The Foreign Secretary has been condemned for "appalling" comments saying all those killed in recent mass executions in Saudi Arabia were "terrorists", despite the outcry that one of them was a peaceful opponent of the regime.
Nimr Al-Nimr, a 56-year-old Shia cleric in the Sunni-dominated kingdom, was one of 47 men beheaded and shot on January 2, triggering global outrage, protests across the Muslim world and a standoff with Iran.
His country's secretive judicial system had convicted him of “disobeying the ruler”, “inciting sectarian strife” and “encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations” in Shia-majority towns in 2011 and 2012. He was a driving force behind the "Arab Spring" protests across the Middle East and North Africa.
A portrait Al Nimr in Beirut after his execution
When the sentence was passed in October 2014, Amnesty International called for it to be quashed and said it was part of the Kingdom's efforts to "crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shi’a Muslim community".
On Friday, Philip Hammond said all those executed were "terrorists", repeating what the Saudi state news agency reported about the men who were executed.
The British government had said it was "disappointed" with the killings and presenter Nick Robinson had invited him to be "more robust" in condemning it now.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Hammond said: "Let's be clear, first of all, all of those executed were convicted terrorists."
Robinson pointed out that Al Nimr's execution was widely attributed to his peaceful opposition to the regime but Hammond did not acknowledge the point.
Philip Hammond suggested Al Nimr was a 'terrorist'
"We are clear that the use of the death penalty is wrong in all cases. We make that point relentlessly to all countries that use the death penalty," he added.
The interview did not return to Al Nimr and later moved on to discussing the EU.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned Hammond's refusal to condemn the executions and said his words amounted to "excusing" the repressive state's killings.
David Mepham, the UK director of the group, told HuffPost UK: "British policy on Saudi Arabia has reached a new low. It is appalling that Phillip Hammond refused to condemn the mass beheadings that took place in Saudi on January 2, including the execution of the prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al Nimr."
He added: "The legal process leading to his death sentence was seriously flawed, and his execution has massively increased sectarian tensions across the region.
"Yet pressed on the case in this morning’s BBC interview, the Foreign Secretary chose not to criticise Saudi executions but rather to contextualise, explain and seemingly excuse them.”
Maya Foa, head of the death penalty team at Reprieve, said: “While Philip Hammond’s efforts to prevent the execution of Ali al Nimr and other juveniles are welcome, it appears he is alarmingly misinformed about the mass executions.
"Far from being ‘terrorists’, at least four of those killed were arrested after protests calling for reform – and were convicted in shockingly unfair trials."
She added: "The Saudi government is clearly using the death penalty, alongside torture and secret courts, to punish political dissent.
"By refusing to condemn these executions and parroting the Saudis’ propaganda, labelling those killed as 'terrorists', Mr Hammond is coming dangerously close to condoning Saudi Arabia’s approach.”
Al Nimr only took part in peaceful demonstrations before his arrest in 2012, according to his supporters.
A 2011 BBC Arabic report quoted him as saying: "The roar of the word against authorities rather than weapons … the weapon of the word is stronger than bullets, because authorities will profit from a battle of weapons".
Andrew Stroehlein, also from HRW, told HuffPost UK Hammond's comment was "inappropriate. [Al Nimr] was convicted on vague charges apparently based largely on his peaceful criticism of Saudi officials."
Journalist Peter Oborne called it "outrageous" and said Hammond was "a mouthpiece for Saudi propaganda machine".
Outrageous that a British foreign secretary should act as mouthpiece for Saudi propaganda machine.
— Peter Oborne (@OborneTweets) January 8, 2016
Allan Hogarth, Amnesty International's UK head of policy, said: “Contrary to what Mr Hammond says there’s nothing complicated about this...
“Mr Hammond undermines the UK’s commitments to complete opposition by saying but Sharia…but they were terrorists… but Iran is worse. Parroting those sorts of justifications seriously threaten the UK’s credibility on human rights.”
A Foreign Office spokesman told HuffPost UK: "We oppose the death penalty both publicly and privately. We don't shy away from raising human rights concerns in Saudi Arabia."
When asked whether he would clarify the Foreign Office's view on Al Nimr, he said: "I have nothing further to add."
All the 47 men were beheaded except four who were shot by firing squads. The Saudi state news agency linked them to a series of Al Qaeda bombings in 2003 and 2004.
HRW said it was not specified which men were executed for which crime.
It said Al Nimr's trial was conducted over 13 sessions over 18 months, some without informing his advocate, and the vague charges he faced did not "resemble recognisable crimes".
Authorities had accused him of resisting arrest and fighting a gun battle with security forces in which he was wounded. But his family said he did not own a firearm and disputed he had resisted.
Amnesty International's most recent report on Saudi Arabia says discrimination against the Shia minority is "entrenched" there.
"Some Shia activists were sentenced to death and scores received lengthy prison terms. Torture of detainees was reportedly common; courts convicted defendants on the basis of torture-tainted “confessions” and sentenced others to flogging," it says.
Reprieve, which campaigns against the death penalty, says 72% of of those facing execution in Saudi Arabia in 2015 were convicted of non-lethal offences such as political protest or drug-related crimes.