LONDON — For more than a year, an asthmatic 74-year-old grandfather and former oil executive has sat in a prison in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, accused of violating the country’s strict prohibition on alcohol after the authorities found bottles of homemade wine in his car.
The case of the former executive, Karl Andree, who has lived in Saudi Arabia for 25 years and is a cancer survivor, has now become a matter of geopolitical controversy amid an outcry over the sentence he faces: 350 lashes, a punishment that his family says could kill him.
The British government said Tuesday that it was canceling a program to train prison officers in Saudi Arabia, and that Prime Minister David Cameron would make an appeal for clemency, as the case continued to draw attention on social media.
“We are actively seeking his release as soon as possible,” the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in a statement. Officials later said Cameron also would make a personal written request for review of the case.
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Andree’s family has pleaded with the government to intervene. Son Simon Andree told BBC Radio 4 that he feared his father would not survive the flogging.
“He’s had cancer three times,” he said. “He suffers from severe asthma. He’s an old, frail man, and I just fear that this lashing sentence is a death sentence for him.”
According to news reports, he was arrested in the port city of Jiddah in August 2014 after authorities found alcohol in his car. Saudi Arabia’s legal code is based on a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law, though it is not uncommon for foreigners to consume alcohol covertly.
The case comes as Britain’s relations with Saudi Arabia face renewed scrutiny. On Tuesday, the British government announced that the Justice Ministry would not proceed with a program to train Saudi prison staff members. The justice secretary told Parliament that the government would scrap the deal, which is worth about $9 million.
The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, had called on Cameron to scrap the contract on grounds that Britain should not aid a country whose justice system allows lashings, executions and beheadings.
In a speech at the party’s annual conference, Corbyn also called on the government to intervene to secure the release of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, a Saudi who faces beheading over reportedly taking part in anti-government protests when he was 16 or 17. The son of a prominent dissident, he was arrested in 2012.
The United Nations last month also called on Saudi Arabia to prevent al-Nimr’s execution, after a court upheld his sentence.
In a report issued in late August, Amnesty International said Saudi Arabia had executed at least 175 people over the previous 12 months.
Under the country’s justice system, offenses including drug dealing, arms smuggling, murder and other violent crimes are punishable by death, usually by beheading in a public square. Offenses that can be punishable by flogging include meeting members of the opposite sex who are not close relatives; adultery; driving, if you are a woman; and homosexuality.
The justice system is administered by conservative clerics applying Shariah law, and they often hand down harsh punishments. But not all of them are carried out, especially if they are likely to elicit international criticism.