Scotland Yard is examining allegations of war crimes by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, the Guardian can reveal, triggering a possible diplomatic row with Britain on the eve of Theresa May’s visit to the Arab state.
The Metropolitan police confirmed that their war crimes unit was assessing whether criminal prosecutions could be brought over Saudi Arabia’s devastating aerial campaign in Yemen.
The force’s SO15 counter-terrorism unit revealed to a London human rights lawyer that it had launched a “scoping exercise” into the claims before Maj Gen Ahmed al-Asiri’s visit to the capital last week.
The revelation comes as May plans to underline Britain’s close relationship with the Saudi royal family on her visit to the Arab state this week, in which tackling the terror threat from Islamic State will be a key factor.
Speaking in advance of the trip, in which she will also visit Jordan, the prime minister said she wanted to “herald a further intensification in relations between our countries and deepen true strategic partnerships”.
She argued that the intelligence relationship with Saudi Arabia had been critical, potentially saving hundreds of lives in the UK, and claimed there were huge possibilities for closer trade links as the UK moves towards leaving the European Union.
May plans to stress the need for collaboration in the wake of the Westminster terror attack, while also pledging humanitarian support to Jordan to help it handle the huge volumes of refugees displaced by the Syrian conflict.
But the trip comes under the shadow of a war in Yemen that has killed more than 10,000 civilians and displaced more than 3 million people. The Saudi-led coalition has been accused of killing thousands of civilians and triggering a humanitarian catastrophe in one of the region’s poorest countries.
The UK, which along with the US supports the Saudis against the Houthis, has been urged to reconsider its arms exports to Saudi Arabia in light of the bloody air campaign.
In a letter from a detective inspector in SO15, which has been seen by the Guardian, Scotland Yard said: “I can confirm we have commenced a scoping exercise into the allegations you have raised regarding potential crimes in Yemen, committed by the international coalition who have intervened in the conflict between pro- and anti-government forces.”
The letter, dated Friday 31 March, goes on to say that if detectives believed Asiri was in the UK “we will consider any opportunities to arrest or interview any individual, should we deem the action to be proportionate, legal and necessary as part of the scoping exercise”.
Officers are carrying out the scoping exercise to assess whether a full-scale investigation is justified into the war crimes allegations. It is understood that detectives are to examine whether there is an identifiable suspect and, if not, whether there is a realistic prospect of identifying one.
If a suspect is identified, detectives will then consider whether they can make on-the-ground inquiries overseas, although that is likely to prove impossible in Yemen.
Daniel Machover of Hickman & Rose, the London-based law firm that received the Scotland Yard letter, said: “The prosecuting authorities are legally obliged to seek out and, where the evidence permits, prosecute (or extradite for prosecution) those in their jurisdiction who are suspected of war crimes.
“Given the serious allegations against him, the Foreign Office should confirm that it will not stand in the way of due process and the rule of law by granting him special mission immunity in any future visit to this country.”
A Scotland Yard spokesman said: “On Thursday, 30 March 2017 the Metropolitan police service (MPS) received a referral of an allegation of war crimes, made against Saudi Arabia committed in Yemen.
”Following receipt of the referral, the MPS war crimes team (part of the counter-terrorism command) began a scoping exercise and contacted those making the allegations. There is no investigation at this time, and the scoping exercise continues.”
Asiri, who regularly appears in the media to defend Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen, was pelted with an egg by protesters and subjected to an attempted citizen’s arrest before a seminar in London on Friday.
Boris Johnson was forced to express regret over the incident in a telephone call with Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, on Sunday.
The Saudis called the attempted citizen’s arrest an attack against a representative of their government, according to the English-language Middle East Eye website. The Bahraini government, a close ally of Riyad and a country accused of severe human rights abuses, called it a “barbaric assault” by a “group of terrorists”.
At the seminar, Asiri accused Saudi Arabia’s critics of making allegations without evidence and being duped by Houthi extremists.
May’s visit comes as the chancellor, Philip Hammond, and the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, head to India to “bang the drum for British business” in preparation for Brexit.
May has also visited India, the US and other countries to press her desire for a “global Britain”. This week’s trip to Jordan and Saudi Arabia will be about pursuing close links.
Downing Street said Saudi Arabia was the UK’s largest trading partner in the Middle East, with exports of British goods at £4.67bn and services at £1.9bn in 2015.
“As the United Kingdom leaves the EU, we are determined to forge a bold, confident future for ourselves in the world. We must look at the challenges that we, and future generations, will face and build stronger partnerships with countries that will be vital to both our security and our prosperity,” May has said.
But Human Rights Watch last week said Saudi Arabia may have committed a war crime on 16 March when a helicopter fired on a boat, killing at least 32 of the 145 Somali migrants and refugees on board and one Yemeni civilian. The attack occurred off the Yemeni port city of Hudaydah.
Asiri said Saudi helicopters did not hold the ammunition found at the site and told campaigners from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch: “Stop communicating what the Houthi people put in the social media. To be constructive, give us evidence and we will engage with you.”
An FCO spokesperson said the UK was not a member of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen but supported the intervention. “We regularly raise the importance of compliance with international humanitarian law with the Saudi government and other members of the military coalition and we do not shy away from raising legitimate human rights concerns with our friends.”
The Ministry of Defence monitors alleged violations of the law, which “informs our overall assessment” of compliance with international humanitarian law in Yemen, the spokesperson said.