Human Rights: Iran

deferred divisions – in the House of Commons at 6:50 pm on 16th January 2013.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Evennett.)

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 7:15 pm, 16th January 2013

I am particularly pleased that you are chairing this debate, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I know your profoundly held views on the issue of human rights in Iran. Many colleagues are attending the debate tonight and, as I am having great difficulty in pronouncing some of the names that I need to read out, I would be grateful if they could intervene to help me with that exercise.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about Iran’s human rights record, which is an absolute disgrace. The record of the clerical regime’s 34-year rule includes the execution of 120,000 of its political opponents, yet the world remains silent. It also includes the catastrophic repression of women, oppressed nationalities, and followers of various religions; the destruction of the majority of the middle class; the obliteration of the private sector; the falling of at least 40 million people below the poverty line; unemployment standing at 35%—an absolute disgrace—and a 40% inflation rate; and the plunging of the nation’s official currency.

At the same time, Iran’s regime is sowing the seeds of discord right across the middle east, not least in Syria, where the mullahs are lending huge assistance to the dictator Assad, who is a very wicked man indeed. The regime is also attempting to eliminate Iraq’s democratic opposition leaders, as well as the 3,300 Iranian dissidents in Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty. The mullahs are a particular concern, due to their dangerous pursuit of nuclear weapons. Let there be no doubt in the House that those nuclear weapons would be directed towards the destruction of the entire world.

I shall keep my remarks brief, as I hope to be able to give my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe at least a couple of minutes in which to respond to the debate. I shall focus on the regime’s brutal efforts to suppress a Persian spring, which stopped the possibility of democratic change occurring organically in Iran. Iran’s fundamentalist regime has embarked on a brutal campaign of mass executions to terrorise its people and prevent a resurgence of the protests calling for regime change.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the regime has simply run out of chances and that it has to go? Does he also agree that the one constructive thing that we could do would be to let the legitimate leader of the Iranian opposition, Mrs Rajavi, come to this country to talk to British politicians and the people in our media, so that they could see the alternative?

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, I stand shoulder to shoulder with him on this issue.

On 13 November, 44 people in Iran were sent to the gallows. At least 450 people have been executed in Iran since the beginning of 2012, according to the tally publicly announced by the authorities, which we can hardly believe. The true number is far greater.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for bringing such an important debate to this Chamber. The number of Members here is an indication of its importance for us. The hon. Gentleman has not mentioned it yet, but is he aware of the specific persecution of pastors of churches such as evangelists? If someone is a closet Christian, they are left alone, but if someone tries to promote the gospel or evangelise, they are persecuted, as shown by the fact that 85 people were jailed for it in 2009 and more than 100 people were jailed for it in 2010. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that this is not just about human rights, but about religious rights?

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point, as I do on so many other matters.

Some 1,000 prisoners—yes, 1,000 prisoners—are currently on death row in prison. The regime has appointed a death panel to expedite the implementation of the death penalties for prisoners on death row, yet the world remains absolutely silent.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for the passion with which he is making his case. Does he agree that it is right that the world should not remain silent? Iranian citizens are not the only ones affected; as the case of Saeed Abedini shows, so are citizens of countries around the world. If my hon. Friend will indulge me, let me explain that he is a 32-year-old US citizen who lives in Idaho with his wife, who is also a US citizen, and their two children. He was visiting Iran to see his family and was taken off a bus, arrested, put in prison for several months, tortured and, this very week, is due to appear before a judge. He risks 18 years in prison or even the death penalty. For what? It would appear only for having the Christian faith.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who has done the House a great service in bringing that terrible issue to our attention. I compliment her on the wonderful work she has done ever since she was elected.

The mullahs have at least 60 repressive institutions in the country, including several types of anti-riot agencies, several sections for torture and at least 12 others for filtering websites and controlling e-mails. Not only has this regime meddled in the affairs of Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza; it has recently interfered with the BBC Persian TV service, which experienced deliberate and illegal interference from within Iran from the first day of the 2009 Iranian presidential election. The former director-general Mark Thompson—for whom I do not usually hold a candle—highlighted the issue of BBC Persian staff and their families facing harassment and intimidation at the hands of the Iranian authorities, which has naturally put BBC staff under immense pressure. I know that the noble Lord Patten is trying to do the best he can to sort out that mess.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate

On the issue of the media, my hon. Friend interestingly draws attention to recommendation 5 of the report of the all-party parliamentary group on the persecution of Christians in Iran. It states:

“We ask the British Government to work through European institutions to facilitate EU regulations signal-jamming on European-owned satellites.”

We must do better to ensure that freedom of speech goes across the airwaves—not least to the BBC.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that matter to my attention, and I applaud the wonderful work he, too, does as a Member of this place.

Those staff deserve praise for their bravery in spite of danger, and they deserve the protection of this Government. I ask the Minister to dwell particularly on that point in his reply.

On the 27 November, the UN General Assembly’s third committee condemned Iran for widespread human rights abuses—but what has happened? It is all very well condemning them; what has happened in reality to change the system? The committee cited the

“continuing alarming high frequency of the carrying-out of the death penalty in the absence of internationally recognised safeguards, including an increase in the number of public executions.”

As we have already heard, a 35-year-old dissident blogger was arrested by Iran’s cyber-police on 30 October at his home in Robat Karim. On 6 November, his family was told to collect his body from Tehran’s detention facility, and he was buried the following day. He had been brutally tortured to death while in detention in an attempt to obtain a forced confession—a method used extensively by the Iranian regime against the opposition and dissidents. Witnesses said his body was “crushed” due to torture marks. Yet again, however, the world does nothing. The case of Khosravi illustrates the arbitrary nature of the regime’s judiciary, and its mistreatment of political prisoners.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

My hon. Friend talks about the arbitrary nature of the judiciary, and is it not true that in Iran it can be difficult to find lawyers to defend such individuals, especially as on occasions not just the accused but their lawyer can be thrown into prison?

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; yet again the world remains silent.

In 2008, following arrest by the Intelligence Ministry, Khosravi was given a six-year prison term for providing support to the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran, the largest Iranian opposition group.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his leadership of our parliamentary group in highlighting many of the abuses of the Iranian regime. He talked about how the situation is escalating. It is escalating as we speak, as the Iranian Parliament is trying to pass a law to prevent single women, the dissidents to whom he refers and people who have been championing human rights, from leaving the country without the consent of a guardian. Barring people from leaving is being used as another means of repression. Does he agree that the Government should put pressure on Tehran on that point, too?

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

My Welsh hon. Friend is absolutely right on that. Again, we need to ensure that the Foreign Office do something other than utter endless platitudes, which I am absolutely sick to death of.

Khosravi was tortured and subjected to extreme duress in solitary confinement for a period of 40 months, and following two retrials, sentenced to death after conviction on a fresh charge of “enmity against God”. In 2013, that is crazy.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the Adjournment debate. I am grateful to one of my constituents, Professor Brad Blitz, who only last Thursday sent me a list of five people, including Jabber Alboshoka, Mokhtar Alboshoka, Hadi Rashedi, Hashem Shabani, and Mohammad Ali Amoori, who have all had their death sentences upheld. Does my hon. Friend agree that they have been sentenced not because they are criminals or have done anything to offend the state, but because they are all part of the Ahwazi minority, an ethnic group that the mullahs and the Iranian Government are determined to wipe out?

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"Death sentence confirmed for five Ahwazi Arab activists" - Ahwaz News Agency http://www.ahwaziarabs.info/2013/01/death-sentence-confirmed... One of those facing execution, Mohammad Ali Amouri, is a UNHCR-registered refugee who was illegally repatriated from Iraq in 2011, despite UNHCR protests:...

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Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I wonder whether he and I should swap places, as he has done a far better job of pronouncing these difficult names than I have in my brief speech.

Elmira Vazehan began a hunger strike on 5 October to protest against the regime’s refusal to allow her to have an operation. She is suffering from heart disease and cancer. She was arrested in December 2009, accused of having relatives and family members in Camp Ashraf, and charged with “waging war” by working with the main democratic opposition group, the PMOI. She was initially sentenced to death and subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison, and yet the world remains silent. Nothing is ever done.

The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, in a recent report to the UN General Assembly, said what human rights activists in Iran are subjected to. I wish the Government would send me to address the United Nations General Assembly. I would welcome the opportunity to shake things up.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. I share the same concern as other Members who have intervened about exiled Christians and people suffering from the inability to express their freedom of conscience. I propose to raise the matter at some future meeting of the Council of Europe, because it is appropriate that the issue is raised there. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that not enough is being done to bring the issue to the attention of world authorities. Does he share my wish that the Government back the initiative to take the matter forward at the next opportunity in the Council of Europe?

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, as I do on so many other issues. I hope that our Minister will act on what he has said.

In view of the Iranian regime’s complete disregard for 58 United Nations resolutions, and given that it has denied access to various UN rapporteurs for the last seven years, it is essential for its human rights dossier to be referred to the UN Security Council for binding measures.

I also want to draw the House’s attention to the human rights abuses being committed, at the mullahs’ behest, against the 3,300 residents of Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty in Iraq. Dissidents who have resided in Iraq for more than 25 years built a modern town called Ashraf, which they developed from the ground up. Its residents have been major targets for the mullahs in Iran. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Ashraf residents who disarmed voluntarily were designated by the coalition as protected persons under the fourth Geneva convention.

Photo of James Wharton James Wharton Conservative, Stockton South

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important issue. Does he agree that it is not just a matter of raising the subject of Camp Ashraf in the House, and with the Government and international institutions? Would it not be welcome if the western media did more to draw public attention to the disgraceful things that have gone on in that place, and to the human rights abuses that have occurred?

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The media cover absolute trivia, yet there is no coverage at all of something as important as the execution of 120,000 people, presumably because it does not involve sex or celebrity status.

Unfortunately I shall have to dump most of the rest of my speech, because I want to allow the Minister a couple of minutes in which to respond to the points I have made. Let me say, however, that I am extremely unhappy about Martin Kobler, the special representative of the UN Secretary-General in Iraq. He gave the residents repeated assurances about their welfare and protection at Camp Liberty, but, sadly, those residents have been badly let down. Those assurances are not worth the paper on which they are written.

As one who knows the Foreign Office of old, let me say this to my right hon. Friend the Minister. Many Members in all parts of the House are fed up with the lack of action on this issue. When President Obama won his first term of office a little over four years ago and chose Mrs Clinton to be his Foreign Secretary, we heard much about what America would do about it, but what has happened? Absolutely nothing. I have reached a point at which I am prepared to say that, ultimately, this is about oil. Money talks. I think that if there were any consistency on the issue, action would have been taken.

First, I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to talk to our right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, and to ensure that further diplomatic relations with this dreadful regime are conditional on its stopping the ongoing executions and torture. We had appeasement from the last Government, and I do not expect it from the Government whom I support. Secondly, I ask my right hon. Friend to refer the mullahs’ terrifying human rights dossier to the UN Security Council. If he will not do that, I certainly will. Thirdly, I ask the Government to assure the security and protection of the inhabitants of Camp Liberty and Camp Ashraf, to call on the UN to give it refugee camp status, and to respect Ashraf residents’ property rights and their right to sell their goods, according to the original agreement. Finally, I ask the Government to recognise the Iranian Resistance for regime change.

For too long we have had platitudes and good intentions, and I now expect action from Her Majesty’s Government.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Mr Burrowes has permission from the mover of the debate and the Minister to make a short contribution.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate 7:35 pm, 16th January 2013

I congratulate my hon.—and dear—Friend Mr Amess on securing this important debate. Members across the House must continue to raise our voices on behalf of those suffering abuse and persecution in Iran. I had the privilege of chairing an inquiry on behalf of the all-party group on Christians in Parliament, which led to the publication of the “Report on the Persecution of Christians in Iran”. It was presented to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Alistair Burt, in October. Our focus was the terrible circumstances faced by Iranian Christians, and I welcome this opportunity to acknowledge that the Iranian regime has blighted—and, indeed, terminated—the lives of so many individuals from a variety of backgrounds, not only Christians, but Baha'is, Sufis, Sunnis, journalists, film-makers, homosexuals and political activists. That is totally unacceptable and this report for the first time systematically catalogues the abuses, such as the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of more than 300 Christians in the past two years, including Church leaders such as Farshid Fathi, who was arrested in December 2010 and sentenced to six years in prison. He has just spent his third Christmas away from his wife and two young children.

The report contains first-hand statements about physical and psychological torture. It speaks of the murders by Government agencies of Christian pastors, and includes the testimonies of Iranian witnesses and evidence of education and employment discrimination driven by agencies of the state, and of many more abuses as well.

Since October the abuse has gone on day in, day out. Rev. Vruir Avanessian was celebrating Christmas with about 50 believers in a private home in Tehran when police arrived and raided the house. He was arrested and detained in the notorious Evin prison for 15 days. He was released on 10 January, but is awaiting a court summons, as are the others who were present. The abuse continues, therefore.

The report marks not the end of the process, but the beginning. The persecution in Iran has been raised on numerous occasions by many Members, and we must continue to work together and be determined to expose the ongoing iniquity. We must be unrelenting in our ambition for others to enjoy the simple liberties with which we are so blessed in our own country, and we must be resolute in the struggle for justice.

We trust that this Government will, as the report recommends, use the appropriate channels to urge the Iranian regime to uphold its obligations under both its own constitution and international law in its treatment not only of the Christian population, but of all those citizens who are being denied their liberties—freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion. We look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West in a few moments, and to hearing the Government’s response to the report’s recommendations in due course.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe 7:37 pm, 16th January 2013

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr Amess for securing this debate on such an important subject, and I pay tribute to him and my hon. Friend Mr Burrowes for consistently championing the cause of human rights in Iran. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate has just said, one of the most striking and appalling aspects of the situation in that country is that

Iran’s own constitution and laws provide for precisely the liberties the breach of which we learn of week by week in the reports from Iran.

A few years ago when I was an Opposition spokesman I briefly visited Iran and was told with great pride by representatives of the Government about the position given to the Armenian and Assyrian Churches in Iran, and the fact that seats were reserved for religious minorities. That stands in stark contrast to the treatment of individual believers and pastors, as has been reported in my hon. Friends’ speeches and in interventions from both sides of the House this evening, and as is apparent from the catalogue of tragic cases of people—particularly, as Jim Shannon pointed out, from the Evangelical and House Church movement inside Iran—who have been imprisoned, tortured and treated in the most appalling fashion.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

We are talking about the Muslim order of Islamic guidance—I believe that is what it calls itself. It is the blackshirts of that organisation who come to target evangelicals specifically, and that organisation should be condemned at the highest level.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

There is no doubt in my mind that deliberate and systematic persecution of Christians takes place in Iran. Iran’s supreme leader called last year for efforts to be made to stop the spread of Christianity in Iran. Ironically, that is being done in the name of a faith that prides itself on the message of mercy and compassion, and in the name of a prophet of Islam who accepted the place of Jesus as one of the honoured prophets of Islam. The Koran contains many of the stories of Jesus, including the nativity, told as part of Islam’s own religious revelation. That makes still more shocking what we are observing in Iran today.

Where I differ with my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West is on his challenge that the Government, or the rest of world more generally, are silent on these matters. I can absolutely understand his anger and frustration at the fact that these abuses of human rights have continued year after year, but the British Government have been resolute in calling Iran to account for its human rights violations. We will continue to monitor closely and speak out against such violations in Iran, which not only contravene international law but do not even comply with Iran’s own laws or professed values.

I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and that of the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Alistair Burt, to this evening’s proceedings. They have frequently condemned the many instances of human rights violations reported to us. We believe that that has contributed significantly to both public and international awareness of individual cases and of Iran’s human rights record, and has helped build pressure on the regime. Sadly, we know, too, that many more abuses remain behind closed doors. The promotion of human rights has always been seen by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary as something that should lie at the very heart of British foreign policy. We regularly make clear to Iran, through the various international forums in which we participate, the importance we place on respecting international human rights law.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

I just want to make something very clear to my right hon. Friend, although I do not want to sour things. This country followed America’s lead and got involved in all sorts of violent conflicts, with disastrous consequences. I was one of the people who voted for the war with Iraq, and that frustrates me. However, the real cause of my frustration is that, despite all this pressure, nothing actually changes. I want some action. Why do we give this dreadful Ahmadinejad a platform at the United Nations?

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington The Minister for Europe

That is not something over which the Government of the United Kingdom have control. Iran is a member of the United Nations. President Ahmadinejad would normally be banned under United States law from visiting the United States, but as the Head of State of a member of the UN he is entitled to travel, via the United States, to the UN General Assembly or to other United Nations meetings in order to represent his country as a member of that organisation. Whatever the sense of anger we feel about that, it is, on balance, not a bad thing that President Ahmadinejad should have to go to speak at the United Nations and be aware, through what happens in the chamber, that representatives of many countries walk out when they hear him speak—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).