[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair] — Human Rights (Iran)

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 8th July 2009.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Kerry McCarthy.)

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 9:30 am, 8th July 2009

I thank right hon. and hon. Members for attending this debate. I am particularly grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting my request for this debate on human rights in Iran. That we should be holding it now will come as no surprise. Regrettably, the authorities in Iran have not chosen to build bridges, despite the olive branches that have been offered by me and so many others. In the past few weeks, we have clearly seen demonstrated both the internal tensions within Iran and the readiness of elements in the Iranian state to use violence and oppression.

I come from the perspective of the problems faced by Iran’s Baha’i community, but I note also the plight of many other Iranian minority communities and the treatment of Iranian women. And who can ignore the Iranian state’s use of capital punishment? Few nations on earth execute people as often or for as many different reasons.

Nevertheless, I want to make it clear to this House and to the Iranian authorities that my objective is not to pillory that great nation. I do not conduct politics through confrontation or simplistic condemnation of individuals or Governments. Rather, my two goals are to resolve the pressing human rights issues facing the Baha’is in Iran and to prevent a dreadful miscarriage of justice in the days ahead.

The Baha’i faith has 5 million adherents worldwide, and there are 6,000 in Britain. However, the historical roots of the community lie in Iran. Despite persecution since the inception of the religion in the 19th century, the Baha’is remain the largest single religious minority community in that country, numbering around 300,000 members.

Baha’is have historically been treated as scapegoats during times of social tension, but conditions sharply deteriorated after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Sadly, that situation continues to this day. Since 1979, more than 200 Baha’is have been killed and 15 others have disappeared—we must presume that they are dead. Repression of their community has included executions and imprisonment, as well as denial of the right to educate their youth. There have been regular and persistent attacks on their social, economic and cultural rights.

The Baha’is seek no special privileges. All they seek are conditions that accord with the International Bill of Human Rights, of which Iran is a signatory. The right to life, the right to profess and practise their religion, the right to liberty and security of person, and the right to education and work: those are not heady demands.

The Baha’i faith requires Baha’is to be obedient to their Government and to avoid partisan political involvement. Indeed, I am the chairman of the all-party Friends of the Baha’is group only because I am not a Baha’i myself. Were I to sign up to the faith, technically, I would have to leave party politics—something which I am glad to say I have not yet been persuaded to do. [Hon. Members: “Go on.”] Until this moment.

It is important to note that subversive activity and all forms of violence are not permitted by the Baha’i faith. It follows that the Baha’i community in Iran, and, in fact, in the United Kingdom, is not aligned with any Government, ideology or opposition movement. Furthermore, showing good will to the followers of all religions is a basic, fundamental tenet of the Baha’i faith. The Baha’is are not enemies of Islam nor, indeed, of Iran. One could not find a more benign and humanistic religion anywhere on earth. The faith is of a pure, gentle and spiritual giving nature. It threatens no one but holds out a hand of friendship to one and all.

Given the character of the Baha’i faith, it is all the more tragic that, in the past few years, there has been a resurgence of extreme forms of persecution directed at the Baha’i community of Iran. The upsurge has alarmed human rights monitors who fear not only for those Baha’is affected by the Government’s renewed campaign but also that such attacks portend something far worse.

International experts on ethnic, racial and religious cleansing have identified a number of warning signs that often foreshadow widespread purges. Several recent developments add to those concerns, and I shall cite them now. First, seven members of the Baha’i leadership group have been arbitrarily detained for more than eight months and still have no access to legal counsel. They form the core concern that has led to this debate. There are worrying precedents to the situation. After the revolution in Iran, the nine members of the National Assembly were abducted and disappeared. Nothing has been heard of them since then, and they are presumed dead. A new National Assembly was elected, and in 1981 eight of the nine members of that body were executed.

Secondly, arbitrary arrests and detentions are being made, chiefly by the Intelligence Ministry. Currently, 31 Baha’is are in prison, and, as of June 2009, 78 Baha’is who had been detained and then released on bail are awaiting trial. Thirdly, there has been a general upsurge in vigilante attacks against Baha’is and their properties, such as the bulldozing of Baha’i cemeteries and the torching of Baha’i homes. Fourthly, there appears to be an increase in incitement and propaganda in state-run news media to vilify and defame Baha’is as individuals and the faith as a whole. The fifth example is the deliberate policy of denying Baha’is their right to a livelihood by banning them from employment options, confiscating their means of business, and blocking their access to higher education.

Much of that is part of the Iranian Government’s strategy to suppress the Baha’i community without attracting undue international attention, as outlined in a secret memorandum from 1991 that aimed at establishing a policy regarding “the Baha’i question”. So we know that there has been a strategy behind all this in the past, and it is reasonable to assume that there is a similar strategy at present.

Little wonder, then, that the Baha’is of Iran are denied the right to practise their faith freely, which is a right guaranteed under international human rights instruments such as the International Bill of Human Rights, to which, I stress again, Iran is a state party. Baha’is recognise that there are many other oppressed groups in Iran, including academics, women’s rights activists, students and journalists. The situation of Iranian Baha’is, however, offers a special case, inasmuch as they are persecuted solely because of their religious belief, despite remaining committed to non-violence and non-partisanship and seeking only to contribute to the development of their homeland.

Our experience indicates that bilateral and multilateral scrutiny of Iran’s human rights record is the best method of engaging the Iranian authorities and preventing further deterioration of human rights for the many citizens of that country who face repression. The seven members of the Yaran—the Friends—constitute an ad hoc leadership body that co-ordinates the activities of the 300,000 strong Baha’i community in Iran. The elected administrative bodies of the Baha’i faith are banned, so these people, detained and on trial as they are, represent the focus of the matter in hand. This, despite the fact that the Iranian authorities have had regular, if informal, contact with the Yaran for many years.

The secretary of the Yaran, Mrs. Mahvash Sabet, was arrested on 5 March 2008 while attending a Baha’i funeral. The remaining six members, Mrs. Fariba Kamalabadi, Mr. Jamaloddin Khanjani, Mr. Afif Naeimi, Mr. Saeid Rezaie, Mr. Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Mr. Vahid Tizfahm, were arrested on 14 May 2008. I expect the Minister to read out all those names as well when he responds. All seven have been detained for more than a year in Evin prison, Tehran. They have been held in section 209, which is under the direct control of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. The five male members have been incarcerated in a cell with no bedding.

In June, the Centre for Human Rights Defenders in Iran learned that the seven will face revolutionary trial, and our best guess is that that will happen on 11 July—this Saturday. The lawyers have indicated that they have had the opportunity to review the related case files but have not been able to complete the process as the files are unusually extensive.

Further to the decision of Ms Shirin Ebadi of the Centre for Human Rights Defenders in Iran to serve as legal counsel for the seven Baha’is, fraudulent claims have appeared in the Iranian media that aim to malign or intimidate her and thereby prevent the Baha’is from having legal representation. Untrue and erroneous stories have also asserted that Ms Ebadi’s daughter has apostastised from Islam and converted to the Baha’i faith. Ms Ebadi has also had death threats pinned to the door of her office, one of which was signed “The Association of Anti-Baha’is”.

It is understood that the trial will be carried out under the jurisdiction of branch 28 of the revolutionary court. That is significant because the recent case of American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi was also tried in branch 28, in camera, in proceedings that lasted a single day, at the end of which she was sentenced to eight years for espionage.

Under Iranian law, the lawyers for the Baha’is are not allowed to reveal information they are privy to from the case file. Amazingly, it remains unclear whether the seven Baha’is have been formally charged with any offence to date—just days before the trial. However, reports in February 2009 indicated that they will be charged with

“espionage for the state of Israel” and

“spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and

“insulting religious sanctities”.

In May of 2009 it was even reported that they will also face accusations of

“spreading corruption on earth”— a pretty gigantic charge.

The Baha’i international community categorically denies the accusations against these individuals, but fears that they may none the less face execution. So-called spying has long been used as a pretext to persecute Baha’is and as an attempt to impede the progress of the Baha’i community. Since the 1930s, Baha’is have successively been cast as tools of Russian imperialism, of British colonialism, of American expansionism and, most recently, of Zionism. The Baha’i faith has never been a part of any of these movements. There is no truth in this allegation and no evidence to support it.

That the international headquarters of the Baha’i faith is located within the borders of modern-day Israel is purely the result of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the faith, being banished from his native Tehran and sent by Persian and Ottoman authorities in the 19th century to perpetual exile in the city of Acre, near Haifa. Baha’u’llah arrived in Acre in 1868, 80 years before the establishment of the state of Israel. The Iranian Government know this but wilfully choose to misrepresent the facts.

What would we like to see? Initially, we ask our British Government to apply whatever pressure they can to encourage the Iranian authorities to release the seven members of the Yaran. They have done nothing wrong and do not deserve the treatment that they have received; they deserve justice and release from their unjustified incarceration. If a trial goes ahead—as I say, it is scheduled for 11 July, which is this Saturday—we ask Ministers to impress upon the Iranian authorities before then that it must be carried out in an open, transparent manner, according to international standards, with proper access to legal representation and with no effort to fix the outcome.

In terms of wider action by the Government, we ask for collective action by British Ministers and our European and international partners for a longer-term easing of the persecution that is being endured by the Baha’is and others, including Christians, in Iran. In this context, I cite the plight of Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh, both held in Evin prison since March 2009, apparently for being Christians. We understand the considerable difficulties in dealing with the Iranian authorities and the limitations of international pressure.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I apologise for missing the first few minutes of the hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech. Does he accept that although Christians are less subjugated in Iran they are often the butt of other forms of criticism? Christian Solidarity Worldwide did a great deal of advocacy, as it does in many parts of the world, to get those two ladies out. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take that matter up. The Baha’is are special people, but the Christians also face difficulties.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I underline the points that he has made to the Minister and to hon. Members. The church that I attend, the Hope community church in Newtown, does a great deal of international work. Alan Hewitt, the chief pastor there, shares the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman. I hope that the Minister will comment on the plight of Christians and other oppressed minorities, not all of them religious minorities, in Iran. There are considerable difficulties for Christians, as the hon. Gentleman has underlined, but especially for Baha’is.

Scrutiny from national and international bodies has in the past helped to discourage a ratcheting-up of abuses and, hopefully, we can do so again now and in future. Our experience indicates that bilateral and multilateral scrutiny of Iran’s human rights record is the best method of engaging the Iranian authorities and preventing a further deterioration of human rights for the many citizens of that country facing repression. A number of Governments, international organisations, and prominent individuals have reacted to the announcement of the trial of the seven members of the Baha’i leadership, including the European Parliament, the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the United States State Department, the European Union, the Government of Australia, a Canadian parliamentary committee and Amnesty International, which has done tireless work in this regard.

Naturally, the Baha’i international community is calling on the international community at large to request that the Iranian authorities ensure that the seven are either released or receive a fair and open public trial that will be held according to international standards.

I have no visceral dislike of Iran, its people or its Government; it has a great and noble history that exceeds that of many other countries. I have even requested permission to visit Tehran to discuss these matters directly with Iranian officials and politicians to see how we can best resolve these matters to the mutual benefit of all concerned. So far, I have not been able to secure permission to go, but I will keep on trying, despite the fact that the Iranian embassy informed me that I was not able to go due to technical difficulties and the technical impossibility of going there. I hope to overcome those technical difficulties and have a meaningful dialogue in Tehran.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

If push comes to shove, I have a small aircraft of my own and I can see if I can make it in eight short hops. However, it would be safer for me, and easier for the country, if the Minister used his considerable weight and the considerable stature of the British Government to seek once again to extend an olive branch to Iran and make it clear that we do not seek to attack it, but merely want to encourage it to take a more benign, positive view towards the Baha’is and other oppressed minorities, and towards these seven Baha’i leaders in particular.

My requests are simple. I ask that the British Government do all they can to prevent a miscarriage of justice in regard to the seven Baha’i leaders facing trial. I ask the Iranian Government for engagement. Ultimately, this is the best pathway to justice. Iran can have many friends in Britain and worldwide, and I would like to be one of them. By lightening the load of oppression on the Baha’is and others, Iran will find for itself the best avenue to lead itself and its citizens into full partnership in the international community. I am sure, with all my heart, that that is something we would all like to see.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 9:49 am, 8th July 2009

I congratulate Lembit Öpik on securing this timely and welcome debate. I endorse all the points that he made about religious freedoms and tolerance, which are necessary in any modern society. In Iran, which has a plethora of ethnic communities and religious groups, that sort of tolerance is more important than in many other countries. I therefore support what the hon. Gentleman said about the rights of Baha’is, Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, non-Shi’a Muslims, and people of other religious faiths to be able to practise their religion and to operate in freedom. What he said this morning is extremely important and it is important to have that on the record. Iran is a signatory to the United Nations charter—obviously, because it is a member of the UN—and the universal declaration of human rights. All those rights are protected in international law, so it is perfectly right and proper to exert that pressure.

These are stirring and important times in Iran. The demonstrations of the past few weeks following the election have been unprecedented since 1979—phenomenal numbers of people have appeared on the streets. I deplore the way in which many of the demonstrators have been treated—the beatings and killings. That is not acceptable in any society, be it in Iran, China or anywhere else in the world. People have an absolute right to express their views peaceably on the streets.

Coverage of the demonstrations that was received around the world was interesting. Initially, various Iranian channels reported the demonstrations, as did the BBC, CNN and others, and there was an interesting degree of opening in political debate, both inside and outside Iran, immediately after the elections. One should be pleased about that.

I was pleased to sign and support early-day motion 1755, tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Drew, which condemns

“the arrest, torture and murder of protesters...and urges the Iranian Government to accept free and fair UN-supervised elections.

I do not believe for one moment that Iran will accept outside supervision of elections, but every country in the world, including the UK, should be more than happy to accept international observers and reporting of elections. We should not be so precious about that. We send observers to other countries and we should welcome observers here. Every country’s electoral process should be open to observation, which would create a degree of equality.

These are interesting times, but it seems that after the protests about the election and the demands by Mousavi’s supporters for a recount following the declared very large majority for Ahmadinejad, the Guardian Council approved a limited and partial recount, but the Supreme Leader declared that the election result must stand and that was the end of the matter. At that point, public debate was effectively closed down, as was any attempt at serious discussion. We must express serious concern about that, not in a spirit of hostility to Iran or its history and culture, but in a spirit of co-operation and support for civil society in Iran. There is an important distinction to be drawn, which I shall discuss.

The excessive rhetoric, particularly from the Bush Administration and at various times from our Governments, has not helped the situation—in fact, it has made it worse. There must be a process of dialogue and respect. Far too little is understood of Iranian history—Iran is the inheritor of the great civilisation of Persia—and the persistent British and American meddling in Iranian affairs. During the first world war, Britain occupied parts of what is now Iran; we installed and removed various Governments of Iran; and British and Soviet Union forces occupied Iran again during the second world war, eventually withdrawing.

In 1952, the nationalist Mosaddeq Government were elected on a manifesto of obtaining equality of oil revenues from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which later became BP. The British refused, there was a dispute, and a coup was engineered by the CIA and the British. The Mosaddeq Government were removed, the Shah came to office, compensation was paid to BP, and we were back to square one with a repressive regime under the Shah. Those events are remembered in Iran. Iranians do not forget British involvement and our obsession with their oil reserves. When dealing with Iran, we must remember that we do not have clean hands, and we should be prepared to admit that.

The Shah’s oppressive regime, with its appalling human rights record, used outside SAVAK forces to attack Iranian students. I remember that during the 1970s, when the Shah’s secret agents operated in British universities and tried to criticise Iranian students who were active. The Shah’s human rights record led to huge protests and demonstrations and he was eventually removed in 1979, apparently only a few weeks after the British security services and the CIA had said that it was perfectly safe for him to stay there for many decades. They misunderstood the situation somewhat, and not for the first time.

In the turmoil of the 1979 revolution, Iran did not turn into a secular democracy. It became a Muslim state under Ayatollah Khomeini and the present constitution was invoked. It is an interesting document, but the western press simply fails to understand Iran’s power structures. It assumes that President Ahmadinejad, because he is President, is equivalent to President Bush or an executive Prime Minister in the west, but he is not. He is head of the civil Government, obviously, but he and anyone else are allowed to be a candidate in the election only if they are approved by the Council of Guardians, which is responsible to the Supreme Leader. The Assembly of Experts also has a role in appointing the Supreme Leader.

There is a tripartite/quadripartite sharing of power in Iran, and we should remember that whatever the President or anyone else says, that is not the whole story; it is only part of it. One should try to understand that, and the fact that within all the complications of Iranian society and its structures, there are people who manage to speak up for civil rights and women’s rights, to organise trade unions, to pursue intellectual work, and to operate in independent universities. Like any other society, Iran’s is not a seamless whole, and we should also be aware of that, too. Western strategy on Iran is part of the problem, and I shall be grateful if the Minister says a little more about that.

After Khomeini became the Supreme Leader, Iran entered a period of isolation and US sanctions. Because of the relationship between the US and Iran following the taking of US hostages and the resulting difficulties, the Iran-Iraq war occurred. Although that dreadful war probably suited Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini in equal measure, it cost the lives of at least 500,000 people. It also made a great deal of money for the arms industry around the world. We should remember that, again, Britain and the United States do not have clean hands, because at the same time as we were trying to buy oil from Iran, we were supplying arms to Iraq to provoke that war. Our role in recent history is not clear and not clean. Whatever we say about Iran, we should have some respect for our own role.

Israel’s threats to Iran are obviously serious and Israel’s ability to bomb Iran is very strong. Iran is a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, but not the supplementary protocol allowing unannounced inspections. It is developing a nuclear reactor and processor, but that is not the same as developing nuclear weapons. Although I do not want Iran or any other country in the world to develop nuclear weapons, any more than I want this country to continue to hold nuclear weapons, it is impossible to argue credibly for nuclear disarmament and a nuclear-free middle east while we remain silent about Israel’s development of nuclear weapons and its obvious ability to use them at some point. If we are serious about bringing about peace in the region, that also requires promotion of a nuclear-free middle east, which requires Israel to be brought to the table through a nuclear weapons convention.

It is important to get those general points on the record. In supporting human rights in Iran, we must build up the best possible contacts and relationships. Parliament to Parliament, there have been Inter-Parliamentary Union delegations, which have enabled some contact and the development of a relationship in that way. Much better relations must also be developed between universities, trade unions and civil society groups, and there must be support for individual cases such as those to which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire referred.

I chair an organisation called Liberation, which was involved originally as the Movement for Colonial Freedom and is now more of an international solidarity organisation. We had our annual meeting last Saturday and we passed an extensive resolution on Iran. I shall quote some of that very long resolution. We said:

“The high rate of people’s participation in the election alerted the international community to the fact that the Iranian people wish to have and take an active role in their own destiny.”

It is important to say that. We went on to make specific requests, stating:

“The international community therefore should support the Iranian people’s struggle for peace, democracy and social justice in their country.”

We pointed out the “continued deterioration” of human rights in recent years in Iran and the “flagrant disregard” for internationally accepted conventions. We were referring to the most extreme forms of sharia law that are used, involving the stoning of individuals, amputations and public executions. Obviously, that is totally wrong and must be condemned, as I would condemn the death penalty in any circumstances anywhere in the world.

We also raised the violations of the rights to free speech, freedom of association and peaceful protest, which are important, and the continued detention of trade unionists and workers’ activists, including the leader of the Tehran Public Bus Company workers syndicate, Mansour Osanloo. I hope that a message goes out that we support his release just as much as we would support the release of any other person held on grounds of conscience or activity. We pointed out that the International Labour Organisation conventions 87 and 98 require all signatory states to allow the organisation of independent trade unions. That applies just as much to Iran as to any other country. In raising all those issues, and in supporting women’s rights and women’s activists in Iran, we have to send a message that we are serious about supporting human rights and civil society in Iran.

Our history is not clean by any means. The rhetoric used against Iran, the sanctions policy being used against Iran and the implicit military threats that have been made against Iran at various times do not force Iran to back down and operate differently. Instead, they unite Iranian people against the west, build the feeling of isolation and build the power of those who wish to pursue military options in Iran rather than peaceful options.

There must be a way for us to open a dialogue. A previous Foreign Secretary—the current Secretary of State for Justice—went to Iran and tried to open that dialogue and I commend him for doing that. I did not agree with what he did over the Iraq war, but I did agree with the fact that he was prepared to go to Iran and participate in that dialogue.

I hope that when the Minister replies, he will say that we are prepared to maintain dialogue with the Government of Iran; to co-operate in sending observers to future elections, if the Iranians are prepared to allow that, because it would be a helpful way forward; and to do what we can to take up individual cases of human rights abuse and individual cases in which people are wrongfully detained. Doing that will promote the development of the very strong civil society that has demonstrated itself on the streets of Tehran and the other cities in the past two weeks, and will help to develop the tolerant civil society that traditional Muslim countries have and the toleration that traditional Islam is all about. The Jewish community has always been present in Tehran; the Zoroastrians have always been there, as have people of many other faiths. There is much to be very proud of in the history of Iran and in the tolerance of ordinary people in Iran towards those of different faiths.

That is the message that we must send: one of sympathy, support and understanding, but above all condemnation of the abuses of human rights and the illegal and irrational imprisonment of people who are merely standing up for their cultural identity, their trade union rights or their right to demonstrate and express their political views.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 10:04 am, 8th July 2009

I congratulate Lembit Öpik on his speech. I agree entirely with its content and I congratulate him on his pronunciation of the Iranian names, which was far better than mine would be.

The subject of the debate is human rights in Iran. Let us be frank: there are no human rights in Iran unless people support the totally discredited President. That is the reality. This is not the first time that we have had such a debate. We have had many debates on this issue, because there is a band of Members of Parliament and Members of the House of Lords who have long been critics of the Iranian regime. Jeremy Corbyn made excellent points. He was right to remind hon. Members of a number of issues. I am not sure that I entirely agreed with every point that he made, but I agreed with the overall thrust of his argument.

I say to the Minister that the British Government’s policy of appeasement—oh, the Minister frowns at that, so I shall tell him precisely what I mean. The British Government’s policy of appeasement has had disastrous results. When the present Secretary of State for Justice was Foreign Secretary, whether he was guided by the retired former Prime Minister, I know not, but there certainly was a policy of appeasement, and it has had disastrous effects. Let the House be in no doubt at all about the election in Iran: it was a sham election. I assume that it was overseen by Mr. Mugabe—presumably he flew over personally to count the votes. It was an absolute sham. As a result of the British Government’s policy of appeasement, who did the Iranian religious leader immediately attack? The United Kingdom.

I agree with the hon. Member for Islington, North that jaw-jaw is better than war-war. I agree with part of his remarks about the retired President George W. Bush, but I also think that the British policy of appeasement has had disastrous results, and I stand here today as one of the people who listened to the former Prime Minister tell the House of Commons that weapons of mass destruction were aimed at us and other parts of the world. I believed everything that he said, and was misguided enough not to join the 18 of my colleagues who voted against that war, which has had disastrous consequences. In hindsight, it was Iran rather than Iraq that, with regard to nuclear weapons, was the real threat.

Let me return to the issue of human rights in Iran. There is no point in having debates in Westminster Hall unless the British Government listen to what we say and something happens; they must not only go through the motions. This issue has been raised countless times. My hon. Friend Mr. Binley and I turned up at a rally outside the United Nations. I think that we addressed a crowd of 4,000 people. We were demonstrating against the arrival of Mr. Ahmadinejad. The leaders in the west applauded his arrival; they now seem to have changed their view on that.

We are talking about a country in which more than 200 people have been killed by the Revolutionary Guard since 12 June. Several thousand people have been arrested following the nationwide uprising in mid-June. Since June, security forces have randomly attacked people in their homes. More than 1,000 hangings have taken place—34 people were hanged in the first four days of July 2009—and more than 1,700 death sentences have been issued since August 2005. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, more than 120,000 political prisoners have been executed—I repeat, 120,000. A further 500,000 Iranians have suffered torture in the regime’s notorious prisons. I could go on and on about those issues.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

Like the hon. Gentleman, I support the Iranian opposition. One of the worst features of Iran is its attitude to capital punishment. It hangs juniors and it does so in public. It has the second-worst record after the Chinese. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one way in which Iran could begin to prove that it is willing to engage is by doing something about its dreadful record?

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

I absolutely agree. Eighteen months ago we debated that very point in this Chamber, although another Minister responded—but there we are, that is the merry-go-round that we experience in Westminster.

I conclude with a plea to the Minister and his boss, the Foreign Secretary, as I am a born optimist. Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the Iranian resistance, has urged the west to reject the regime’s sham elections and the appointment of Mr. Ahmadinejad. She has also urged it to force the regime to accept a free UN-supervised election based on the people’s sovereignty, not the rule of the Supreme Leader. She has also suggested that we suspend all political and diplomatic ties with the mullahs’ regime until the suppression is completely stopped. She suggests that we impose a trade, diplomatic, arms and technology embargo on the regime and a foreign travel ban on its senior officials. Finally, she urges the UN Security Council to refer the crimes committed by the regime’s leaders—particularly Khamenei and Ahmadinejad—to an international tribunal.

The Minister frowns, and I accept that that is an extremely ambitious list—if he mentions it in his winding-up speech, he will probably say that it is not achievable. We will, however, have a general election before May or June next year, and the Government, who have made some terrible mistakes on all sorts of issues, now have an opportunity to do the right thing on human rights in Iran. As the hon. Members for Islington, North and for Montgomeryshire said, we are asking not for blind rhetoric—the time for that has passed—but for engagement. All that I am asking is that the Government speak up clearly to try to improve the human rights situation in Iran.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales) 10:12 am, 8th July 2009

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend Lembit Öpik on introducing the debate. I pay tribute to him for his work on the Baha’i community as chairman of the all-party group, and particularly for highlighting the case of the seven leaders of that faith who are languishing in prison awaiting news of their fate.

The debate is of course timely, as we reflect on the demonstrations that we have seen on our TV screens over the past few weeks since the presidential elections. However, it could have been held at any time in the past 30 years, and we have had many such debates in that time. Indeed, as Jeremy Corbyn reminded us, we could have debated these issues in the years before that time, when Iran was under control of the discredited Pahlavi regime, which had form on its human rights policy, given the role of SAVAK and other bodies.

The well-documented catalogue of abuses at the heart of the Iranian regime has been added to in the past few weeks. I have reflected on the need for dialogue and the case for it remains—jaw-jaw is better than war-war—but, to date at least, unless the Minister can suggest otherwise, our words have fallen on deaf ears. The Iranian regime had two strategies after the presidential elections, and the analogy that comes to mind is that of the stunned rabbit in the car’s headlights. The first strategy was to attribute democratic protests on the streets of Tehran to the British Government and western influences. That is an old tactic, which is not without foundation, given our history in Persia and Iran. In that respect, I would be interested to hear from the Minister about the state of the remaining local staff in our Tehran embassy. The treatment of our staff there is obviously part of a deliberate tactic to pass blame elsewhere.

The second strategy was to launch what can only be described as a savage attack on demonstrators and agents of free speech, and that has been the story of the past few weeks. We have heard of the alleged killings of 200 protesters. We have also heard about the historical context and the 120,000 members of the opposition who have lost their lives over the past 30 years. We are grateful to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and the US State Department, as well as to the Foreign Office for the evidence that it collected in its 2007 report, which has been disseminated around the world. We are also grateful to the human rights monitoring lobby in Iran—or rather what is left of it, given that prominent members have been subjected to harassment and worse in recent weeks.

Last November, the UN General Assembly called for harassment, intimidation and the persecution of political opponents and human rights defenders to cease, and that is certainly necessary now. It also called on the Iranian Government to facilitate visits by human rights bodies, although I must say that I repeat that call with unwarranted optimism. I agree with what was said earlier about the need to have UN election supervisors in all countries, and that was certainly necessary in Iran’s elections. However, such calls will fall on deaf ears. So too, presumably, has the statement from the G8 Foreign Ministers meeting in Italy, which reaffirmed their belief in Iranian sovereignty, but made the case for human rights. I would be interested to hear what the Iranian Government’s response was, if there was one. Our Government have made 40 representations bilaterally and through the EU about specific human rights abuses in 2008.

I agree that we should not launch an attempt at poetic rhetoric, but we face a regime that is desperate to survive, and that need to survive has necessitated desperate measures. We have seen the forces of reform brutally repressed. There have been mass detentions; raids by the Revolutionary Guard and militia on university campuses; the closure of opposition newspapers; media restrictions that have made it difficult for journalists to report the protests first-hand; and attempts to close digital media. My goodness, if anything should make us grateful for digital technology, it is the hazy, fuzzy pictures that have come out of Tehran in recent weeks.

We have also seen the threats from the Iranian regime. There was the chilling warning from prosecutor Mr. Habibi, from Isfahan, who had no difficulty expounding his views in the Iranian media:

“We warn the few elements controlled by foreigners who try to disrupt domestic security by inciting individuals to destroy and to commit arson that the Islamic penal code for such individuals waging war against God is execution”.

The unfortunate Miss Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old bystander in the protests, was shot dead on the streets of Tehran on 20 June, and another 200 people have met a similar fate. That is not to mention the countless arrests of major reformist politicians, clerics, student leaders, bloggers, journalists and human rights lawyers.

Like the hon. Member for Islington, North, I watched the coverage of the election campaign in the days before the vote and I had some optimism, despite being cynical about the Iranian regime by and large. It was good to see people on the streets talking and arguing. Mr. Mousavi’s credentials as a reformist are not particularly clear, but it was none the less good to see people on the streets. It was also good to see the Iranian footballers making their mark. We should remember, however, that Mr. Mousavi was one of four permitted candidates in the election and that the Council of Guardians did not allow the 450 other people who aspired to the job of Iranian President to stand. None the less, Mr. Mousavi did tap a mood for change, and I welcome the meetings and the debate that took place.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that Mousavi’s campaign was different, in that the issue of women’s rights was raised for the first time in Iranian national politics and women spoke on platforms during his campaign?

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales)

I certainly endorse what the hon. Gentleman says. Mrs. Mousavi, in particular, had a proud record of standing up for Iranian women’s rights.

The upshot of recent events, however, is that the Government in Tehran will not go. Despite assertions that the turnout was high—I suspect that it was higher than in the previous election—it was a lot lower than people have suggested, and sufficient evidence is coming out of Iran to assert that there was vote rigging and the like. Those of who have had some interest in such matters in the past few years have battled against the media to bring to people’s attention what is going on in Iran and the extent of abuses. The events of the past few weeks have made the case, and there is no doubt about the human rights record. I reaffirm my belief in dialogue, and the Government should continue, through the EU and the UN, to declare the unacceptability of the state of human rights in Iran. However, we must be in no doubt about the regime. Even if there are reformist elements with the will to change things, there has not been an ability in Iran to abide by its own strictures. For example, there was a decree from the judiciary in October 2008 against the execution of juveniles, but there were reports of the execution of minors on 29 October and 30 December. There continue to be stonings, floggings, mutilation and arrest on the basis of political opposition, religious faith, sexuality or any criticism of the leadership.

Human Rights Watch noted:

“Instead of coming clean about what happened on the streets of Tehran on June 20th, Iran is busy covering up the responsibility of its security forces for the killing of demonstrators. It is clear that Iran’s supreme leader has sent a strong message to security forces to end the protests regardless of the level of violence involved.”

That is the hallmark of the regime, and it is why international pressure and dialogue must continue. I hesitate to go down the line pursued by Mr. Amess. I agree with much of what he said. We are involved in the same group campaigning for human rights and change in Iran. I would hesitate to go down the route of economic sanctions, for the reasons outlined by the hon. Member for Islington, North. Given the history of the west in Iran we must tread carefully. However, at the very least I should like the United Nations Security Council to commit to an international tribunal the crimes against humanity that are happening in Iran. All of us, whatever our background, observing a country we love, whose sovereignty we respect, should none the less make our voices clear about what is happening in Iran, and its unacceptability.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley 10:22 am, 8th July 2009

I am grateful for an opportunity to speak in this important debate, and I congratulate Lembit Öpik on obtaining it. It could not be more timely. Frankly, we could have a daily debate on Iran, given the abuses of human rights and the violations that go on there. However, although talking among ourselves is okay up to a point, we want action.

I have been involved in Iranian issues for several years now. A frustrating thing was that although I thought the diaspora had very effective knowledge of the deficiencies in Iran—which was probably a reason for not living there—I wondered why the people who lived there did not do more to help themselves. Then I started to look at the repressive nature of the regime and began to understand why people who lived there were scared, and were afraid to do anything. If people can be detained in prison for something like turning up at an opposition rally, and can then be beaten and raped daily, it takes a brave person to stand up to the regime. That hideous repression is at so many levels in society that I suspect many people do not know who to trust or turn to.

With the enormous reaction to the stolen election in June, I began to feel that there was a spark of hope in Iran, and that we could have real change and perhaps bring down the regime and bring freedom to a people who deserve it. The hon. Gentleman said what a great people the Iranian people are. Yes, they are; it is the regime that is rotten and that needs changing, not the people. That is why I believe we must support the resistance movement that operates outside and within Iran.

On 1 July The Guardian gave an example of an 18-year-old, still in school, who turned up at an opposition rally. He was not really interested in politics, and his dad even supported the current President. The evidence was:

“ ‘I was kept in a van till evening that day and then transferred to a solitary cell where I was kept for two days,’ he said. ‘Then I was repeatedly interrogated, beaten and hung from a ceiling. They call it chicken kebab. They tie your hands and feet together and hang you from the ceiling, turning you around and beating you with cables.

‘They gave us warm water to drink and one meal a day. Repeated smacking was a regular punishment. In interrogations, they kept on asking if I was instructed from abroad. I believed I was going to be sent from the detention centre to prison. But they sent me to where they called Roughnecks’ Room...

‘I refused to confess during interrogations. They said: “Ask your friends what we’ll do to you if you don’t co-operate.” Others in the room were also arrested on 15 June. I was tempted to confess at this point but I didn’t. On the third and fourth day, they beat me up again. They insisted we were instructed from abroad...

‘It was on Saturday or Sunday that they raped me for the first time. There were three or four huge guys we had not seen before. They came to me and tore my clothes. I tried to resist but two of them laid me on the floor and the third did it. It was done in front of four other detainees.

‘My cell mates, especially the older one, tried to console me. They said nobody loses his dignity through such an act. They did it to two other cell mates in the next days.’ ”

I find reading that incredibly moving; to think that that is going on in another part of this world is appalling.

Executions have been mentioned. I have voted in favour of the death penalty in the past, but have now said that I would trade that in for the cessation of executions throughout the world, in places such as China and Iran. Mark Williams mentioned sexuality. When I looked at the evidence about two young boys being hanged in public, accused of being gay, I could not get over the depravity that is possible. The authorities wanted that made public as a warning to everyone else. Clearly, the public execution of teenagers has an enormous impact. There is stoning of women, and the treatment of women generally is appalling. When I and other hon. Members met Iranian politicians at an Inter-Parliamentary Union conference, thank goodness Ann Clwyd was the leader of our delegation, and she put a forthright case about the maltreatment of women in Iran. Clearly the Iranian politicians did not like that, and they hid behind the mullahs on many an occasion. They have no hiding place, as far as I am concerned. If they are politicians they should stand up for the rights and freedoms of the people they represent.

The repression that has followed the elections has been mentioned in the debate, together with the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan. That 26-year-old lady is an icon at this moment for all people fighting for freedom, throughout the world where there are repression and hostilities. The latest instance to hit the headlines is in Urumqi in China. The shooting dead in cold blood of a young lady, full of hope, the way her family were told they could not have the funeral in a mosque, and that they should shut up about what had happened and must rip down the black flags indicating bereavement, outside their homes, shows the hideousness and the depths to which the regime will go to try to suppress the spirit within Iran. The spirit that we have seen in the past few weeks in Iran cannot be extinguished. The regime can suppress the people, but only in the short term. Their spirit can never be broken.

I believe that it is the duty of politicians in the free world—we who enjoy freedoms every day, and take them for granted—to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Iran in the struggle that they face. We must ensure that our Government and the Governments of all free countries do whatever they can, whether through dialogue or other sorts of action.

Fundamentally, we must see change. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of a country who want the freedoms that we have. That is one reason why we were elected as Members, and I hope that the Government will be able today to give us some hope—hope that I am sure will be passed back to the people of Iran, through the technologies that have been mentioned, so that they can continue their struggle for freedom.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

We now come to the wind-ups, for which we have half an hour. May I say to the Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople that it is not necessary for them each to take the full 10 minutes if they do not wish to do so? If they take less than 10 minutes, it will give the Minister more time to respond to this important debate.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 10:30 am, 8th July 2009

I too congratulate my hon. Friend Lembit Öpik on securing this debate. He has a strong record of fighting for justice in Iran, particularly for the Baha’i, which was the focus of much of his remarks. Indeed, he chairs the all-party group Friends of the Baha’i. None the less, the debate was wide-ranging and dealt with various aspects of human rights in Iran.

All too often when discussing Iran, our thoughts turn to the important question of nuclear proliferation; it is particularly helpful that we find time to think also of human rights. I was moved by the contribution of Mr. Evans because, even in the language of human rights, it is sometimes easy to forget that we are talking about not only philosophical concepts but the horrific and unthinkable experiences of individuals in Iran and other countries, who do not have even the basic rights, which, getting up in the morning and going about our daily business, we too often take for granted. It is important to reflect upon that.

The debate is timely, given the protests over the Iranian election and the harsh repression of those protests. It is difficult to know the exact figures, but reports suggest that dozens of people have been killed and that possibly hundreds of protesters are still in prison, their families not necessarily knowing their fate. Those being held in prison do not even have good access to lawyers. My hon. Friend Mark Williams and the hon. Member for Ribble Valley mentioned the case of Neda Soltan; those who have seen her image will find it for ever seared on their minds and consciousness as a symbol of repression. It is deeply concerning that someone should have suffered that fate.

There is a danger that when we in Parliament discuss human rights in Iran, or in any other country, it could be seen as meddling. However, in this case we are absolutely not meddling in Iran’s internal affairs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire pointed out, Iran has signed the universal declaration of human rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights. It therefore has an international obligation to uphold those conventions.

I call on our Government to uphold human rights when, in my view, they sometimes fail to do so—for example, their promotion of detention without charge and some of the murkier allegations made recently about torture and possible complicity in torture. We must be as rigorous in calling on our Government to uphold those international standards as we are with other Governments. By taking that equal and fair approach it is possible for us to call on other Governments to uphold their international obligations. That is what we hope to do.

I wholeheartedly endorse what was said by Jeremy Corbyn. If we are to ask other countries to accept international election observers we should be open enough to accept them here. Indeed, when we had difficulties with ballot papers in the Scottish elections in 2007, it might have helped if they had been here.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

I know for certain that the Council of Europe would be delighted to receive an invitation from the Government to observe our next general election.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

We can only hope that that suggestion is greeted positively by the Government.

We should remember that Britain’s influence in Iran is limited, especially as relations have deteriorated since the election, the worrying expulsion of British diplomats from Teheran and the arrest of the Iranian British officials. We need a degree of realism about what our Government can achieve. None the less, we still have bilateral relations, and we have relations through the European Union and the United Nations. We should use whatever influence we have to uphold human rights.

I have only a short time left, so I shall touch briefly on a number of matters. The lack of freedom of expression is one of the most concerning aspects of the denial of human rights. As has been pointed out, the lack of freedom of expression gets in the way of the upholding of many other rights, and the democratic system can fall apart.

I have to declare an interest, given that the debate is on human rights. I am a member of Amnesty International, which is fairly damning about Iran’s record on freedom of expression. In its 2009 report “State of the World’s Human Rights”, it says:

“The authorities maintained tight restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly. They cracked down on civil society activists, including women’s rights and other human rights defenders and minority rights advocates. Activists were arrested, detained and prosecuted, often in unfair trials, banned from travelling abroad, and had their meetings disrupted.”

That has come to fruition, as we saw recently on our television screens.

I hope that the Iranian media will one day be freer to report views and news that are different from those of the state media. Following the election, there has been an interesting development in the use of social media, which have been taken up in huge numbers by Iranians through blogging, Facebook and Twitter. That is handing power to ordinary people, enabling them to report what is happening and effectively giving all citizens the power to act as journalists. Crackdowns on the social media have been reported, so it is still a concern, but it is difficult to crack down on everyone, especially given the internet—as even the Chinese are finding. I believe that the internet will become an increasingly powerful tool for freedom, particularly in countries where there is repression. Those countries may employ thousands and thousands of people to crack down on its use, but ultimately they will be unsuccessful.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I agree with the hon. Lady, but would she put strictures on Google and other operators that go along with regime interference and connive at censorship and repression of free speech?

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil”, but there are certainly questions over whether collaborating in the repression of peoples’ freedom of expression would be living up to that motto.

I shall not rehearse all the arguments on freedom of religion. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire expertly described the situation with the Baha’i community, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious group. I have a small Baha’i community in Bearsden in my constituency, and I know that it shares our concerns for their detained leaders, particularly with the timing of the expected trial. I have written to the Foreign Secretary and the Iranian ambassador, asking them to apply pressure to get them a fair trial—and, indeed, their release. I have yet to receive a response, but our thoughts are with them. We must hope that true justice will prevail, but I am not overly optimistic about the outcome.

It is not only the Baha’i community that is discriminated against in Iran. Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians are recognised minorities under Iran’s constitution and are apparently protected by law, but they still experience discrimination. The case of the two Christian women being held in prison has been mentioned. Iranian Jews experience official discrimination. President Ahmadinejad is well-known for his anti-Semitic views and for holocaust denial. Religion is another worry.

Iran is one of only seven countries not to have signed up to or ratified the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. The others are Sudan, Somalia, Qatar, and the Polynesian islands of Tonga, Palau and Nauru. Family law imposes many restrictions on women; marital rape is not a crime; killings are regular; and the women’s rights groups that have tried to fight for equality have experienced a huge cracking down and imprisonment. That is a huge concern. I say that as the only woman speaking in this debate, but I am sure that hon. Gentlemen share my worries about the position of women in Iranian society. Furthermore, homosexuals regularly experience dreadful discrimination, and execution, in Iran, where more than 4,000 people have been executed for homosexuality since 1979. Worryingly, the UK Government still deport gay Iranians, despite the possible risk of imprisonment or execution in their home country. Although I do not have time to go into greater detail, I would welcome the Minister’s comments on these matters.

The horrendous execution of minors has already been mentioned. I am against the death penalty in all its forms, but the execution of minors is explicitly against international law. Even the Americans have stopped doing it since 2005. It is clearly unacceptable, and yet just this year three minors have been executed in Iran. So there is great concern on a range of human rights issues in Iran. I appreciate that the Government can bring limited influence to bear, but surely, given the importance of these humanitarian issues, we must continue to pursue all possible avenues to improve the human rights situation there.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe) 10:41 am, 8th July 2009

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I congratulate Lembit Öpik on securing this important debate. Hon. Members might not know this, but last century, he and I were at Bristol university together: he was the chairman of the student union and I was the chairman of the Conservative association, and we had many lively debates. Since then, his has been a meteoric career, and I am delighted to see him in his place this morning.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I have waited 23 years to say this, but after all those disputes, and given that the hon. Gentleman has been so supportive and complimentary, I can finally forgive him.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Minister (Europe)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those kind words; I shall mull them over and decide whether to forgive him.

I also welcome the Minister to his place. We were sparring partners when he was in the Treasury and I was a shadow Treasury spokesman, and I look forward to sparring with him now. I hope that he will enjoy some security of tenure, at least for a few months, in the Foreign Office. I say that in particular because we have just had news that Lord Malloch-Brown, a Foreign Office Minister, has announced his resignation from the Government. Perhaps this Minister will last a little longer.

Iran is an ancient civilisation that cannot easily be caricatured. It is a little-known fact that it can claim to have produced the earliest-known charter of human rights on earth, back in 539 BC. In this remarkable document, a copy of which hangs in the UN Security Council, the Persian King Cyrus states:

“Until I am alive, I prevent unpaid, forced labour... I announce that everyone is free to choose a religion. People are free to live in all regions and take up a job provided that they never violate others’ rights. No one could be penalised for his or her relative’s faults”.

The country is blessed with abundant natural resources, but suffers several daily power cuts. It has the world’s fifth-largest global oil reserve, but outside petrol stations, queues of cars continue often for half a mile. Its people have a thirst for change so telling that hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets to call for recounts after the recent elections, only to be ruthlessly crushed by the Government authorities. We witnessed masked paramilitaries roaming the streets on motorbikes chasing peaceful protesters, intimidating, hounding and beating them. We are still unaware of exactly how many protesters died.

My hon. Friend Mr. Evans, in his powerful speech, mentioned Neda, the 27-year-old music student, whom we saw, apparently shot by paramilitaries, lying bloodied on the street in Tehran. Her death was captured on video and beamed across the world in a day to millions of viewers. In many ways, she has become the icon of the clash between the old and the new in Iran. In the end, no Government can rule without consent, and this is a crisis of the regime’s making. Although it must be for Iranians to decide how Iran should be governed, it is the demands of ordinary Iranians to which the Iranian Government should respond, and they forget that at their peril.

British foreign policy towards Iran should always be based on a pragmatic and hard-headed assessment of where British interests lie. Although those interests lie in an Iran once again engaged in the mainstream of the international community, we should never lose sight of the fact that Iran has one of the worst human rights records in the world. It is ranked 145th out of 167 in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index. In the past few days, locally employed staff in the British embassy were taken captive without provocation. The unjustified harassment of staff from any embassy is a violation of diplomatic norms and utterly unacceptable. It is hard to know where to begin in the seemingly unending list of human rights abuses, a number of which were referred to by my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend Mr. Amess.

The personal stories paint a powerful picture. Iranian authorities executed Delara Darabi in Rasht central prison on a Friday morning in May. Not only had there been no formal notification 48 hours before the hanging, as required under Iranian law, but just a fortnight earlier, Ms Darabi had been granted a two-month stay of execution by the head of the judiciary. The day before their daughter was walked to the gallows, her parents visited her in jail where she excitedly informed them that there was to be an appeal so that new evidence could be heard. Twenty-four hours later, she was dead. The Iranian people responded with huge internet campaigns and mass demonstrations—a powerful expression of disapproval of the regime.

It is evident that Iran’s head of judiciary has little ability to control his own judges. Nevertheless, I urge him to act before any of the other 130 juvenile offenders on death row are executed. The international community has a clear duty to take a stand against an act that we all agree is wrong, and the message to the Iranian regime must be clear: its actions have consequences. Amnesty International regularly reports that trial hearings are often heard in private and that political detainees are denied access to legal counsel, often despite assurances to the contrary. It is ironic that when one visits Tehran, the Iranians talk with great pride about how there are designated seats in the Majlis for representatives of the Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian minorities. That must be contrasted with the appalling apostasy laws that still exist in the provinces, and the ruthless treatment of members of the Baha’i faith, whose leaders are even now imprisoned without trial, possibly awaiting charges for which, if found guilty, they could face a capital penalty. I pay tribute to the strong case made on their behalf by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire in his capacity as the chairman of the all-party Friends of the Baha’is group.

Even the designated non-Islamic religions face persecution. According to the last US State Department report on religious freedoms, there was an exponential rise in officially sanctioned anti-Semitic propaganda, including official statements, media outlets, publications and books. So-called President-elect Ahmadinejad still pursues a virulent and outrageous anti-Semitic campaign, regularly questioning the existence of the holocaust. He also persists in chauvinistic remarks and has vetoed Bills designed by the seventh Majlis to improve the position of women.

Gender inequality and discrimination are widespread, and are perpetuated by Iran’s constitutional structures. In Iran today, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s; compensation payable to the family of a female victim of a crime is half that of a man’s family; boys inherit double what girls receive; and securing a divorce and custody of children is near-impossible for a woman. However, despite all the constitutional discrimination set against them, we again see the spirit and determination of the Iranian people themselves: two-thirds of students are women, and there are female MPs, doctors, policewomen and taxi drivers, and some 97 per cent. of women can read and write, which is one of highest literacy rates in the middle east.

Iran’s leaders face a clear choice. Either they can accept the United States’ offer of engagement and negotiation, which means dramatically improving their human rights record and suspending their nuclear program, or they can face international isolation, economic stagnation and a tightening of international sanctions. We hope that they see it as in the long-term interests of Iran and its people to choose the former.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 10:49 am, 8th July 2009

I congratulate Lembit Öpik on securing this Adjournment debate. I know that it is often said that he champions minority causes, but the House is a place in which such voices should be heard. The issue under debate is of particular importance. The hon. Gentleman specifically drew our attention to the plight of the Baha’i community in Iran. Its seven leaders go on trial this weekend. It is probably appropriate that all we do at this stage is demand maximum transparency and openness in the way in which that trial is conducted. The judicial process should be conducted along the lines of international best practice, and international observers should be allowed to witness every conceivable stage of those court proceedings. For reasons that I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand, it is probably best that I leave it at that. We will be keeping a close eye on proceedings to ensure that the leaders of the Baha’i community are treated appropriately and properly.

Hon. Members have referred to the recent elections in Iran. Although it is not for Britain to determine the outcome of such elections, it is for us to say that the will of the Iranian people must prevail. Moreover, it is entirely appropriate to say that the reaction to those who felt motivated to go on to the streets to demonstrate against the outcome of that election was entirely unacceptable. The arrest of protesters and the alleged violent assaults against those who dared to question the result of the election is not acceptable in any country that claims to have been through a democratic process.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Going back to what the Minister said about the Baha’is on trial this weekend, I understand why he takes his position. However, will he assure me that his Department will make a formal submission of that kind to the Iranian authorities? I am not asking him to go further than he has done in his comments, but I should be grateful if he made that as a formal submission through the usual channels.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I will certainly make that submission through the relevant international institutions—whether it is the EU or the UN. We have made it very clear that we want to see that happen, but it is probably best that that is done through those international institutions in this particular case.

Going back to the elections, the will of the people must prevail. The regime’s reaction to the protests following the elections is not acceptable, especially given the fact that it claims to have been through a democratic process. Part of going through a democratic process is being willing to allow people to express their objections and concerns about the outcome. The reaction of the regime is not very encouraging, particularly in the context of the recent positive overtures from the President of the United States of America, and our own Prime Minister, both of whom have said that they are willing to engage with Iran, but that it has to make fundamental choices. For example, as a nation, does it wish to become part of the mainstream international community, or does it want to remain on the margins, as defined by its human rights and other internal issues? Its recent behaviour in the aftermath of the recent elections cannot be encouraging for any hon. Member of this House who genuinely wants to see progress based on mutual respect, engagement and diplomatic processes.

Let me speak now about the human rights situation, then I will deal with the points that have been raised. Iran’s human rights record is well documented. It has consistently deteriorated over the past few years. It has the highest execution rate per capita of any country worldwide, and juvenile executions continue apace. Despite Iran’s history of tolerance and the rich and diverse mix of religious and ethnic groups that make up Iranian society, religious and ethnic minorities are subject to persecution, intimidation, arbitrary detention and denial of education. Even before the recent unrest began, the Iranian authorities had arrested large numbers of teachers, women’s rights activists, students, trade unionists and ethnic minorities on charges of propaganda against the Islamic Republic, acting against national security and organising illegal gatherings. That was all part of a rigid clampdown on any form of dissent, opposition or peaceful organised protest.

In the aftermath of the elections, people’s right of free assembly has been effectively withdrawn. Such actions are entirely unacceptable, and the European Union has made that abundantly clear to the Iranian authorities. Hard-line cleric Ayatollah Khatami’s call for those involved in recent protests to be

“dealt with severely and shown no mercy” is cause for serious concern.

We have heard about a number of examples of human rights abuses that cannot be tolerated. They include the arbitrary use of the death penalty; juvenile executions; persecution of minorities, whether religious minorities or minorities based on sexual orientation; the denial of people’s right to express themselves freely; and the treatment of women in Iranian society. None of those issues is consistent with the stance of a country that wants to move from the margins of the international community to the mainstream. It is appropriate that at every opportunity this House shines a light on those human rights abuses and supports those who argue that there is serious need for reform in Iran. We must also recognise that it is the people of Iran who should be leading that call for reform with the international community in support.

My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn talked about trade unions in Iran and the fact that they are not allowed to organise in a free and effective way. The symbol of any civilised society is the ability of trade unions to fulfil their functions in that way. My hon. Friend is mistaken in suggesting that the west—whether it is the United States or Britain—is responsible for the actions of the Iranian Government. That lets them off the hook and plays into the hands of the propagandists in the Iranian regime. We must make it clear that it is the Iranian regime that has primary responsibility for the way in which it behaves towards its own citizens and the rest of the international community. We should not allow it to be said that it is our foreign policy that legitimises and justifies the behaviour of Iran or any similar regime.

Moreover, I totally reject the notion that we have ever tried to appease Iran. We have tried to engage with it, and that is the appropriate thing to do. It is regrettable that the Iranian regime turned its back on that offer of engagement. Let us hope that it does not make that mistake again following the offer that has come from the new President of the United States. Mr. Amess suggested that we have specifically appeased President Ahmadinejad. However, it was the UK ambassador who led the walk-out at the recent conference in Durban, when Ahmadinejad repeated his vile anti-Semitism, his unjustifiable denial of the holocaust and his suggestion that Israel should be wiped off the face of the map. It is this country that has constantly condemned that kind of behaviour and rhetoric from Ahmadinejad.

Mark Williams raised the question of our local staff in the Iranian embassy. One member of staff is still being held and we are hopeful that, through dialogue with the Iranian authorities, that individual will be released soon. There is no justification or excuse either for any of our staff to be held a minute longer in Iran or for the suggestion that we as a country were responsible for whipping up the public reaction after the election.

I congratulate Mr. Evans on his passionate and authentic speech, which he turned into a human story. Jo Swinson focused on freedom of speech issues and the attack on minorities. I agree with most of the contribution of Mr. Francois. As he said, we enjoyed jousting in our previous roles, and I look forward to doing the same in our new roles.

It is essential that we make it clear where we stand on the abuse of human rights in Iran, which is totally unacceptable and not the behaviour of a country that seeks to come into the mainstream. We urge the regime to take a different path. If it does, it will find a willingness to engage in a constructive and positive way.