I beg to move,
That this House
has considered British prisoners in Iran.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Many hon. Members, and many people watching the debate across the world, will be aware in some sort of manner of my constituent Nazanin Ratcliffe. The reason I called this debate—why I think it is important to discuss the issue in the House—is that many hon. Members here and people around the world may not know the details of Nazanin’s condition and that of other such prisoners who are detained in Iran at the moment.
Nazanin Ratcliffe, her husband Richard and daughter Gabriella lived in West Hampstead until April last year. Nazanin went to work every day in a charity. On the weekends, Richard and Nazanin would take their daughter to play in a soft play area in the Sherriff Centre opposite West Hampstead tube. They would play on the swings in a park in Fortune Green, near my house. The biggest worry in their lives in the early months of last year was which school Gabriella would go to when she grew up. Their situation was not any different to many of the young families who live in my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn.
Last year, Nazanin, a British citizen, went to Iran on holiday and took her daughter Gabriella, who was then two years old and is also a British citizen, to see Nazanin’s parents in Tehran. After two weeks, they decided to return home to London. Nazanin was detained at the airport in Tehran and the daughter was placed with the grandparents.
Nazanin is a British citizen and I understand that she also has Iranian citizenship. Obviously, the Iranians do not recognise her British citizenship. As far as they are concerned, she is Iranian, so we have a real problem in trying to influence the Iranian authorities. Have I got that wrong?
That is no excuse for evading responsibility for a young mother, a British citizen, who has been detained in Iran, and a three-year-old daughter who has been separated from her mother and father. Those excuses are used by the Government to evade responsibility.
I apologise, Mr Hollobone, as I will have to leave this debate early for another engagement. I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing this timely and important debate. Is it not the case that Nazanin Ratcliffe’s situation is symptomatic of a regime that is systematically abusing human rights? If the Supreme Leader and the re-elected President Rouhani want to learn anything, they should look back to the history of ancient Persia and King Cyrus, who founded the first ever fundamental charter of human rights, a facsimile of which currently sits in the UN building in New York. They should look back for leadership—and also look forward and get into the international laws of human rights, not just for British or joint citizens but for Iranian citizens as well.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Nazanin’s sister-in-law lives in my constituency. She sent me a letter signed by a number of my constituents. It says:
“As part of her family we have been tirelessly campaigning for the British Government to do more than just raising their concern about her treatment and the effective abandonment of her young daughter Gabriella in Iran.”
Does my hon. Friend join me in calling on the British Government to do far more?
I am going to make some progress before taking interventions. I know that a lot of hon. Members want to come in and I will take interventions. Before I do that, I want to outline the plight of my constituent Nazanin.
Gabriella’s short life has already been spent in exile. After they were unlawfully detained at the airport, what followed was a shambolic process of secretive courts, secretive trials and secretive convictions. Nazanin was placed in solitary confinement, in a room one and a half metres square, with no window and no natural light, and with no access to lawyers or to her family. Before Nazanin went to prison, she was in perfectly good health. We then found out that she had suffered from arthritis in her neck and body. There were times when her limbs stopped working and she could not move for periods of time. She suffered from weight loss and hair loss. She was often denied access to medical treatment. The one time she did have access to a specialist, he said that Nazanin needed urgent hospitalisation.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I am particularly concerned about the continued incarceration of my constituent Roya Nobakht, who is being held in Evin prison, having been charged with gathering and participation with intent to commit crime against national security, due to a comment on Facebook. Will the hon. Lady join me in calling on all the authorities to ensure that appropriate medical attention and health assistance is always available for our constituents?
I will mention the hon. Lady’s constituent later in my speech. I agree with her about access to medical treatment, but it is not just physical treatment, as hon. Members will be aware. Mr Hollobone, I am sure you will agree that if a woman is separated from her husband, her daughter and her family, it has an impact on her mental health as well. Through the monitored conversations that Nazanin has with her family, we are aware that she has been suicidal and has gone on hunger strike.
Richard Ratcliffe lives about 10 minutes down the road from me. Theirs is a family I can relate to. It is like many young families in my constituency. I am pleased to say that Richard is in the Public Gallery today listening to the debate. He has been tirelessly campaigning for the release of his wife and daughter since they were detained.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for securing the debate. She is well aware of the circumstances in Iran of Mr Foroughi, whose son is a constituent of mine; both families have been working very closely together. She makes an eloquent point about the humanitarian treatment of the detainees, in particular the medical treatment. Does she agree that it is not just that they should get treatment but that once the assessment has been undertaken or the treatment has been given, the results should be shared with the family? I know that in Mr Foroughi’s case the trauma has been increased by the lack of knowledge of the outcome of the medical examination.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for coming with me to deliver a petition to the Foreign Secretary. I agree that the toll taken on the families of those who are held in Iran, who have no contact with their families other than monitored calls, is really shown when speaking and meeting members of the families. That is, if people bother to meet with them.
Thousands of people in the world have spoken out because of the sheer level of injustice in Nazanin’s case. Led by Richard Ratcliffe, organisations such as Amnesty International, Redress and Change.org have galvanised thousands of people to campaign for the release of Nazanin. At this time, almost a million people have signed a petition saying that Nazanin should be released. Six UN rapporteurs have also said that Nazanin should be released, and the European Parliament has adopted a resolution to say that Nazanin and other EU citizens with dual nationalities should be released.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this issue to the House of Commons and asking the Government to do something about it. Last November, an article in The Sunday Times suggested that these political prisoners were being tortured and, more importantly, that Iran seeks a ransom from the British Government of £400 million. What does my hon. Friend make of that? Surely it is diabolical, to say the least.
That is very worrying. The problem is that, when the families speak to prisoners of conscience in Iran, the calls are heavily monitored and there is no freedom to express exactly what is happening. It is all shrouded in secrecy, so there is no real evidence of what is going on behind closed doors. It is no surprise that the UN working group on arbitrary detention said that the detention was unlawful, arbitrary and against international law.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I have listened to that shocking case. Does she agree that it is incumbent on our Government to do far more to seek the release of those people?
My hon. Friend anticipates the conclusion of my speech, when I will ask the Government and the Minister to do more to release not just Nazanin but Mr Foroughi, Roya and all other prisoners of conscience who have been held in Iran for so long. I have tried my best to raise this matter in the House as much as possible with the two Foreign Secretaries who have been in office in the time that Nazanin has been in prison. This is the second Minister with responsibility for the middle east I have addressed about this issue. I also raised it at Prime Minister’s questions, and the Prime Minister said that she had raised the case with the Iranian President, but she did not go into whether she would call for Nazanin’s release.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She is being very generous with her time. She is describing a scandalous systematic abuse of human rights in Iran. Does she accept that, when the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 was put together, we missed an opportunity to put a human rights clause in there? In the two years since it was signed, there has been no improvement at all in Iran’s activities.
I agree that it was a missed opportunity, but there have been other big missed opportunities, including a visit by diplomats to Evin prison, which I shall talk about later.
To mark Nazanin’s 100 days of detention, Richard Ratcliffe and I went to No. 10 when David Cameron was Prime Minister and handed in a petition. With Oliver Dowden, we went to the Foreign Secretary’s office to deliver a petition signed by 261 MPs and peers calling for Nazanin’s release. I have tried to raise this issue as much as possible in the House, especially during the International Women’s Day debate, in which the rights of women were examined over and over by Members of the Opposition but Nazanin’s case was largely ignored. It has been raised in the House several times, and people are worried about it, but the Government, to their shame, have not echoed the calls for Nazanin’s release.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the elements of this case that the family cannot understand is why the Foreign Secretary and the former Foreign Secretary have not taken the time to meet Richard and the family? I know Ministers have, but surely the Foreign Secretary can give a case of this seriousness some of his personal time.
That is something the families have raised with me over and over again. Why will the Foreign Secretary not meet with the families? Let me be clear: we do not doubt the sincerity of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff, but the fact is that this is not working. The Foreign Secretary needs to meet the families.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. She is being very generous with her time.
It seems to me that the Foreign Office has behaved somewhat defensively in relation to this case and others. Given that there are 600,000 dual nationals in Britain, this is not going to be a single issue. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need urgently to develop a policy on diplomatic support for dual nationals? Currently, we seem to be responding to the Iranian Government’s appalling policies and behaviour with poor treatment.
I am highlighting just one case, but there are many more involving people with dual nationalities. At the end of the day, they are still British citizens, and we have to give them the respect and time they deserve.
Just before I do, I would like to ask the Minister a few questions, which I hope he will answer in his speech. First, it remains incomprehensible that our Government are yet to call for Nazanin’s release, and that they have failed to join the UN in maintaining her innocence. As I said, 261 MPs and peers signed a letter seeking the release of Nazanin, Kamal Foroughi and Roya Nobakht. Will the Government finally join them today?
The hon. Lady is making a compelling case. It is perhaps unsurprising that Iran is not receptive to the United Kingdom Government’s overtures, but may I remind her and the Minister that we have many allies in the region, and that we could be doing more to get them to assist us in making representations to Iran in that regard?
This is a matter of life and death, and we should be relying on any allies and friends we have in the region to try to get our prisoners of conscience released.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a good point, as usual. That is something I will be asking the Minister to address in his conclusion.
Secondly, given the seriousness with which the Government say they are treating Nazanin’s case, is it acceptable that the Foreign Secretary is yet to meet with her family? They are told that he raises concerns with Foreign Minister Zarif, but a meeting would reassure them of progress. Will the Minister help me to get a meeting between the families of those prisoners of conscience and the Foreign Secretary?
Thirdly, last year, Amnesty International produced a report on Iran’s prisons, which highlighted 17 cases in which
“The Iranian authorities are callously toying with the lives of political prisoners by denying them adequate medical care—putting them at risk of irreversible damage to their health or even death”.
Will the Minister therefore clarify the role of the 45 diplomats who recently went on a visit to Evin prison—the very prison in which Nazanin is being held—and were given a tour to show them how well prisoners are treated? That consular team, which is denied access to Nazanin and Kamal Foroughi because they are dual nationals, was sitting literally outside the cell in which Nazanin is being held, exchanging pleasantries, drinking refreshments and taking photos, and yet they did not help her. Did they ask to see her? If not, why not? Does the Minister agree that it is outrageous for our Government to take part in a public relations stunt, in which diplomats go to Evin prison and take pictures at the very location where human rights abuses are taking place? I would like the Minister to respond to that question. Will he ask for a full report from the embassy of Tehran, which was reinstated recently?
I would like to ask the Minister some broader policy questions, which my hon. Friend Lyn Brown raised, about the implications for those with dual nationalities. Nazanin has been denied justice at every turn during her 14-month ordeal, but she is not the only British dual national to be detained in Iran—Kamal Foroughi and Roya have already been mentioned. The treatment of British prisoners in Iran speaks to the need for a review of the Government’s broader policy towards dual nationals who are detained abroad. If we accept the status quo, we are accepting that the way Nazanin and Kamal are being treated is okay. That is not acceptable for many Members of this House.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and on her eloquent speech. She is keen for the Government to act after a period of delay. Would it help her to know that many constituents have written to me and to my Scottish National party colleagues, so many British citizens in Scotland are keen for the Government to act? A couple of weeks ago, I wrote to the Secretary of State about that on behalf of the SNP, and I am waiting to hear back from him. Would it help the hon. Lady to know that constituents of hon. Members throughout the United Kingdom are anxious for those people with dual British citizenship to be assisted by our Government?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her intervention. A full Public Gallery and the number of emails received by hon. Members show how strongly people feel about the sheer injustice of this case. Facebook groups of which I am a member, Hampstead Mums and Mums of West Hampstead, normally never get in touch with their MP, but they have been in touch about this case, because it resonates with people and it is so unfair—the Government need to do more.
I know the commitment that the hon. Lady has to raising awareness of this case. As chair of the all-party group for women in Parliament, I have seen her raising the issue in the Chamber. Constituents have also written to me, as have others from across the country, in support of this debate and to express concern about the heartbreaking and awful situation of a very small child and her family. May I take this opportunity to support the hon. Lady, and to ask the Minister, who I know is extremely caring, to ensure that our Government do everything in their power to make changes in this and the other cases we have heard about this afternoon?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and her support. I thank all Members from across the House who have pledged their support. This is not a party political issue; this is about constructive working to ensure that we achieve the release of prisoners of conscience who are our citizens.
I have a few more questions for the Minister to answer in his summing up. Will the Government state that there should be no exception to taking clearly documented action on behalf of all UK nationals who face breaches of their human rights? According to a 2011 report by the Office for National Statistics—my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham mentioned this figure—more than 600,000 people living in Britain hold another passport. They are of course not at risk of being detained, but we need to address deficiencies in our law to ensure equal protection for dual nationals.
Will the Government commit to making complaints about all breaches of the Vienna convention on consular relations, and consider bringing cases before the International Court of Justice if such breaches continue? Furthermore, will the Government bring the strongest possible pressure to bear on Iran to cease its pattern of arbitrary detention of dual nationals? Will the Government support and work towards the implementation of any findings of the United Nations monitoring bodies concerning UK nationals?
Finally, will the Government accept that there is a fundamental accountability gap between what the Foreign Office says it is doing and what the families can know is happening to their relatives? Families cannot be left in the dark about the framework of work that exists when their relatives are treated in such a way. A Foreign Office approach of discretion encourages inertia, but also defines the kind of foreign policy that the Government are mandated to deliver.
The Conservative manifesto states that the party believes in the values of
“freedom, democracy, tolerance and the rule of law” around the world. When I asked about this case at Prime Minister’s questions, she said that she was concerned about the effect that detention was having on Nazanin. Pat Frankland, who is apparently a good friend of the Prime Minister, said that her politics and morals are based on Christian values, of being decent, “not doing people down” and looking after people, so I ask the Prime Minister, and the Minister, to do the decent thing. I am asking them to do more—to do more to restore this family who have been ripped apart by a senseless miscarriage of justice; to do more to bring this toddler back together with her family, her mother and father, before even more of her childhood is blighted; and to do more to bring Nazanin, Kamal and Roya home to the UK where they belong.
Order. The debate finishes at 5.30 pm. Four Members have written to me requesting to speak. I have to call the Front Benchers no later than seven minutes past 5, and there will be five minutes for the Scottish National party spokesman, five minutes for the Opposition spokesman and 10 minutes for the Minister. Tulip Siddiq will then have three minutes to sum up at the end. I will therefore have to impose a three-minute time limit on our four speakers, the first of whom will be John Howell.
I congratulate Tulip Siddiq on her excellent speech and on securing this brilliant debate. She did not comment on another British value—a belief in human rights. I have a fundamental belief in human rights, but Iran is not a place where human rights are prevalent.
Human rights were not discussed at all during the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, in spite of Iran having one of the worst human rights records on this planet. In per capita terms, Iran leads the world in executions, and overall is second only to China. In Iran, moreover, it is mandatory for all women to veil their hair, homosexuality is illegal—I could go on and on.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and to Tulip Siddiq for securing this crucial debate. My hon. Friend is making some important points, and I want to add one. An important human right is that of legal representation to ensure access to justice. One of the most horrifying aspects of both Nazanin and Kamal’s cases is the absence of that legal advice. Will he comment on that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress that point.
At least three British citizens are detained in Iran. I have heard that a fourth person, whose name I do not know, has also been detained. We will have to see who that person is. Those four people stand in great contrast to the four Americans who were released from Iranian prisons in 2016 as part of a prisoner swap that came about following the Iran nuclear agreement. Nothing similar has occurred with regard to those Britons who have been detained in Iran over the same period.
In the few seconds I have left, I make the point that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn fully identified the reasons why we need those people released. It is fine to hear warm words from the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, but we need to see action on those words. We need a real release of prisoners from Iran as quickly as possible.
Order. I have had a late request to speak from a Member who has a constituent interest, so I will have to cut everyone’s time limit from three minutes to two minutes to get him in.
I congratulate Tulip Siddiq on putting a very good case forward. When I consider international issues, there is a phrase that resounds in my heart: evil triumphs when good people do nothing. We cannot fix the world’s problems, but I believe that we have a role to play in this case and that we can bring about change.
Nazanin Ratcliffe has been jailed for five years under secret charges and is being held in solitary confinement. In September 2016, the Foreign Secretary said that the “upgrade in diplomatic relations” between the UK and Iran would provide an opportunity to raise consular cases
“about which I am deeply concerned”.
Will the Minister further outline how he believes that our recently restored diplomatic ties have enabled us to influence such matters?
May I also put a marker down for Kamal Foroughi, who has been arrested and kept in solitary confinement in Iran for six years after being convicted of spurious charges? Iran has been desperately hard on him and in detaining British citizens and denying them their basic rights.
Iran executed some 977 people in 2015 and an estimated one per day in 2016. The regime continues to execute juvenile offenders, in violation of international law. If there are human rights abuses, this is a country that does them with a vengeance. It executed 73 juvenile offenders between 2005 and 2015, and girls are held criminally accountable from the age of nine. The Government deem them to have reached puberty at that age, compared with 15 for boys. I ask this question again: where are the human rights in Iran, given what it does to young children from the age of nine? The nuclear deal failed to address a number of critical issues. I respect the Minister greatly, as he knows, but I ask him that question again given Iran’s human rights abuses and the fact that it gave Hezbollah, which controls Lebanon, rocket factories. These are deep issues that we are all concerned about. The human rights abuse in Iran is despicable, and young people of all ages are held in little regard. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I congratulate Tulip Siddiq on securing this important debate. It seems that this matter hinges on dual nationality, which is the barrier to the British Government being able to provide the services that we would expect them to provide to any British citizen. That is not good enough. We need to find ways forward.
I respect the Minister and his predecessor, who have always honestly set out that they are doing what they can diplomatically. The alternative, which I am sure no one would advocate, is to send in gunboats. The reality of the situation is that we either use force or work through the appropriate channels, as the Minister’s predecessor did and I know he will too. I simply ask him, exactly as the hon. Lady did, to do more. I ask him to redouble our efforts to ensure that the Iranian Government are under no illusion about where we stand, and to continue to provide as much consular assistance as possible under the diplomatic arrangements that we have.
I turn to a slightly different point, which was made earlier. The Governments of the P5+1 made an agreement to lift sanctions, and the majority of international sanctions were lifted, with near-immediate effect, in January 2016. Given that, we have lost the leverage that we need, so I urge the Government to work with our allies—not just those in the region but President Trump in the United States, who criticised that deal for removing leverage.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to make my first speech in Westminster Hall. I also thank my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq for securing the debate and introducing it in such a comprehensive manner.
I have received more than 100 emails from constituents about this matter, which shows that the cases of Nazanin and Kamal have touched the hearts of the nation. It is all too common for people to claim that a situation is Kafkaesque, but to me, as an avid reader of Kafka, the similarities between those cases and the case of Josef K. in “The Trial” are all too apparent. Kafka himself described the seeming basis of the Iranian judicial system when he wrote in “The Trial” that
“it’s characteristic of this judicial system that a man is condemned not only when he’s innocent but also in ignorance.”
Both Nazanin and Kamal were charged and convicted without adequate representation or due process—indeed, they were condemned in ignorance.
Like other hon. Members—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn—I call upon the Foreign Secretary, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Minister to press the Iranian Government on a number of issues that my constituents, Amnesty International and I have raised. They should press them to allow Kamal and Nazanin any specialist medical care they may require; give Kamal access to his medical records; apply without discrimination article 58 of the Islamic penal code, which allows for someone to be conditionally released after serving a third of their prison sentence and would ensure the immediate release of Nazanin and Kamal; ensure that Kamal and Nazanin have regular access to a lawyer of their choice; allow them to be in contact with their families, including relatives abroad; and allow them to communicate with British consular officials—although that seems to be a contentious issue. I ask the Minister to respond to those points.
The United Kingdom has a well-deserved international reputation for its justice system. I hope that the Government will press for the most basic justice in Iran for our citizens, whether they are British citizens or dual citizens, and particularly for Kamal and Nazanin. It is clear from the contributions to this debate that that is completely and utterly lacking.
Thank you for finding time to accommodate me, Mr Hollobone. I apologise for my lack of proper notice.
I want to talk briefly about the case of Mr Foroughi, whose son is a constituent of mine. I have been involved extensively with the campaign that we have run jointly with Tulip Siddiq to secure the release of Mr Foroughi and others.
There are many similarities between the cases that have been mentioned, but Mr Foroughi is a 78-year-old man. He really is an old man, and he is an ill man. He has been detained for more than 2,000 days. He is the longest-serving European national in a prison in Iran. There are many questions about his detention, but in the short term, there are genuine humanitarian issues for the Iranian Government, principally about his health and the need for them to share his medical files, which would at least provide some comfort.
I know that the British Government have raised this issue at every level. I used to work for Prime Minister David Cameron, and I know that he raised it directly with his opposite number, as have the current Prime Minister and Ministers at other levels. However, I would be grateful if the Minister addressed three matters that have been brought out during the debate.
First, there are genuine questions about the EU delegation. It seems extraordinary that it could have been just outside where these people were detained, and that has caused a lot of anguish. Secondly and thirdly, on trade and the nuclear deal, I seek guidance, reassurance and information from the Minister about what we are doing to try to leverage opportunities. I was always sceptical about that deal, but I hoped that it would provide an opportunity to improve Iran’s humanitarian record. That does not seem to be happening, so any further guidance that he can give would be gratefully received.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to be back in Westminster Hall. I am grateful to the voters of Glasgow North for giving me this opportunity. I congratulate Tulip Siddiq on securing this important debate so early in the Parliament.
The cases we have heard about today, particularly those of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi, are of huge concern to constituents and campaigners across the country. Like almost everyone in the room, I have received at least dozens of emails from constituents, individual campaigners and organisations calling for the prisoners to be set free. I pay tribute to those campaigners, and particularly to the families of Nazanin and Kamal, who have to live daily with the reality of their loved ones being imprisoned yet refuse to give up the fight.
I also want to recognise other UK citizens detained overseas whose cases have been discussed before in Westminster Hall. They include Andy Tsege in Ethiopia and other prisoners of conscience around the world, such as Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, whose wife I had the privilege of meeting during the recent general election campaign. In all these situations, we see a particular injustice and a personal cause that ought to be rectified, but we also see wider questions about the UK’s diplomacy, its foreign policy and, ultimately, its role in the world.
We have heard about the situation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been detained for more than a year. Her final appeal against her five-year sentence, which was originally handed down in a secret trial on unspecified charges, was rejected in April by the supreme court. We have heard about how she was lifted without warning in Tehran airport, and how her physical and mental health continues to deteriorate during her incarceration. Her employer, Monique Villa, chief executive officer of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, recently told The Guardian:
“She is not a spy, but an innocent mother who travelled to Iran only to show her baby to her parents”.
As my hon. and learned Friend Joanna Cherry said, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has thousands of supporters across this country. In previous debates, I have mentioned seeing and hearing the demonstrations that have taken place outside Parliament in solidarity with Nazanin, and both her case and Kamal’s have been raised with me by my local Amnesty group, yet the UK Government’s response is still lacking. I will ask specific questions, but I note the comments of Nazanin’s husband, Richard, who told The Guardian:
“As her husband, I can say Nazanin is innocent until I am blue in the face. I have spent a year doing it…But it makes a clear difference that the government”— that is the UK Government—
“hasn’t. It indulges the whispers.”
I turn to the case of Kamal Foroughi—“Grandpa Kamal”, as he is known. I had the privilege of meeting Kamran, who is a constituent of Oliver Dowden and is here today. Kamal Foroughi was first detained in 2011 and was convicted at an unfair trial on charges that he did not know about until the day of his trial. His situation has been described by the UN working group on arbitrary detention, which has called for his immediate release, as a “violation of international law”. Once again, there are serious concerns about his health and wellbeing, and his access to communication with his family and the outside world has been severely limited. As I said, I had the privilege before the election of meeting Kamran Foroughi, and that brought home to me the human dimension in all this—the personal struggle, the lives affected and the simple wish of the family to have their grandpa brought home.
I echo all the questions that have been asked of the Minister already. As I said, as is so often the case with prisoners of conscience, there are both personal situations and broader policy issues. What engagement have the Government had with the families of the prisoners? What channels of communication remain open to them? Do the Government accept and understand the huge public concern about the cases, and that it is clear from the cross-party show of support from Members that they would have huge support if they stepped up their efforts to secure the release of Nazanin and Kamal?
The Prime Minister recently called on us all to work together, come to consensus and find things we can agree on. Here, surely, is an example of that. We hear repeatedly from Ministers that they raise issues with the Iranian regime—what does “raise” mean? Do they explicitly call for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi? Will the Minister do so here today?
Do the Government pass on the concerns raised in these debates? Do they suggest to the Iranian regime that if they want to continue to build global good will and make progress on the journey they began with the nuclear deal, recognising international concern about their prisoners of conscience would be a big step in that direction? What does that tell us about the UK’s wider foreign policy goals? If the Government want to promote a global Britain and show that Britain is still relevant on the world stage, surely securing the release of a young mother and an older grandfather who are its own citizens would be a pretty good place to start.
I echo the comments made by Mr Carmichael about the role of our influence with regional allies and by Stella Creasy about trade deals. We need more than warm words from the Minister. I hope that when he responds to the debate we will hear about some concrete action that will ultimately help to free Nazanin and Kamal and reunite them with their families.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq, who has secured this timely debate and has never given up on behalf of her constituents—especially Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is serving that terrible and immoral sentence in the dreadful Evin jail in Tehran. She gave us a comprehensive account of how her constituent happened to be convicted and of her appalling treatment by the Iranian authorities. She was passionate, as always, and she has fought hard for her constituent, who has been denied justice for the past 14 months in detention in Iran.
We have also heard contributions from the hon. Members for Henley (John Howell), for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—he was passionate as always—and for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), and from my new colleague, my hon. Friend Alex Sobel, who pointed out that he had received 100 emails from constituents and that the situation really was Kafkaesque. He is absolutely right. I hope the Foreign and Commonwealth Office takes his advice and presses the Iranian Government at least to allow the medical care and attention needed.
We know that Iran does not recognise dual nationality—we have heard that many times this afternoon. It will not allow our diplomats to see dual nationals who are imprisoned in Iran. The Iranian Government view dual nationals with intense suspicion. That is an historical situation, and the United Kingdom is viewed with even more contempt owing to its historical interference in the country. The BBC’s Persian service is loathed by Iranian officials. As we know, dual nationals are barred from holding Government positions. The imprisonment of dual nationals has been seen by many as a way of extracting political and financial gains from the countries that dual nationals share their citizenship with.
The Financial Times says:
“These arrests are part of the tense power struggle between those who would like to get closer to the US and those who are scared of any impacts of that on Iran’s domestic politics…The goal seems to be spreading fears to undermine the government of Rouhani in western states’
eyes and foreign businesses.”
We know that the Government restored full diplomatic relations with Iran in September 2016, but Kamal Foroughi’s son, Kamran, has criticised the United Kingdom for doing so without pushing harder for his father’s release as part of the diplomatic normalisation process. I wonder whether the Minister will comment on that.
“It’s baffling that the Foreign Secretary still hasn’t had a single meeting with Nazanin’s family who are of course sick with worry about her.”
Nazanin was arrested, as we have heard, by the revolutionary guards at the airport on
The United Kingdom Government, as we have heard, have not publicly called for Nazanin’s release. However, they have stated that they have raised their concerns with the Iranian Government. The shadow Foreign Secretary said on
Let me conclude with the words of Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband, quoted on
“I don’t think the [UK] government has been protecting us;
they have provided consular assistance and they have expressed concerns…but in terms of criticising her treatment and saying it’s abuse, they’ve never said that this does not meet the minimum legal standards, that it’s not a fair trial. That this is a nonsense. She’s obviously not important enough yet.”
I want to remind Members here that Roya Nobakht and Bahman Daroshafaei are also British dual nationals in jail in Tehran.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. May I begin by congratulating Tulip Siddiq on securing this debate? I thank all Members who have spoken—principally my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell), for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) and for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) and Alex Sobel. I also thank the Front-Bench spokespeople, particularly Fabian Hamilton, for an appreciation of some of the politics behind this.
I certainly recognise the intense interest in this issue, not only across the parties in this House but among the public in the United Kingdom and beyond. Of course I recognise the deep concern felt about all the cases mentioned today and the huge frustration at the lack of progress. I will try to offer as much clarity as I can and set out what the Government are doing to assist the detainees and their families. I will also explain the limitations on what we can do.
Like everyone else, I wish to see all those mentioned today returned to their families and to the UK. My responsibility and our responsibility is to work in the most effective way we can, in all the circumstances, to achieve that, and to explain what we do and why. I know everyone here would welcome me doing more. I am not sure how much people would welcome me doing something that made life more difficult. That is the dilemma in which we find ourselves.
Let me say what I am trying to do. This issue has been a priority for me since my appointment last month. I spoke to the deputy Foreign Minister of Iran about our prisoners on
No, because I want to leave time for the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn to speak at the end. I cannot possibly answer all the questions raised. All colleagues who have a question on the table will get an answer by letter, but I want to address as much as possible of what the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn said.
I want to assure all colleagues that we are doing everything we can for our detainees. Our strategy is based on decades of experience—both our own experience and that of international partners—of dealing with Iran. We judge that approach to be in the best interests of those detained, but we keep it under constant review. If our assessment of the right way to handle this is to change, we would consider any alternative courses of action, but for now we judge the approach we are taking to be the most constructive one.
Our ambassador raises the issue of our detainees with the Iranian authorities at every opportunity; he seeks to secure consular access and to ensure their welfare. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have raised all our consular cases with their counterparts and have stressed the importance of resolving them as quickly as possible. My predecessor, Mr Ellwood, discussed the issue with the Iranians on numerous occasions, both in London and Tehran. However, we must recognise that there are limitations on what we can do.
I turn now to some of the questions raised by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn, starting with dual nationality. Nationality is a key factor. All the British nationals currently detained in Iran also hold Iranian nationality. Questions of nationality are for individual states to decide. Unlike the UK, Iran does not legally recognise dual nationality. It considers our detainees to be Iranian, which has implications for consular assistance, which are set out in the passports of those with dual nationality. Under international law, states are not obliged to grant consular access to dual nationals, which is why our passports state that the British Government are unable to assist dual nationals in the country of their other nationality.
Our travel advice for Iran reiterates that statement and highlights the additional potential risks for British-Iranian dual nationals travelling there. None the less, we try to help dual nationals in exceptional circumstances. In practice, that is often difficult, as we are finding in Iran. We have repeatedly asked the Iranian authorities to grant us consular access to our dual-national detainees. However, as Iran considers them to be Iranian, it does not recognise our right of access. We know that other countries face similar difficulties, but we will continue to press for consular access.
Let me turn to some other issues. On publicly calling for the release of the detainees, we are doing everything we can for them, including trying to secure access to them and to ensure their welfare. However, we do that in the way that we judge is in their best interests, and we assess that the approach we are currently taking is the most likely to be in the best interests of all our prisoners in Iran.
As has been stated, there are new opportunities with Iran’s opening up. Following the destruction of our own embassy there some years ago, a new embassy has opened and new relationships are opening up. It is a complex country with a complex power structure, as the hon. Member for Leeds North East made clear, but I am hoping to take the opportunity—and I am sure the Government are hoping to take it—to explore what this new chance of a relationship with Iran means, both for us and for them. That will take some time, but it provides the opportunity for contacts to be made in a different way from before. That will supplement the efforts already being made on a regular basis to raise the issue by our consular team and by Ministers at the highest level.
Raising the issue can mean a variety of different things, from just mentioning it at a particular time to, following the development of a relationship, an opportunity to go into the issue further. Some of the issues that we consider here are blindingly obvious, such as how a country is seen by others around the world. We understand that very well. Different aspects of the Iranian Government understand some of that, but not others. We want to make sure that they see an issue like this as we see it, so that they can take the steps that we need to see our nationals returned.
Human rights in Iran generally is another key part of the debate, but what do we do about them? The Government take human rights and the rule of law seriously, and the human rights situation in Iran remains dire. I am putting that on the record, so that we in this Chamber, and the Iranian Government and the Iranian ambassador, who will read the account of the debate, will see it and know exactly what we mean. The human rights situation in Iran remains dire, and we are determined to continue to hold the Iranian Government to account. We frequently release statements condemning the human rights situation in Iran and regularly take action with the international community.
For example, we designated more than 80 Iranians responsible for human rights violations under EU sanctions, helped to establish the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran and strongly support the human rights resolutions regarding Iran at the UN. We believe that continued engagement with Iran on economic development and openness are the best ways to develop our relationship and will give us better leverage to discuss other issues. We do not pursue trade to the exclusion of human rights and the rule of law; they can be, and are, complementary.
We considered very carefully the invitation to visit Evin prison earlier this month. The decision to participate in the tour was taken because we felt it would provide an opportunity to engage directly with prison authorities regarding the dual-national detainees. We felt that taking this opportunity should be taken, in the best interests of all our detainees and their families. Our consul repeatedly asked to see the British-Iranian detainees but was denied access. The risk of not accepting the invitation was the Iranian authorities saying, “We gave you an opportunity to see the conditions. You didn’t take it. What do you expect?” There are occasions when we are trapped if we do and trapped if we don’t.
Everyone in the FCO who deals with this—the consular team, which has been in constant contact with the families—knows how hard people are being pressed, but the truth is that this is not a matter in the hands of the UK Government to resolve. If it is to be resolved, it has to be resolved by the Iranian regime, and we have to play a part in making sure that we have done everything we can to facilitate that and make it work. There are different approaches to that. There is a public approach, which people can see; it is right that this issue is brought up here and in the most direct way by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn and all hon. Members who represent those who have been detained, and it is right that this is carried worldwide. However, different groups have different responsibilities, and my responsibility is to do what the Foreign Secretary and I consider to be most effective to secure the return of the detainees to their families. As we can see, that means our having a different approach from that which people might like to see.
All I can say is that, so long as I have the conviction that everything we are doing is as appropriate as it can be and is best designed to get the result we all seek, I will continue to do it. If the Government need to change course, we will, but I will not put an artificial barrier in the way of our progress by doing something that I might subsequently regret. I assure colleagues that we are doing everything we can to seek the result that we all want, but we are doing it in the way that we consider—with our experience of Iran and the experience of those who have worked with Iran for a long time—to be the best way possible. That does not in any way deny the efforts of others to do things in their way and to make sure that the Iranian authorities know how we feel, how the public feel and how the world feels.
We must do the work that we can to ensure the best interests of those who have been detained. That is why we are doing what we are doing, and I pledge to colleagues that I will continue to do what I consider to be in the best interests of those detainees, but I will constantly listen to those with other ideas and to the families, so that we do as much for them as we possibly can.
I thank the Minister for his constructive response; I must say, he is much more constructive than his predecessor. I welcome his saying that he will look after the interests of the prisoners who have been mentioned in the debate. However, there are a few questions I would still like to hear him answer; perhaps he can write to me. I understand that he did not have time to respond to all of the questions I posed.
We would like a full report on the visit of the 45 diplomats who went to the prison. What kind of resistance was faced when they actually asked to see Nazanin—I am glad they asked to see her—and what response did we give to that? It seems alarming that they would allow the consul on a tour of a prison but now allow them to see the dual-nationality prisoners. The shadow Foreign Secretary and I sent a letter to the Foreign Secretary requesting that he meet the families of the prisoners and he did not respond. Can the Minister convince him to meet them? I would like to be present at that meeting.
Will the Minister write to let me know whether our Government will publicly say that Nazanin is innocent and that we demand her release—and the release of Kamal Foroughi and Roya Nobakht? We would like to know whether the Government believe in their innocence and that they should be released and returned. I understand that there are diplomatic ways in which to apply pressure, but to say that they are innocent and to ask for their release would send a strong signal to the Iranian authorities.
I only have a minute left, so let me take this opportunity to thank all Members who have contributed, particularly Oliver Dowden, because he has worked very constructively with me. We all have the same interests at heart: we want to bring our prisoners back to this country, to protect them and to reunite them with their families.
I will put forward a ten-minute rule Bill that will look at how we can offer better protection to dual nationals, because it is not good enough to keep talking about existing laws. Times have changed and more people with dual nationality live in this country than ever, and there has to be some means of protecting and looking after them when they go on holiday. They are British citizens, they are proud to be British and are part of the country we live in, so I would appreciate cross-party support for that Bill to see if we can change some of the legislation.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (