Human Rights (Iran)

– in Westminster Hall at 12:30 pm on 6th June 2006.

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Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour, Liverpool, Riverside 12:30 pm, 6th June 2006

The world's attention is focused on Iran's nuclear ambitions and the danger that that undoubtedly poses for the region. However, there is a long-running cause of concern that should not be allowed to escape the spotlight: Iran's abysmal record on human rights. Iran's abuse of human rights has been condemned by the United Nations, the European Union, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. In this short debate, I shall focus on limited areas of persecution, but it is important to appreciate the context in which the abuses that I shall detail take place.

The systematic suppression of dissent in Iran permeates the whole of Iranian society. The abuses are not random. They are organised by the Government or by what Iranians call parallel institutions, such as the intelligence service and paramilitary groups. President Ahmadinejad's Cabinet is dominated by former members of the intelligence and security services, some of whom are allegedly implicated in serious violations, including the assassination of dissident intellectuals.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the deterioration of freedom of expression and the routine use of arbitrary arrest, torture and solitary confinement. Tehran's public prosecutor, Saeed Mortzavi, has been implicated in major violations, including the unresolved death in custody of the Iranian-Canadian photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi in June 2003, yet no proper investigation has taken place.

Executions, including those of juveniles, continue after highly questionable judicial processes. Amnesty International reports that in the past year at least 94 people have been executed, including at least eight who were under 18.

At the end of May 2006, 500 armed riot police stormed into Tehran university campus following a student protest after a purge of the university's academic faculty. Live bullets were fired, people were injured and arrests were made. At the end of May, no further information was available about the fate of the arrested students.

A systematic purge of the media in 2000 closed newspapers and imprisoned journalists. In 2005, the Iranian Government turned their attention to targeting websites and internet journalists. Those who were arrested were sent to secret detention centres. In February 2005, a court in the province of Gilan sentenced Arash Sigarchi to 14 years imprisonment for online writing.

Those attacks on the media send out a clear message. The result is that where the media is not shut down, there is self-censorship. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report that independent harassment of human rights organisations and lawyers continues. The prominent activist and Nobel peace prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, was held in jail in January 2005 and released only after an international outcry. Akbar Ganj, the investigative journalist who exposed the role of high-ranking officials in the murder of writers and intellectuals in 1998, remains in prison. Political executions take place, and in May concern was expressed about the imminent execution of Valiolla Feyz Mahdavi, a 28-year-old member of Iran's main opposition party.

That systematic oppression has had profound consequences. It has resulted in what Human Rights Watch calls

"an atmosphere of impunity in which oppression thrives".

It means that people are silenced because they fear speaking out and there are fewer voices to speak out about what is wrong, so abuses are not fully documented. It is against that background that I draw attention to particular concern about two minority communities in Iran.

The Iranian Baha'i community numbers 300,000, but Baha'is also live in other countries and, indeed, there are some in my constituency. The Baha'is in Iran have long been persecuted.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I apologise for my slightly late arrival, Mr. Pope.

I thank the hon. Lady for letting me intervene as chair of the all-party Friends of the Baha'i group. Does she agree that the difficulty is that the Baha'i community, whose religion is passive and seeks no ill will toward others, has been persistently persecuted? That persecution has become serious in Iran. Does she agree that the best thing the Iranian Government could do is to enter some sort of dialogue to try to understand why those of us who have supported the Baha'i community feel that this is an unnecessary attack on Baha'is, who present no threat of instability whatever to the Iranian state? Does she agree that the Iranians should enter some sort of dialogue to try to ease the difficulties that the Baha'is in Iran are experiencing at present?

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour, Liverpool, Riverside

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Baha'is are peaceful and do not pose a threat. Their persecution is intolerable and I shall outline some of the detailed concerns about their treatment. That concern is so great that the United Nations has appointed a special rapporteur to investigate their situation.

The Iranian regime wants to weaken the Baha'i leadership by attacking people in leading positions and preventing Baha'is from entering higher education. During the 1980s, 200 Baha'is were killed or executed. International monitoring had some impact on inhibiting that, but arbitrary arrests continue, and since the beginning of 2005 125 Baha'is have been arrested. As recently as May this year, 15 Baha'is, mainly young people, were arrested in the city of Shiraz while participating in a community project. Three remain in custody but no charges have been made. Those arrests coincided with six raids on Baha'i homes in which papers and computers were taken.

Recently, there have been more sinister developments. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, issued a highly significant report on the condition of Baha'is in Iran earlier this year. She concluded that she was "highly concerned" about the persecution of Iranian Baha'is and condemned the letter sent on 25 October 2005 by the chairman of the command headquarters of the armed forces in Iran to Government agencies, which stated that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has instructed command headquarters to

"identify those of the Bhai faith and monitor their activities."

She judged that that was

"impermissible and unacceptable interference with the rights of members of religious minorities" and expressed fears that the information would be used for the persecution of the Baha'is in violation of international standards.

Against that background, Bani Dugal, principal representative of the Baha'i international community to the UN, spoke of the unrelenting persecution of the Baha'is. Concern has since intensified with the publication of a series of defamatory articles in Tehran's Kayhan newspaper, including one in February stating that Baha'is gather on Muslim holy days

"to consume alcohol, dance, and sacrifice a Muslim child."

Those outrageous allegations, which have created an atmosphere of fear and hostility, were published in Iran's national newspaper. There is no evidence whatever for the allegations. They are venomous and reminiscent of anti-Jewish blood libels that also circulate in Iran. Indeed, the 20,000-strong Iranian Jewish community, which has diminished from 85,000 in 1979, feels increasingly anxious.

President Ahmadinejad's recent provocative holocaust denial, combined with his call for Israel to be

"wiped off the face of the map" is, sadly, not a new phenomenon in Iran, but its intensity and central place in the international furore about Iran's nuclear ambitions have raised acute concern about the situation of Iranian Jews—one of the oldest Jewish communities—and created an atmosphere of fear. President Ahmadinejad stated just a few months ago:

"They have created a myth today that they call the massacre of Jews and they consider it a principle above God, religion and the prophets".

I have viewed a highly disturbing programme that was broadcast on Channel 2 of Iranian television on 5 January. It hosted a discussion in which political analyst Dr. Majid Goudarzi stated—unchallenged—that following Jesus' birth, the Jews of Yemen prepared a pit of fire for Christians who refused to renounce the religion of Jesus. Dr. Goudarzi stated that "burning believers" then became ingrained in Jewish consciousness so that the Jews later blamed the Germans for atrocities that they themselves had started. For good measure, Dr. Goudarzi also proclaimed that the Jews created the "protocols of the elders of Zion" to enable them to become the

"board of directors of the world".

It is truly shocking that that statement, aired as fact, was broadcast on national television in the 21st century. National television, a public resource, stated it not even as a matter of debate—although that would not have been acceptable either—but as a matter of fact. It is little wonder that Haroon Yeshaya, the former chairman of the Jewish community in Tehran, sent a public letter to President Ahmadinejad stating that his current stance of holocaust denial had created:

"astonishment among the people of the world and spread fear and anxiety among the small Jewish community of Iran."

I have mentioned detailed problems concerning Jews and Baha'is, but they are just two of Iran's minority communities. Other groups such as Arabs, Kurds and Christians suffer from tremendous discrimination. The whipping-up of hostility towards them and other minorities can only damage Iran's reputation. Sadly, the extent of Iran's human rights abuse is immense, and in the short time available today, I have been able to describe only a small number of concerns.

At the beginning of my contribution, I referred to the systematic suppression of dissent and the absence of a free media in Iran. That means that it is especially important that voices outside Iran speak up for those who face oppression. Lembit Öpik spoke about the peaceful nature of the Baha'is. The Iranians think that they can persecute groups because they believe that there is nobody there to speak up for them. I hope that through the expressions made in this Chamber today, and the work undertaken by the all-party Friends of the Baha'i group and other groups, the Iranians will be proved wrong in their assessment.

Because of the suppression of freedom of speech, and the atmosphere of intimidation in Iran, it is particularly important that voices outside Iran speak up and speak up loudly. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are to be congratulated on exposing Iran's failings on human rights. The work of the UN special rapporteurs has been invaluable in identifying abuses, although requests for visits by UN special rapporteurs on torture and extra-judicial executions have so far gone unanswered. Sadly, although the exposure has made the world more aware of what is happening in Iran, it has not changed Iran's fundamental approach.

The world is right to be worried by Iran's nuclear ambitions, but the aggression displayed by its President is not necessarily backed by its population. Dissent in Iran is suppressed and minorities face discrimination. It is essential that the spotlight focuses on human rights abuses within Iran's oppressive regime, and I call on the United Nations and the European Union to step up their activities.

Photo of Greg Pope Greg Pope Labour, Hyndburn

Order. I would like to call Andrew Mackinlay, but he needs the permission of the hon. Lady and the Minister, and to inform the Chair that he wishes to speak. I do not think that he has, so perhaps the best way to proceed would be to see whether he can intervene on the Minister during his contribution.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office 12:45 pm, 6th June 2006

Thank you, Mr. Pope, for that helpful suggestion.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Mrs. Ellman on securing a debate on a subject that is of real concern to the United Kingdom Government and, indeed, to this House.

Efforts to improve respect for human rights have long been a central element of the United Kingdom's and, indeed, the European Union's approach to Iran. The current situation in Iran seems to be deteriorating and lacking in transparency—from the situation of religious minorities to the conduct of trials and sentencing. The situation is well reported by non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International, and in its latest report Amnesty highlighted the growing difficulties faced by ethnic and religious minorities, harassment of human rights defenders, the erosion of free expression and the serious concerns about Iran's use of the death penalty.

We have frequently set out those concerns bilaterally and through the relevant international human rights mechanisms. As my hon. Friend mentioned, that includes our concern about the position that the Iranian Government have taken towards Israel. President Ahmadinejad's call for Israel to be wiped from the map and his attempts to cast doubt on the holocaust are outrageous and unacceptable.

We have long-standing concerns about political freedoms in Iran. An unelected committee, the Guardian Council, comprised of jurists and clerics, was able to prevent all women and many reformists from standing in last year's presidential elections. Many reformist candidates, including a third of the sitting Members of Parliament, were similarly excluded from standing in the parliamentary elections in 2004.

We are also very concerned about Iran's treatment of women. Although the situation for women is in some respects better than in certain other countries in the region—women can, for instance, vote and drive, and they make up more than half of the university population—they nevertheless face significant discrimination. For instance, the evidence of a woman continues to be worth less than that of a man in court, and women do not enjoy equal rights in cases involving divorce, inheritance or the custody of children.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

The Minister has referred to the serious deficiencies—to say the least—in the legitimacy of the parliamentary process in Iran. This Parliament should beat its breast and apologise. As you know, Mr. Pope, I personally opposed elsewhere the receiving here of a delegation from the Majlis. I thought that it was a mistake, although I understand the compelling case for Committees such as the Foreign Affairs Committee to become engaged. My judgment might be wrong on that issue, but where this Parliament has got it wrong is in respect of the Inter-Parliamentary Union having Majlis delegations.

I put it to the Minister that the British Government and this Parliament would not countenance comparable relationships with the Parliament of Belarus. For all their warts and deficiencies, the Lukashenko Government and that Parliament are innocent compared with the abuse of human rights and the denial of true franchise seen in Tehran. We have double standards. I wonder whether the Minister will comment on that.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I am aware of the delegation, which is led by an experienced Member of Parliament who is a former Foreign Office Minister. I anticipate that he and other members of the delegation will be well aware of the issues that my hon. Friend has quite properly raised. However, I think it is for the judgment of individual Members of Parliament and members of delegations whether such visits go ahead. By visiting, it is possible to identify some of the very concerns that my hon. Friend is anxious about.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Would you come with me to Minsk?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

It is a matter for individuals to make appropriate judgments in that respect. [Interruption.]

Photo of Greg Pope Greg Pope Labour, Hyndburn

Order. We will have no more sedentary interventions, Mr. Mackinlay.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I am very grateful, Mr. Pope. I just wanted to point out the inconsistencies.

Photo of Greg Pope Greg Pope Labour, Hyndburn

And you have done so.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office


I was dealing with the question of political freedoms, and I turn now to freedom of expression. As anyone who reads Iranian newspapers will be aware, they certainly engage in colourful and sometimes vigorous debate, but it appears that the confines of such debate are closely circumscribed. In the course of the past five years, the regime has quietly extended its control over the Iranian people's ability to express their views. Dozens of newspapers have been closed and journalists have been arrested. The journalist Arzhang Davoudi received a 15-year sentence simply for producing a documentary about another journalist who died in custody in suspicious circumstances.

The Iranian Government's clampdown on the internet has largely passed unnoticed but is also of concern. Many websites that were accessible in Tehran two years ago are now censored, including the BBC's Persian news website. The Iranian Government recently announced plans to establish a national internet. That would further restrict communication between Iran and the outside world. It would also facilitate control by the authorities. It appears that the Iranian Government do not believe that the Iranian people should be able freely to choose what they read.

The situation of Iran's trade unions is also of concern. Strikes are not permitted, and in January hundreds of Tehran bus drivers were arrested for taking part in a series of strikes. The wives of some protestors were also arrested and several houses were searched. The head of the bus drivers' syndicate remains in custody, some four months after the strikes.

Hon. Members voiced concern about the situation faced by Iran's religious minorities, and I am grateful to them for their continuing efforts in ensuring that Parliament is kept abreast of developments. Reports that Iran's supreme leader has instructed the army to identify Baha'is and monitor their activities are especially worrying. Hundreds of Baha'is have had their property confiscated, faced intimidation or been denied access to education. Mehran Kowsar is one of many members of the Baha'i faith to have been arrested for his religious beliefs; he has been in prison for well over a year. It is clear from that case that elements of the Iranian judicial system are in need of urgent reform.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Secretary of State), Department for Constitutional Affairs

I apologise for not having heard the whole debate, but I did watch the speech made by my hon. Friend Mrs. Ellman on television.

So far, the one group that has not been mentioned is lesbians and gays. Many gay men have been executed in the past year. Indeed, execution comes not just through the courts but through officially or unofficially sanctioned death squads roaming villages, trying to find young gay men and executing them. That is outrageous and extraordinary. Has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had an opportunity to raise that specific issue with Tehran?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Certainly there is concern about the situation faced by homosexuals and we are monitoring the situation carefully. We are not aware of any individuals being executed in Iran over the past two years solely on the grounds of homosexuality, but clearly there are other ways in which homosexuals are seriously affected by how the law operates there.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Secretary of State), Department for Constitutional Affairs

I would be very worried if the FCO genuinely believed that no one had been executed solely because of their sexuality. Trumped-up charges are brought before courts regularly, and it is the work of many organisations in this country to reveal the true outrages going on in Iran. The FCO should look into the issue much more carefully.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I chose my words carefully, and I do not see any need to resile from them. Charges are brought for other matters, but I accept the force of what my hon. Friend was suggesting and the issue is of concern to us.

Referring to the Iranian judicial system, we have concerns about court hearings not always being held in public and about the principle of due process not always being respected. Cruel punishments such as flogging, stoning and amputation remain on the statute book. In a prominent recent case, the Iranian authorities executed two youths—one aged 17 and the other 20—on 13 May this year. They were hanged in Lorestan province barely a month after their alleged crime. The case raises important questions. How could a fair trial be completed in such a short time? Were the two able to exhaust every avenue of appeal open to them? Why does Iran continue to execute under-18s, in violation of international law?

The UK Government and the European Union have, naturally, posed those questions to the Iranian Government, but the case highlights important inconsistencies between Iran's stated policy of ending such executions and its actions. The international community clearly has a duty to respond to such developments, which undermine basic principles of human rights, and we are committed to addressing that issue.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I hope that the Minister will not think me impertinent, but before he concludes I would like him to tell us precisely what Her Majesty's Government have done about such issues. Anyone who looks at the record tomorrow will see that, in the past few minutes, the Minister has acknowledged that we are aware of the problems. I want to know—as does the House—what he and his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office do in the face of those repeated human rights abuses, of which they are aware.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I am, as always, grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I was just about to set out what we have done.

Under the British presidency of the European Union, we raised our human rights concerns with the Iranian Government on no fewer than 16 occasions. We led the European Union in issuing five statements, covering many of the issues that we have discussed today. We were pleased that all EU member states supported a UN General Assembly resolution that highlighted Iran's human rights record last December. We have continued to be active in supporting EU action since then. We said at the start of our presidency that human rights would be a priority in our relations with Iran, and it remains a central part of our policy approach. Progress in our relations with Iran is dependent on action by the Iranian Government to address our human rights concerns.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

Is the Minister, like me, an optimist about human nature, and if so, does he agree that however difficult it has been so far to secure a change through dialogue with Iran, there is mileage in hoping that, through dialogue and by presenting the benefits of constructive action by the Iranian Government, we could make progress? I would be less optimistic if I had not seen some signs of response from the Iranian Administration in the past, especially when they knew that the public abroad were watching. Does the Minister think that dialogue might be worth while, and if so, can we discuss, outside today's debate, the options for holding such dialogue with regard to the Baha'i?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He sets out the position sensibly and in a way that allows for progress. By highlighting the problems, we draw attention to how the Iranian Government should improve their record on human rights, but we must also acknowledge that the picture is not uniformly bad. There are areas where progress can be made—and indeed the benefit of this debate is that it allows us all to set out our concerns—but we acknowledge that in some areas there has been progress, although clearly far more work needs to be done.

In the recent past, under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, Iran seemed to be taking significant steps forward. I regret that that progress has slowed in recent years. Indeed, as we have discussed, in many areas Iran is, sadly, moving backwards. However, we should not devalue the efforts of those in Iran who are working for reforms. Their task is being made increasingly difficult.

Photo of Ian Stewart Ian Stewart Labour, Eccles

My right hon. Friend the Minister heard the chairman of the all-party Friends of the Baha'i group request a further meeting with him. As vice-chair of the group, I also make that request, but I know that my right hon. Friend may have to speak on behalf of another Minister.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Well, I am always delighted to offer meetings on behalf of other Ministers, but I will ensure that my hon. Friend's comments, and those of Lembit Öpik, are drawn to my colleague's attention. I am sure that they will be shown the normal courtesy extended to Members of Parliament.

It is important to recognise that real change can only come from within Iran. Obviously, we will continue to do everything that we can to support those working to achieve that change. This debate has been important. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside again for securing and initiating a debate on a subject that the Government take extremely seriously.