The Foreign Secretary says ‘just to be clear, these people were terrorists’ – despite at least four of the 47 being arrested over political protests. Rights groups say Britain continues to ‘parrot the propaganda’ of its Middle East ally.

The UK Foreign Secretary has been accused of “parroting Saudi Arabian propaganda” after he refused to condemn the mass execution of 47 people in the conservative kingdom.

The government says it has expressed its “disappointment” at the killings, which included a prominent Shia cleric and sparked a diplomatic fallout across the Middle East.

Appearing on the BBC’s Today programme, Philip Hammond was asked if Britain was willing to be “more robust” in denouncing the actions of its ally.

But he instead preferred to point to the fact that Iran “executes far more people than Saudi Arabia does”, and said: “Let us be clear, first of all, that these people were convicted terrorists.”

According to rights groups, at least four of the 47 were arrested and killed in relation to political protests, including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr himself.

But when this was put to Mr Hammond, he suggested there was no point objecting to all Saudi executions because “Sharia law calls for the use of the death penalty and however much we lobby countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran… they are not going to end its use”.

The Foreign Secretary also revealed that he spoke to his Saudi Arabian counterpart in December about reports in this newspaper and others that a mass execution was about to take place. “I urged him that they should not go ahead,” he said, but to no avail.

Human rights groups said it was “appalling” that Mr Hammond refused to go beyond the standard assertion that the UK “does not support the death penalty under any circumstances”.

Maya Foa, head of the death penalty team at Reprieve, said the minister appeared to be “alarmingly misinformed about the mass executions”, repeating the Saudi crown prince’s line from an interview with the Economist where he described all those killed as “terrorists”.

“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.”

David Mepham, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, told the Huffington Post that “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.

“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.”

Reprieve said its figures showed that of the 158 people killed by the Saudi state in 2015, 72 per cent were convicted of non-lethal offenses such as political protest or drug-related crimes.

It added that, despite Mr Hammond’s “welcome” lobbying on their behalves, three juvenile offenders – Ali al-Nimr, Dawoud al Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher – remain on death row “and could be executed at any time”.