Human Rights (Iran)

Part of the debate – 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

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.