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Anti-arms trade group questions legality of Saudi ship set to dock in UK

Campaigners fear the Bahri Yanbu will bring military equipment to Saudi Arabia for use in the war in Yemen
A sign hung by protesters on Wednesday morning in Tilbury in preparation for the Bahri Yanbu's arrival (Twitter/@CAATunis)

Lawyers representing the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) have asked the British government whether a Saudi vessel, expected to arrive in the UK on Wednesday to pick up military equipment, should be allowed to enter the country.

Hours before the Bahri Yanbu, a Saudi state-owned cargo ship, was set to arrive at the port in Tilbury on the River Thames just outside of London, lawyers from Leigh Day sent the government a letter questioning on what grounds the vessel will be legally allowed to dock.

'The military equipment on that ship could be in human rights abuses for years to come. That is why we will continue to take action'

- Andrew Smith, Campaign Against Arms Trade

In particular, the lawyers have sought clarification about whether the licence that would be required for the ship to transport controlled goods is consistent with a landmark court ruling last June.

In that ruling, which resulted from a case raised by CAAT, the Court of Appeal said the UK government had acted unlawfully by failing to make an assessment of whether there was a risk that equipment sold to Saudi Arabia might be used in serious violations of international humanitarian law.

The government was ordered to review its multi-billion-pound arms trade with the kingdom and stop issuing new sales licenses as a result.

In a copy of the Leigh Day letter seen by Middle East Eye, the lawyers gave the UK government 24 hours to respond. 

MEE has sought a comment from Bahri, the Saudi shipping company which operates the Bahri Yanbu, but had not received a response by the time of publication.

Last year, despite lawsuits and protests which blocked some of the cargo from making it onto the ship, the same vessel carried “tens of millions of dollars” worth of arms that were destined for Yemen, according to Amnesty International.

Ports and protests

Since the start of the year, the Bahri Yanbu has made its way to the US and Canada and is now making its way around Europe where it is expected to be met by protests in France and Italy. 

It was scheduled to stop at Antwerp, but reportedly turned away following demonstrations at the Belgian port.

Campaigners are concerned that the ship will be loaded with weapons that may be used by Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen.

A Dutch news outlet reported last week that the shipowners had confirmed that the vessel was carrying military equipment, but MEE has been unable to confirm this independently and has also asked Bahri to comment.

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"The weapons transported by this ship could be used in human rights abuses in Yemen and beyond: it should not be allowed to use UK ports," said Andrew Smith, CAAT's media coordinator.

Smith acknowledged that while the court ruling last year was "extremely important", it has not stopped the transfer of arms that were licensed beforehand. 

"Since the verdict, thousands of people have died as a result of the brutal conflict and the UK government has maintained its cozy ties to the Saudi regime," he said.  

"The military equipment on that ship could be used in human rights abuses for years to come. That is why we will continue to take action."

More than 100,000 people have died since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemens' war in March 2015 against the Houthi movement, according to a report released by an American NGO late last year.

During that same time period, the UK government has licensed at least £5.3bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, but is likely to have approved even more using 'open licenses' which obscure the total value and quantity of exports.