudi Arabia’s growing use of the death penalty, including as a weapon against political dissidents, is an alarming development. Also shocking was the massive jump in executions in Iraq, which nearly doubled in just one year.
“In countries from Belarus to Botswana and Iran to Japan, executions were being carried out without any advance notice to the families, lawyers or in some cases the individuals themselves. The death penalty is an abhorrent and inhuman punishment, and there is no credible evidence that it deters crime more than prisons terms.
“We are calling on all states to abolish the death penalty. There needs to be international pressure on the world’s last remaining executioners to end this inhuman practice for good.”
The Ferret asked Stirling University under freedom of information law how much money the Saudi contract was worth. It responded by saying the that Into UP joint venture was “a separate organisation” from the university.
It added: “The financial information that the university receives from the Into joint venture is at the aggregated income and expenditure level, not individual transactional detail. Therefore the university does not hold information relating to the individual activity referred to in the article.”
The Ferret also asked if anyone at the university involved with the governance of Into Stirling LLP had raised concerns over the contract. The university said it did not hold this information.