11 October 2017
Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights in Iran.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. Many observers hoped that the election of President Rouhani in Iran would lead to an improvement in the subject matter of our debate: respect for human rights in Iran. Unfortunately, there is no convincing evidence for that; in a number of respects, the situation appears to have worsened in recent years. In July, the Minister described the human rights situation in Iran as “dire”. In my view, he was correct to do so.
Earlier this year, Amnesty International highlighted a wave of floggings, amputations, blindings and other vicious physical punishments, which it described as exposing the Iranian authorities’
“utterly brutal sense of justice”.
Hundreds are routinely flogged in Iran each year, sometimes in public. The country executes more people than anywhere else in the world except China. In 2015, 977 people were executed: the highest level in a quarter of a century. In January alone this year, Iran executed 87 people—that is, on average, one every nine hours.
Amnesty International reported in 2007 that Iran had executed more children between 1990 and 2005 than any other country in the world. Sadly, as recently as last Monday, 21-year-old Alireza Tajiki was executed. He was 15 when he was arrested and 16 when he was sentenced to death. He is believed to be the fourth person executed this year in Iran who was arrested as a child. Amnesty reports that there are 88 juvenile offenders on death row. It has also highlighted concerns that the court system lacks independence and impartiality.
Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab)
The sister-in-law of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is serving a prison sentence in Iran, lives in my constituency. Nazanin’s case was raised in the July Westminster Hall debate to which the right hon. Lady referred. While she has been in prison, two further charges have been proffered against Nazanin: accusations of involvement in organisations to overthrow the Government. Will the right hon. Lady join me in calling on the Foreign Secretary to do more and redouble his efforts on this case?
I am happy to do that; I was planning to raise that worrying case slightly later in my remarks. I hope that the Minister and Foreign Secretary will do everything they can to try to secure the release of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
In terms of the court system, the concern is that people are often executed for offences that are vague or overly broad—or, in some cases, really not justified as criminal offences at all. Trials in front of so-called revolutionary courts can be grossly unfair. In some cases, long prison sentences have been imposed after trials lasting as little as 45 minutes.
I come back to the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman. Many of us in this House have spoken out in support of two British Iranian nationals held unjustly in prison in Iran. As we have heard, the first is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has spent over a year in Tehran’s Evin prison after being sentenced to five years for non-specific charges relating to national security. I understand that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have both raised that case with their counterparts in Iran. Of course, I welcome that those representations have been made at such a high level, but it is gravely worrying that so far they have had little effect. Only yesterday, news emerged that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe could face additional criminal charges and a further prison sentence of 16 years.
The second case is that of 77-year-old Kamal Foroughi, a British Iranian businessman who has spent six years in jail in Iran. He has been denied medical leave, despite significant health problems. I urge the Minister to repeat the Government’s call for consular access to Nazanin and Kamal. I hope he will go further today and call for the immediate and unconditional release of both prisoners.
I am afraid that Iran continues to detain many civil society activists and opposition figures. Press freedom is heavily curtailed: the world press freedom index for 2016 ranks the country as the 11th worst in the world for free speech. Reporters Without Borders has dubbed Iran as
“the Middle East’s biggest prison for journalists”.
According to the “journalism is not a crime” project, 55 journalists, bloggers and cartoonists are currently in prison.
In June 2016, two Iranian musicians and one film-maker began a three-year prison sentence for online distribution of underground music. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s February report on human rights noted that more than 170 people were arrested in November purely on the basis of messages they posted on social media.
It is deeply worrying that the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are wholly unprotected in Iran and that homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. In August last year, gay teenager Hassan Afshar was executed. He had no access to a lawyer and was sentenced to death two months after being arrested.
The rights of women are heavily restricted, with strict rules on dress being just one of many ways in which their freedom is severely limited. Iran has no law against domestic violence and women’s rights activists are treated as criminals or even enemies of the state. A married women is also not allowed to leave the country without the permission of her husband. In September 2015, for example, the captain of Iran’s female football team was unable to take part in an international tournament because her husband forbade her from travelling.
The minimum legal age for marriage for girls is generally 13, but that can be lowered in cases where the father and a court agree. Human Rights Watch published the deeply worrying statistic that there were more than 40,000 marriage registrations in one year where the girl was aged between 10 and 14. The Iranian legal system views girls as criminally responsible from the age of nine, permitting them to be sentenced to death. In 2015, a woman was sentenced to death by stoning in an Iranian court.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing the debate. She outlines in graphic detail the appalling litany of offences in Iran. Does she agree that it is time that not just our Government but the international community indicate to Iran that although it occasionally opens up towards being more transparent towards the west and appears to pursue moderation, it needs to make its mind up? The international community needs to ensure that Iran knows it has crossed the line. If Iran wishes to open up towards the west, these sorts of activities have to come to an end.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. After all, many said that securing the Iran deal would lead to change and open up relationships. The international community now needs to ensure that those opportunities are used to drive forward the urgently needed change and end the kind of terrible cruelty I have been outlining.
There is increasing concern about the plight of minority groups in Iran. All those communities, including Christians, Baha’is and Sunni Muslims, face discrimination and significant limitations on their political and democratic rights. Attempts by Muslims to change their faith can be met with criminal prosecution. There are also, I am afraid, regular reports of the arrest of members of the so-called house churches. Christian Solidarity Worldwide contacted me before the debate and told me that, earlier this year, 12 Christians were arrested while engaged in activities such as Christmas celebrations and a church picnic. They were later sentenced to prison terms considerably in excess of those stipulated by law.
Christians have often been detained for lengthy periods without being informed of what offences they will be charged with. Christian Solidarity Worldwide believes that since the presidential election in May 2017, there has been a sharp increase in the number of Christians receiving excessive sentences after being charged with vaguely worded and unsubstantiated national security charges such as “insulting the sacred” or “propaganda against the State”. That action has often been targeted at converts to Christianity, but even people from long-standing Christian communities have fallen victim to arrest and unfair imprisonment. Among recent worrying cases is that of the Assyrian pastor, the Rev. Victor Bet-Tamraz, who led the Pentecostal Assyrian Church in Tehran. On 3 July he was given a 10-year prison sentence for offences including “conducting evangelism” and “illegal house church activities”. His wife and son are also facing criminal prosecution.
The Baha’i community in Iran also faces continuing oppression. I have received reports that in the period since President Rouhani’s election in 2013, more than 150 Baha’is have been arrested, 28 have been expelled from universities for their religious beliefs, and more than 400 have suffered economic disadvantage as a result of actions such as intimidation of Baha’i business professionals or closure of Baha’i businesses. There is also grave concern about the demonisation of Baha’is by the authorities in Iran. It is believed that the virulent incitement to hatred and the propaganda that regularly emanate from official media outlets may have helped to create the conditions that led to the brutal murder in September 2016 of a member of the Baha’i community, Mr Farhang Amiri.
Finally, I draw the House’s attention to a series of events that are a source of great hurt and sadness for a number of my constituents, some of whom are present in the Public Gallery. The issue that they have raised with me is the mass killings that took place in Iran in 1988. It is believed that at least 30,000 people were summarily executed and buried in unmarked graves—all because they were calling for change, democracy and human rights. With us today are people who lost close relatives in those killings. In a report published in August, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Asma Jahangir, concluded:
“If the number of persons who disappeared and were executed can be disputed, overwhelming evidence shows that thousands of persons were summarily killed. Recently, these killings have been acknowledged by some at the highest levels of the State.”
Ms Jahangir also referred to the publication of an audio tape, which implicated the Minister of Justice in Iran and a high court judge in those horrendous crimes. Ms Jahangir’s report tells us that following the publication of the audio recording, some clerical authorities and the chief of the judiciary admitted that the executions had taken place and, in some instances, even sought to defend them.
It is astonishing that people heavily associated with the violent events of 1988 have continued to play leading roles in the Rouhani administration and Iranian public life. It is a source of deep regret that the international community has paid such minimal attention to what happened. The UN special rapporteur has called for a wide-ranging independent investigation. My constituents want the UK Government to condemn the 1988 killings as a crime against humanity and to back the call for an investigation. I appeal to the Minister to do that today. Next year is the 30th anniversary of those horrific events in Iran. It is time the relatives of those who lost their lives were given answers about what happened.
It is with real sadness that I have set out for the House just a part of the long list of human rights abuses carried out in the Islamic Republic of Iran on a daily basis. The Iranian Government are well known for their state sponsorship of terrorism, and their malign involvement in so many conflicts around the region is causing injury and death on a massive scale; but we should never forget the suffering they also inflict on their own population. No bright new dawn for Iran has emerged under the Rouhani regime. Nor has the nuclear deal led to any improvement in the situation. While diplomatic and business ties with Iran are steadily being restored and strengthened, the suffering continues and Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Mr Foroughi continue to languish in prison.
I urge the Minister today to ensure that the UK Government seize every opportunity to press for change in Iran and for an end to the cruelty inflicted by the authorities there on so many people. I hope that at the most senior levels the UK Government will use bilateral channels as well as the UN to strongly condemn the abuse of human rights in Iran. I understand that the UN General Assembly will vote on a resolution on the situation in Iran in November. I urge the Minister to take a tough line when those matters are debated. Above all, I ask him to condemn the 1988 massacre and give his support to the bereaved families who want answers about what happened to their loved ones, and who want those responsible for that terrible atrocity finally to be brought to justice.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. There is one organisation that I have been a member of longer than I have been in the Liberal Democrat party, and that is Amnesty International. Iran is of great to concern to Amnesty, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing a debate on it.
It is sad that many hon. Members will also have participated in the debate on 20 December, when Nazanin’s and Kamal’s cases were raised. I am afraid that since then things have not got better; they have got significantly worse for both of them. Meanwhile, of course, Iranian-UK relations have probably, if anything, improved. The UK is clearly playing an important role in trying to safeguard the Iran deal, and a large contract has been agreed with a UK company for solar power in Iran. From that perspective relationships are improving—but for Nazanin and Kamal the situation has deteriorated.
The latest allegations made against Nazanin are as risible as they are depressing for her and her family. I do not think that anyone, including, possibly, the judge hearing the case, believes that there is any substance in them. Many hon. Members present today will be perplexed by Iran’s approach. Going back over millennia, perhaps the longest running major civilisation has been based in that country; so the way it is dealing with Nazanin and Kamal is something people fail to understand.
Something else that is pertinent, both at present and in relation to future UK Government arrangements, is the fact that many hon. Members are concerned about whether there is a risk, in a bid to secure trade deals—either between UK companies and Iranian counterparts, or the UK as a whole and other countries—of human rights falling off the agenda. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that that will not happen. We need to hear the Government use some frank, blunt words to put their position on Nazanin’s case to the Iranian Government. That is something that has been lacking.
I received an email from Kamal Foroughi’s son this morning; he said there are particular concerns about his health, which continues to deteriorate, with a need for a cataract operation and time off outside prison to recover from it. No one has been able to see the results of the medical tests that have been carried out on him since December, and he has not been able to have any visitors—humanitarian, family or social—for more than six years. For someone of his age that will clearly be detrimental.
One further point that he asked me to make is that our Foreign Secretary has not met the affected families. I assume he is correct—certainly Kamran will know whether our Foreign Secretary has met him—and if that is the case, I suggest that it is perhaps time that the Foreign Secretary took the trouble to meet him. As I understand it, when Kamran was in Whitehall last October, on the occasion of his father’s 2,000th day anniversary, and saw or tried to talk to the Foreign Secretary, the Foreign Secretary did say something—“Oh,” and “Right.” That was all he had to say to Mr Foroughi about Kamal’s case.
I know that the Minister is very focused on his brief, and that he will have something—I hope something positive—to say. It does seem, however, as though our Foreign Secretary is not from the same mould as the Minister, whom I greatly respect for his knowledge and understanding of foreign affairs.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP)
Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in condemning the killings of innocent women and children when the police go in to do an anti-smuggling raid? Some 80 to 100 people per year, including women and children, are slaughtered by the police, and no one has been brought to book for that.
Of course I join the hon. Gentleman in condemning that; in fact I was not aware of it, so I am grateful to him for drawing my attention to it. I am sure the Minister will respond to that at the end of the debate.
The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet correctly mentioned the Baha’is. We know that they suffer persecution in Iran, whether targeted at Baha’i businesses or at students. We need some strong words from the Minister on what he can do about that and what contacts he has had with the Iranian authorities to ensure they are aware that we do not condone any of those activities. The right hon. Lady also mentioned the 1988 massacre in Iran. I asked a parliamentary question about this, and in reply the Government confirmed that they were aware that executions had taken place—they did not say massacre—but then went on to say that
“we have no plans to pursue this specific matter”.
I ask the Minister to develop such plans and to reconsider the Government’s attitude toward the massacre. I also ask him to come back to us prepared for a later debate in which he will be able to say what specific initiatives the Government will undertake to both put on record what happened in 1988 and perhaps find an international way of holding the Iranian Government to account for that massacre.
I am sure that all hon. Members here are well and truly aware of the large-scale human rights abuses that are taking place in Iran, and I am sure we all hope that Ministers will use any influence they have to try to not only secure the release of Nazanin and Kamal, but ensure that the rights of the Baha’is are respected and the massacre in 1988 is properly investigated.
Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck, and to speak in the debate; I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing it. This is not the first debate we have held on Iran and human rights. We had a debate on 22 March 2017 on Iran’s influence in the middle east, and one on British-Iranian relations on 12 October 2016. I secured my own debate on human rights in Iran on 28 June 2016. It is a great disappointment that little has changed since that time. Much has already been said, so I will not repeat everything, but I will touch on some points.
The first and most important point is the report from August this year on the human rights situation in Iran, in which the UN special rapporteur on Iran, Ms Asma Jahangir, highlights the alarming deterioration of the overall human rights situation and the abuses in Iran, and reports on the numerous violations that have taken place. Those violations include the execution of juveniles, suppression of women, persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, and a systematic crackdown on women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, dissidents and their families. That the UN special rapporteur on Iran acknowledged the 1988 massacre in the report is a major achievement for the justice-seeking campaign. I pay tribute to my friends and colleagues at the National Council of Resistance of Iran, who have been campaigning vigorously on this issue and seeking for the British Government to acknowledge that it occurred.
My second point is that the human rights abuses concern not only Iranian but British citizens. Two people have already been mentioned today, but there is a third British citizen detained in Iran on spurious charges. Four Americans have been released since 2016, following the Iranian nuclear agreement, as part of a prisoner swap, but nothing similar has occurred for British citizens. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi have already been mentioned, but there is a third person, a 50-year-old lady named Roya Nobakht. She is an Iranian-British housewife who was put in prison after she returned to Iran in 2013 to visit her family. Two weeks after she arrived in the country, she flew to the city of Shiraz and was arrested by cyber police at the airport. Her crime, it seems, was that, while living in the UK, she had posted on Facebook that Iran was too Islamic.
The Iranian Government put her in prison and accused her of insulting Islamic sanctities, a crime that carries the death penalty. In June 2014, she was tried by branch 28 of the revolutionary court, and sentenced to 20 years in prison, later reduced to five years. Like others, she is in poor health; she has frequent seizures and has collapsed in her cell after being denied access to medication for depression. There is a fourth Briton, whose name we do not know. We are not talking just about human rights for citizens of Iran, but for British citizens.
I would like the hon. Gentleman’s comments on what British businesses should be worried about in trading with Iran—particularly their employees going to Iran—if the Iranians are examining people’s social media in the way he has described? What is the potential risk to them?
That is a good question. It is a huge risk for employees of British companies, or other companies working in Iran. Their media profiles and social media posts can be examined for any evidence of what the Iranian regime may wish to hold against them, or indeed their company. They may find themselves in some ways hostages to the trading activities of their companies. That is a great problem, but I believe that, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, we should not relegate human rights in favour of trade deals. That remains a great concern.
It has been more than two years since the Iranian nuclear deal was signed, yet human rights abuses in Iran have persisted, including the detention of British citizens and the denial of their basic rights, as well as Iran’s regional ambitions and sponsorship of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah. Indeed, Hansard reflects the comments I have made on Yemen, Hezbollah, Syria and other parts of the middle east where the Iranian nuclear deal has allowed resources to pour into those countries. I have been very critical of that. Indeed, I found it galling this morning to hear former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw defending Iran. Questions remain about Jack Straw’s involvement in extraordinary rendition—issues that we in this House have never been able to bottom out—and hearing him defend the Iranian regime is similar to listening to Harvey Weinstein talking about women’s rights. For him to speak about Iran today was greatly galling to me.
While Donald Trump may not be very popular with many people in this House or in the country more widely, I welcome his continuing to look at the Iranian nuclear deal. He will make an announcement later today on whether he will continue to agree to abide by that condition. I wish our own Foreign Secretary had not involved himself in that; it is a decision for the American President.
I have been very critical of the deal. I wish we had asked that human rights be part of the Iranian nuclear deal. We have found that there has been no progress not only in that area, but with our own people who are held in Iran, and most of all we have felt the malign influence of Iran in the middle east. Perhaps we, too, can look at that and the UK Government can decide whether we should continue to be a supporter of the agreement.
Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing this important debate. She painted a bleak, sobering and depressing picture of life for those who step outside the accepted norms in Iran. She was absolutely right to say that many of us who have been concerned with human rights and freedom of religious belief for many years had hoped that with the re-election of President Rouhani in May, we would begin to see a lessening of the hard-line attitude that has become the hallmark of how Iran deals with people deemed to be out of step with the state’s politico-religious ideology. Many of us dared to hope that a more progressive Iran that embraced increased social, religious and political freedoms would emerge. We hoped for an Iran that would finally adhere to the treaties on human rights and freedom of religious expression to which it was a signatory.
Unfortunately, that simply has not happened, and the December 2016 citizens’ rights charter, which talked optimistically about freedom of expression and the right to life regardless of religion, seems as distant as ever. Indeed, there is ample evidence that intolerance, discrimination and persecution of both secular and religious minority groups has increased in Iran, with the regime increasingly hiding behind, as we have heard, that great catch-all offence—“conspiracy against Iran’s national security”. It is using that law to put both journalists and minority religious communities such as the Baha’i and Christian groups under enormous pressure. As we have heard, earlier this year the United Nations special rapporteur on Iran confirmed that “severe limitations and restrictions” on
religious minorities persist and that the number of prisoners of conscience in Iran remains staggeringly high.
Every speaker today has rightly highlighted the appalling cases of the British citizens in jail in Iran and particularly that of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I add my voice and support to what has been said about her outrageous imprisonment, based on the nonsensical idea that because of her work with Thomson Reuters and previously with the BBC, she was, as the court case says,
“specifically working to overthrow the regime”.
Unfortunately, that is evidence of a mindset that still exists in Iran. It is confirmation, if any were needed, of Tehran’s paranoia about a free press.
I was contacted last week by the National Union of Journalists, which told me that 152 of its members currently working in London for the BBC’s Persian service had previously seen their assets frozen in Iran and were not allowed to buy or sell property in that country. All 152 of them have just been informed that they have been charged in their absence with
“conspiracy against Iran’s national security”.
Of course, the journalists cannot defend themselves against the charges unless they travel to Iran to stand trial. If they do so, the likelihood is, going by Iran’s recent record, that they will end up in jail for a very long time. However, many of the journalists still have family living in Iran, and according to the NUJ, many of their family members have been interrogated by the security services and encouraged to put pressure on their relatives working at the BBC to leave their job or agree to spy on their colleagues.
As I said, the offence of “conspiracy against Iran’s national security” is used extensively to pursue not only journalists, but minority religious communities. As the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet said, in the last few weeks 12 Christians have been sentenced to prison terms far in excess of what is laid down in the law after being found guilty of
“acting against Iran’s national security”.
As the right hon. Lady rightly pointed out, the charges arose from such innocuous events as Christmas celebrations and attending a church picnic. I understand that the majority of the 12 involved are Christian converts—a group of people who seem to be particularly reviled in Iran by the theocratic regime, as they are deemed not only to have betrayed their faith, but to have rejected the state itself.
There are other examples. Only last month, two Christian converts, a married couple, Mehrdad Hushmand and his wife Sara Nemati, were reportedly detained the day after attending and participating in a Christian funeral. Since the day they were detained, only Sara has been able to contact her family, and has done so just once. No reason has been given for their detention, and nothing is known of their health, legal status or even their exact whereabouts. That is happening despite the fact that the rights of Christians and other religious minorities are explicitly protected under the Iranian constitution, and regardless of the fact that Iran is a signatory to many international agreements that guarantee the right of an individual to change their faith should they wish to do so.
However, it is not just minority Christian groups that are targeted. As we have heard, the Baha’i community, which has 300,000 members and is Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, suffers systematic persecution simply because of its religious belief. The Iranian authorities seem absolutely determined to marginalise and remove the social and economic rights of the Baha’i community. Indeed, an official memorandum, dating back to 1991, from the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council explicitly states that the Government’s dealings with the Baha’i community should be conducted
“in such a way that their progress and development are blocked.”
As a result, the Baha’i community is often demonised in official state media and from the pulpits of mosques. The authorities have given a green light for blatant discrimination—discrimination that, as we have heard, all too often leads to violence and murder.
Regardless of who it is done to, state persecution is wrong, and when it occurs, it is incumbent on us to say so. The Minister is a great champion of human rights and religious freedom. Will he add his voice and that of the UK Government to those around the world saying to Tehran that the harassment, imprisonment and punishment of individuals who exercise peacefully their right to practise their chosen faith must stop, that the smokescreen of hiding behind the catch-all “conspiracy against Iran’s national security” is both intolerable and unacceptable and that we expect Iran to abide by its own constitution as well as the international treaties that it has signed up to and begin to uphold the rights of religious and ethnic minority communities within its own borders. And will the Minister promise to do everything he and his Department can do to secure the immediate release of Kamal Foroughi and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe?
Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
I am delighted to participate in the debate and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on initiating it. She is well known for her travails in Northern Ireland as Secretary of State. She brought together people who were polar opposites and did a brilliant job. I am glad that she has now been released from the shackles of government and can lead the campaign for human rights around the world and particularly in Iran.
I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Minister in his place, because he is one of those individuals who takes these issues very seriously; indeed, he has been a master of his brief during previous terms in government, so I look forward to his reply to this debate.
I take the view that a Government’s first duty is to safeguard their borders and their citizens from external attack. Their second duty is to protect the rights of minorities within their borders. We have heard about the reality in Iran from colleagues. The Jewish community in Iran was quite extensive 60 years ago; it is now non-existent. The Christian community is reducing fast in numbers. The Baha’i community is under constant threat and attack, and the Government of Iran do nothing. Minority sects within Islam are under threat and the Government in Iran stand aside and do nothing. The sad reality is that we have a history of the failure by the Iranian Government to address the needs and rights of minorities. That is a fundamental duty.
I have been extremely sceptical and oppositionist to the Iran nuclear deal. I take the view that it has given the Iranian regime the opportunity not to take up human rights, and has actually blessed what they are doing. The sad fact is that whatever our views on the Iran nuclear deal—we will hear later today what the United States of America is going to do about the nuclear deal—it has not advanced human rights in Iran one inch. That has to be accepted.
I agree with the remarks made by my hon. Friends and by Opposition Members on human rights, but I particularly want to concentrate on the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988. Many of us have had the opportunity to attend conferences, in this place or externally, that have shown clear evidence of the extent of that massacre. I have heard the first-hand experiences of the relatives of those that were executed—people who escaped from that massacre—and the first-hand experience of the repression and persecution of minorities that routinely take place.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the publication of the report by the UN special rapporteur, which clearly acknowledges that these events did happen, should be a reason for the Government to take this more seriously, and to begin to raise it more vigorously in international forums such as the UN?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I was coming on to the special rapporteur’s report, which gives a world view of the massacre. This is not a few itinerants saying, “We believe this happened.” This shines the light of transparency on what happened 30 years ago in Iran. I regret that our Foreign and Commonwealth Office has not taken up this call, and not taken the view that we need to take action on the report. I would urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to make sure that we take up this issue in a particular way, and make sure that Britain lends its support to the rights of minorities and those people who were drastically affected by this massacre.
In the last Parliament, I was pleased to co-sponsor an early-day motion with the former Member for Mansfield, Sir Alan Meale, the hon. Members for Southend West (Sir David Amess), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), and the former Member for Lewisham West and Penge. The early-day motion set out the position—I reiterate—that we note
“that the audio file of Ayatollah Montazeri, former heir to Khomeini, in 1988, reveals new evidence about the massacre of more than 30,000 political prisoners in Iran’s prisons in the summer of 1988 including women and children and all political prisoners who supported the opposition movement of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI); understands that the massacre was carried out following a fatwa by the Supreme Leader Khomeini… is concerned by Montazeri’s comments that this was the biggest crime that has occurred in the Islamic Republic and that the world will not forgive us”
if we stand idly by and allow the authorities of the Iranian regime to act with impunity, as they have done in the past few decades, which is the main cause for continuation of these crimes in Iran. We endorse the survivors’ account that those in charge of the massacre go unpunished and are currently in the highest positions in the Iranian Government.
The reality is that we can table early-day motions and make speeches in this place. That does have an effect, and builds pressure on the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the regime in Iran, but we need our Government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in particular to take up the issue. Last year, we had a similar cross-party statement by more than 100 MPs and peers. That demonstrates the wealth of support in Parliament for action on this issue.
On 21 September, the UN Security Council adopted an historic resolution proposed by the UK to bring Daesh to justice. That shows that Britain can bring war criminals to justice. Now is the time for the United Kingdom to co-sponsor a motion bringing justice for the victims of the 1988 massacre. I look forward to the Minister’s reply. The FCO can do more, and it could acknowledge and support the viable platform of the 10-point democratic platform for the future, as presented by the NCRI president, Madame Maryam Rajavi, which calls for the abolition of the death penalty, torture and the theocracy’s Shi’a laws, as well as the prohibition of the suppression of women and any forms of discrimination against followers of any religion and denomination, as required by the UN charter.
I would also urge, in conclusion, my right hon. Friend the Minister to address the fundamental issue that opposition to the theocratic regime in Iran should be given a voice and a platform in this country. I believe that Madame Rajavi should be issued with an invitation to visit this country and shine the light of transparency on what is going on in Iran. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the proposal to give that opportunity to the NCRI and the PMOI, to expose once and for all to the British public what it is like to live in Iran and what could be done as an alternative to the current theocratic regime.
Clive Lewis (Norwich South) (Lab)
I, too, would like to thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for securing this debate. It was quite shocking to listen to the seemingly inexhaustible list of human rights abuses by Iranian authorities. It was quite numbing to hear them all. I think it is right that we focus on human rights, as that issue has been a central thrust of my very short parliamentary career since being elected two years ago, but I would also like to focus on the fate of journalists, both those working inside Iran and those working remotely from the UK. I declare an interest as a former BBC journalist and the chair of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary committee. I do that for the record to state my solidarity with journalists both in Iran and around the world, who strive to do nothing more than ask questions in an attempt to hold power to account.
As we know, Iran has elections that many other inhabitants of the middle east can only envy. Here I state a truism, but it is essential that we set it down, that elections are only ever one element of a functioning democracy. A democracy where bloggers and reporters must risk their lives and the well-being of their families in order to comment on the political life of their country cannot be seen as a democracy in the true sense. Democracy is not worth the ballot paper it is printed on without freedom of the press. There is a barrier to informing the electorate, as the press provides feedback to the legislature. The often brutal suppression of those speakers also creates a chilling fear that acts as a cancer on all of those forming opinions and the ability to take action in the public arena.
It is important to make the point that Iran is not a homogeneous political entity. I have heard other hon. Members make comments about the political situation in Iran. There are reformers, as they are called, as well as the politically established so-called hardliners. I do not know where we place President Rouhani in all this, considering that much of the repression discussed today has occurred on his watch. However, I do know one hardliner, someone who is not a friend of civil liberties and human rights: President Trump. His suspected refusal to re-certify the Iran nuclear deal can only have the effect of pushing Iran ever further into the hands of those hardliners.
I will come back to the journalists. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) mentioned a constituent of his who has been in prison, I would like to mention three journalists who are being held and are on hunger strike. Soheil Arabi has been in prison since 2013 and has been on hunger strike for over a month. Mehdi Khazali was arrested in August and has been on hunger strike since the day of his arrest. Ehsan Mazandarani was arrested in 2015 and has been denied early release despite very poor health. There are many more prisoners I could mention. Their stories make for chilling reading.
The long arm of control reaches way beyond Iran and stretches as far as those working in our very own BBC, as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) mentioned. Charges have been filed against almost all the Iranian journalists working for the BBC’s Persian-language service in London; 152 journalists have been charged with conspiracy against Iran’s national security and have faced constant harassment and intimidation and an effective freeze on all their Iran-based assets. Those charged cannot defend themselves unless they return to Iran, which they feel unable to do for fear of reprisal. I beg the Minister to raise these names whenever he meets his Iranian counterparts and to push the issues of journalism, freedom of the press and democracy very clearly, as I know he will.
To end with a general comment, there are far too many in politics today who wish to criticise only the countries that fit into a very black and white binary world view. I am not one of them. I believe it is entirely possible—nay, essential—to criticise and hold to account Iran just as much as Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses and attacks on civil liberties. The two are not mutually incompatible. The same applies to the US and Russia and the questionable choices those Governments continue to make domestically and internationally. In fact, our hand is strengthened and our criticism is more valid when we show neither fear nor favour to any country or regime, wherever they may be, whether they be friend or ally, when defending human rights and civil liberties.
David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Buck. I thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for securing this important debate. A number of hon. Members have spoken on this topic before; having been newly elected to the House in June, I appreciate this first opportunity to do so myself.
Before I speak about the more specific issues, I want to mention the use of the death penalty in Iran. As the right hon. Lady mentioned, the Foreign Office estimates that there were more than 530 executions in Iran in 2016. That figure is simply staggering, although, surprisingly, it represents a decrease on the previous year. Men and women risk capital punishment if they are found to be gay. The human rights record for people from an LGBTQ background is appalling. Even more worryingly, the death penalty continues to be used against juveniles in the country, and the FCO’s report notes that it is issued even in cases that are not deemed “the most serious” under international law, such as drugs offences.
There seems to have been some progress recently: in August, the Iranian Parliament approved a long-awaited amendment to legislation that significantly raises the bar for mandatory death sentences in drugs cases. Evidence given to the Iranian Parliament when the legislation was being drafted revealed that 5,000 people, the majority in their 20s and 30s, were currently on death row for drug-related offences. That in itself should highlight how ineffective the death penalty has been.
I am also deeply concerned about reports of mass executions in 2016: 20 members of the Kurdish minority were executed for terrorism-related offences and later in the same month, 12 people were hanged for drugs-related charges. Hopefully, future FCO reports will show the number of executions falling sharply because of the change in the law. Does it go far enough? Obviously not, but it is a step in the right direction.
I must also mention women’s rights. Women in Iran face intolerable oppression and discrimination on issues such as marriage, divorce and child custody. Women have been sent to jail for publicly speaking out in favour of equal rights. They are severely restricted in Iran, to the point where they are even forbidden from spectating at male sports—including Iran’s national obsession, volleyball. It is deeply troubling that Iran has no anti-domestic-violence legislation and that the legal age for marriage is just 13. For fear of getting emotional, I will not go into all the research around the age of consent, but what happens to young girls is deeply worrying.
Another matter is freedom of expression. There are signs of growing oppression, as Iranian authorities struggle to deal with the impact of new technology on freedom of speech. The de facto third-party messaging application here seems to be WhatsApp, but in Iran a similar app has risen to prominence. Much like WhatsApp, Telegram allows encrypted communication between individuals. According to the Iranian Students Polling Agency, almost six in 10 Iranians use Telegram, but use of the app seems to be shifting. A couple of years ago, two thirds of people polled said that they used it for entertainment purposes, but today only a quarter say the same. Iranians seem to be getting more of their information from the broadcast channels that the app gives access to.
Telegram played a significant role in recent parliamentary elections. Since Twitter and Facebook are blocked in Iran, the app provided a platform for campaigning. The Iranian establishment, however, has stepped up a crackdown on Telegram channels that challenge it and dozens of activists have been arrested in the past few months. In August, the administrator of one political Telegram channel was sentenced to four years in jail. There are fears that the Iranian authorities could now block Telegram altogether; I would appreciate it if the Minister addressed that in his speech. This is a very worrying trend that adds a new dimension to the further repression of freedom of expression.
Another troubling issue that, like other Members, I am incredibly concerned about is the wellbeing of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi. It is alarming to learn that additional charges have now been brought against Nazanin that could extend her jail term by 16 years. The detail in both cases is extremely harrowing. They have been held in the notorious Evin prison, sometimes in solitary confinement. There are very serious health concerns in both cases; I understand that Kamal is being denied screening for prostate cancer. That is totally unacceptable.
Both trials were, of course, conducted in secrecy. The prisoners had little access to lawyers prior to the trials, which makes a mockery of the justice system. Iran does not recognise dual nationality status, so it treated both prisoners as solely Iranian citizens and did not recognise their rights as British citizens.
There was quite a lot of initial excitement when Hassan Rouhani was elected as President of Iran in 2013, not just because he was seen as a moderate but—in my own context—because he was seen as an honorary Glaswegian. It is perhaps not well known that he studied twice at university in Glasgow. During his time there, he completed his PhD thesis on “The flexibility of Shariah (Islamic law) with reference to the Iranian experience”. I gather from Glasgow Caledonian University that his thesis is still available at the library and can be taken out and read. Anyone who takes the opportunity to read it will be struck by the first line in the abstract, which states that
“no laws in Islam are immutable.”
The thesis demonstrates that a younger Rouhani was willing to embrace a more liberal and moderate approach to society. I conclude with my message to President Rouhani, from one Glaswegian to another: embrace that moderate tone and drastically improve human rights for your people.
Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Buck. We have had a number of debates on this important issue and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing and introducing this one. It is another opportunity to ensure that the abuses of human rights in general and of the human rights of our own citizens—the dual nationals in Iran—are brought to prominence once again. Hopefully, by debating them, we put further pressure on the regime.
I do not know how many Members have visited Iran. I have myself, although it is 10 years since I have been there. Iran has many centres of power and an extraordinary history and culture, but it also has the most shocking and unacceptable human rights abuses, right across the country, thanks to the current Government, who were brought to power in the Islamic revolution of 1979. The right hon. Lady brought to our attention the suffering inflicted daily by the revolutionary Government on their own population—something that we are all aware of. The fact that 40,000 marriages of girls between 10 and 14 years old were approved in 2015 is enough to make us deeply concerned. The right hon. Lady was right to point to the cruelty and the lack of any regard for the human rights of individuals, especially women and—of course—children.
I was not aware that the right hon. Lady’s constituent, Ms Jahangir, had come to her about the mass executions of 1988, but I hope that now the Government are aware of that story—I am sure they already were—at least some further work can be done through the United Nations to bring more of it to light and to expose the appalling crimes carried out and covered up by the current regime. It is clear to me that, as the right hon. Lady said, the UK Government should redouble their efforts to relieve cruelty and suffering in Iran, and take a tough line.
We heard from the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who mentioned again Nazanin Zahari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi. He said that he hoped that trade deals with Iran following the relaxation of measures that followed the Iran nuclear deal, which many people in Westminster Hall have criticised today, would not mean that human rights fell off the agenda. Of course he is absolutely right, and I do not believe that this Government or any other would want that to happen. Has the Foreign Secretary met the families of those people? I hope that the Minister will enlighten us on that. It is very important that the Foreign Secretary should at least give those families that backing and moral support.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), who I know has stood up again for those whose human rights have been abused in Iran. He talked about the prisoners whom we have not mentioned—I do not wish to discuss their cases further today, because I know that their families have asked for them not to be discussed. However, he was right to point out that there are not just the two well-publicised cases of Nazanin and Kamal.
The hon. Gentleman also said that we should not relegate human rights in Iran for the sake of trade deals, and I agree. He also attacked the former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. I heard the interview on the radio this morning: the hon. Gentleman claimed that the former Foreign Secretary was defending the Iranian regime, but what I heard was a defence of the Iran nuclear deal, which I believe we should continue to support, while also putting pressure on the Iranian Government over their shocking human rights record. I believe that the former Foreign Secretary defended that nuclear deal and not the regime’s human rights record. Jack Straw is not here to defend himself today. Having worked with him as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee during his entire time as Foreign Secretary, I know that he was an outstanding Foreign Secretary for this country. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels that he should be criticised in that way.
We had contributions, of course, from our Scottish National party colleagues and then Bob Blackman—sorry, the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman); I have been here long enough to know that I should not mention names—talked about the Jewish community in Iran. When I was in Iran 10 years ago, I had the privilege of meeting members of that community. There are still people from the Jewish community living in Iran, particularly in Tehran; I believe that there are about 20,000 Jewish people in Tehran and several synagogues, too. However, those synagogues are patrolled by Iranian police officers.
Having met members of the Iranian Jewish community, I know that they are living in constant fear; there is no doubt about that. I attempted to talk to the one member of the Majlis reserved for the Jewish community, knowing full well that he speaks very good English, but he replied to me in Farsi. He refused to speak to me in English; clearly he was frightened because he knew that others were listening to what he was saying to a westerner.
So Jews live in Iran but the situation is tragic. Many Jewish people of Iranian origin live in the United Kingdom and they still carry their Iranian culture and heritage with them. Indeed, as a child from a Jewish family myself, I was brought up knowing many such individuals, including one who shared chambers with my mother when she was at Middle Temple as a barrister. We had very close contact with them.
Then my esteemed colleague, Clive Lewis—sorry, I am doing it again; my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis)—made a contribution. He was a well-known journalist earlier in his life; he worked for the BBC in Leeds, which is how I first met him. He stood up for journalists and bloggers today—reporters who risk their lives every single day to tell the truth about what is actually happening in Iran.
My hon. Friend was right that democracy is not just about putting a cross on a ballot paper; it is about openness and freedom, including freedom of expression without fear. Yet we know that anybody who tells the truth about the human rights abuses and other cases of cruelty in Iran day to day is under attack and, even worse, under fear of arrest—they are often actually arrested and charged. That is simply not acceptable and it is certainly not democracy.
We know about the history of human rights abuses in Iran; some of those took place even before the creation of the Islamic republic, but the situation has certainly got a lot worse since. We also know that although Iran is a signatory to many human rights conventions, in practice it ignores or restricts them. A lot of the information and evidence about that comes through the UN special rapporteur to Iran and other human rights experts.
For example, as we have already heard this morning, we know that Iran regularly—indeed, all the time—discriminates against and actively oppresses religious minorities: not only the Jewish community but the Christians and Zoroastrians, too. As we have also heard, Iran executes the highest number of people per capita in the world and the second highest absolute number of people.
In 2013, Iran elected a moderate candidate, Hassan Rouhani, as President. However, in spite of the thesis that he wrote while at university in Glasgow, we have seen no significant human rights improvements in Iran since he arrived. In many respects, the situation has become a lot worse. We know—it has been pointed out again today—that the revolutionary guard acts independently of the so-called “moderate”, President Rouhani. The revolutionary guard and similarly conservative state agents regularly use the state apparatus to undermine reformist opponents and anyone who is seen as threatening to the interests of those agents.
Domestic laws and the penal code in Iran tend to define crimes in broad and vague terms; often Iranian people do not know exactly what constitutes a criminal violation, and that violates human rights law. In 2016, Freedom House stated that
“The judicial system is used as a tool to silence critics and opposition members”.
We also know that Iran uses executions to strike fear in the country and to deter socio-political unrest.
As the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet pointed out, Iran executed about 1,000 people in 2015. It has already been said that that is the highest number per capita in the world. According to the United Nations, since Rouhani took office 2,400 executions have taken place in Iran, which is double the number in the same period—about four years—prior to 2010. President Rouhani himself has said that he supports the process of judicial executions and described executions as “God’s commandments”. Currently, there are 5,000 people on death row in Iran for drug offences alone. Iran does not announce all executions officially so the number of executions could be a lot higher than we realise. There are not only public executions in the towns and cities of Iran but mass executions in jails that often go completely unreported.
I want to make a few comments about juvenile executions. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1992, prohibits the use of the death penalty for offences committed by those under the age of 18. Iran is a signatory to a number of treaties, including that convention, which it signed in 1994. It is therefore legally obliged to treat everyone under the age of 18 as a child and any crimes they have allegedly committed as the crimes of a child. Moreover, article 91 of the Islamic penal code, which has been enforced since 2013, grants judges the discretion not to apply the death sentence to children who do not understand the nature of their crimes. However, Iran is still no closer to abolishing the death penalty for children.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister what more the Government can do to secure the release of Nazanin Zahari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi, and the two other dual nationals currently being held in Iran. I also urge the Government not to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal; instead, they should continue to press the Iranian Government on their record of human rights abuses. I hope that the Minister will give us some reassurance when he sums up.
The Minister for the Middle East (Alistair Burt)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Buck. I appreciate the opportunity to respond to an excellent debate introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), to whom I pay tribute, as colleagues have done, not only for her excellent work in Northern Ireland, but for her steadfast support of human rights, particularly those involving freedom of religion. I am grateful to her for securing the debate.
I am grateful for the contributions of the right hon Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), and for Glasgow East (David Linden). I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) who speaks for the Opposition and with some knowledge, having been to Tehran. He has a good background in relation to the debate. I appreciate the way in which he and other colleagues couched their remarks.
First, I want to put on the record some remarks on human rights so it is clear what we think about this in general and what we have done in relation to Iran. Then I want to mention what colleagues have said about attitudes to Iran, the nuclear deal and dual nationals before I go on to specifics. I do not want to run out of time, so I will mention those things first.
The United Kingdom deplores human rights violations and abuses wherever they occur and we call them out whenever we learn of them. It is because of our concern over the violation of human rights that we designated Iran as one of our human rights priority countries, and we have integrated human rights into the work of our diplomats right across the network. The human rights situation in Iran remains dire and we are determined to continue to hold the Government to account. We frequently release statements condemning the human rights situation in Iran and lead action by the international community. We have also designated more than 80 Iranians responsible for human rights violations under EU sanctions, helped to establish a UN special rapporteur for Iran’s human rights, and lobbied at the UN for the adoption of human rights resolutions on Iran. We regularly raise human rights in our dialogue with Iran, which I will speak about in a moment.
I therefore recognise the deep concern and frustration expressed here today at the lack of progress made by Iran to improve its human rights record. The latest report of the UN special rapporteur for human rights clearly sets out the appalling situation in Iran and highlights a wide range of areas that need to be addressed. The UK agrees with her assessment. I want to get that clearly on the record before I go on to say one or two other things.
First, I will tackle the issue of attitudes to Iran. One of the most difficult things that the Government have to contend with is how to deal with issues in countries that are friendly and less friendly when we are trying to create a relationship, and we have to acknowledge that countries do things that do not fit well with what the United Kingdom believes in. That applies to allies as well as to those we do not consider to be allies. Many countries around the world have practices with which the United Kingdom has to take issue. It is difficult to get the right balance in how to move forward. I contend at the moment that evidence of success through isolation is pretty limited, which suggests some degree of engagement is needed. In his nuanced remarks, the hon. Member for Norwich South hinted at this. It is easy for us to be clear about what we do not like and for Parliament to condemn clearly, as it should. Dealing with a state and helping to move it on to a position with which the United Kingdom is comfortable—the universal acceptance of human rights in this particular example—is a difficult process. It takes time and engagement. As a Minister, I am perfectly content to be challenged on that, but I do think engagement is right.
Two things follow. First, as colleagues have said, there were and there remain hopes in relation to what President Rouhani can do, but he does not have an unfettered hand. In his description of Iranian society, the hon. Member for Leeds North East couched it well. When a new leader comes to office in a complex situation in almost any country, we cannot expect things to change automatically in the way in which we would like. In relation to his citizens rights charter, at his inauguration—at which I was present as part of that engagement—Rouhani said:
“I hope that there will be more justice throughout the country and our people are more hopeful of the future.”
Well, so do we. He said,
“I am the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, responsible to safeguard all people’s rights. From now on, we must be responsive to the people’s votes.”
He said that in front of the Supreme Leader and made his views clear. We call on him to uphold the values that he set out. We recognise it will not be done immediately and automatically, which I think is a common-sense approach. We are looking for evidence of movement, but we recognise that Rouhani, the Government and society have to go about it in a particular way. The charter of citizens rights is the first of its kind in Iran. It has the potential to have a positive impact.
Another part of the engagement is the JCPOA—the joint comprehensive plan of action—or nuclear deal. It was never intended that the nuclear deal would be an all-embracing agreement with Iran, whereby in return for a stop on progress towards a nuclear weapon everything else would be taken into account. There are different views and expectations of the deal, but I, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister are clear on what the nuclear deal was about. In a world where it has proved difficult in some places to restrain states, Iran stopped its progress towards a nuclear weapon. Just that; not all the other things that we have concerns about in Iran. Iran knows there are other issues in the region that have been highlighted by colleagues, and we know we must continue the progress on those.
The nuclear deal did the job it was designed to do. It is the United Kingdom’s view that Iran has held to the terms of the deal. That is why we still support it. The House should not think that because we agree on that, we have given a green light to Iran in relation to other things and that other concerns have come to a halt. They have not; those talks go on. One thing was agreed in a situation of great difficulty after many years and with huge distrust on both sides. The deal was not born of trust, but distrust, and putting in place the mechanisms to make sure verification was possible. Although lots of other things are on the table, the fact that this is in the bracket it is in and is being stuck to is not a bad thing. Now we must move on to other things.
I will now deal with specific issues mentioned in the debate by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet and the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. The issues are difficult but I want to express clearly what we are doing. We are doing everything we possibly can. Our ambassador raises the issue of dual national detainees with the Iranian authorities at every possible opportunity; he seeks to secure consular access and to ensure their welfare. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I have all raised the cases with our counterparts and we have stressed the importance of resolving them as quickly as possible. This is clearly a very distressing situation for all the families of the British detainees, let alone for the detainees themselves, and our hearts go out to them. We are in regular contact with the families through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I have met the families of some of the dual nationals in the UK and in Tehran. I have tried to reassure them that the British Government are making every possible effort. We will continue to raise their loved ones’ cases with the Iranian Government at every possible opportunity in an attempt to seek a change.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He might be about to come on to this. I welcome the fact that the Minister—as I said earlier, I greatly respect him—has met the families. I posed the question about whether the Foreign Secretary would meet them. Given the circumstances, it would be entirely appropriate for him to meet them. Will the Minister raise that with the Foreign Secretary?
I understand that point, but the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the dual nationals we are talking about are not the only detainees held in confinement around the world. It seems appropriate that the Minister responsible for the area meets the families. The Foreign Secretary has indeed raised the cases, and continues to do so, at the highest level. I do not want to speak for the Foreign Secretary in relation to this. I hope my own engagement as the Minister most responsible meets the needs of the families. They are well aware of the concerns that we express at the highest level. I am puzzled, disappointed and deeply concerned by the latest news reports concerning Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Yesterday, I spoke to the Iranian ambassador in the UK to express that concern and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will speak to his counterpart, Foreign Minister Zarif, later today about this and other matters. I also spoke to our ambassador in Tehran to seek further information on what further circumstances Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe is facing. We do not yet have that clarification, and it is possible that matters are not quite as they appear in the media, but we are urgently trying to find out exactly what those circumstances are and I will continue to press on that.
I remain of the strong view that the humanitarian situation of a mother separated from her child should prompt her release, not least on the grounds that under Iranian law she is eligible for parole in relation to the first charges that she faced within the next few weeks. That view has been expressed clearly and regularly to the Iranian authorities with which we are engaged. That is what we are seeking to do in relation to the dual nationals. I assure colleagues that those people are uppermost in our minds, and we are trying to handle their best interests. We will continue to press the cases of all the dual nationals whenever we can.
Colleagues raised the matter of the death penalty. We remain extremely concerned about the high number of executions in Iran, including those of juvenile offenders. According to Amnesty International, at least 247 people have been executed since January—at least three of whom were under 18 when the crime was committed. That practice is not only appalling, but in direct violation of international conventions that prohibit juveniles from being sentenced to death, to which Iran is a signatory. In looking for opportunities for the future, there is a small sign of progress, as perhaps the hon. Member for Leeds North East knows, in the form of a proposed change to Iranian drugs law. That would mean that the death penalty would be applied only in the most serious circumstances. I urge the Iranian Parliament and the Guardian Council to enact that Bill as quickly as possible. Every day that it is delayed brings another needless execution.
Colleagues raised the issue of freedom of expression, Iran’s record on which is also poor. The special rapporteur notes that at least 12 journalists and 14 bloggers and social media activists are currently in detention for their peaceful activities. In April, three separate channel administrators on the popular messaging app Telegram, mentioned by colleagues this morning, were each sentenced to 12 years in prison for
“collusion and gathering against the regime and insulting the leader and founder of the Islamic Revolution”.
Voice calls over Telegram were also banned. That is not what an open and free society looks like. The British Government therefore call on Iran to adhere to its international obligations and to release all those who have been detained for exercising their right to freedom of opinion, expression and peaceful assembly, which I think is what the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute was asking me to do. We also call on Iran to quash the prison sentences given to others for similar reasons.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet also raised the issue of freedom of expression for faith, as did one or two other colleagues. I met members of the Baha’i community in my office a few weeks ago, as I had met them a few years ago. I remain concerned, as does the House, about persecution of those of the Baha’i faith. We are concerned by state efforts to identify, monitor and arbitrarily detain Baha’is, and we will continue to raise that issue. As far as Iranian Christians are concerned, we also share the concerns about the continuing crackdown in Iran against religious minorities, including the house church movement mentioned by my right hon. Friend among Iranian Christians, and harassment of Muslims who convert to Christianity. The recent apparent crackdown on Christians for what appeared to be normal church activities, such as celebrating Christmas or holding a picnic—an important social activity at weekends in Iran, which we note has particular significance—is particularly concerning. We are not blind to those acts and we call on Iran to cease harassment of all religious minorities and to fulfil its international and domestic obligations to allow freedom of religion to all Iranians.
Colleagues mentioned women’s rights. Women do not enjoy the same rights and privileges as men in Iran and continue to face discrimination. Married women, as my right hon. Friend said, need the consent of their husbands to leave the country and can be banned from travelling abroad if their spouses do not sign the paperwork needed to obtain or renew a passport. Given that the President has expressed his desire to see greater justice in the country and to see human rights move forward, we hope that women’s rights will also be high on the agenda. The discrimination they face is unacceptable in the 21st century, so we urge the Government of Iran to repeal discriminatory laws and enable women and girls to participate equally and contribute fully to society—something that is clearly in Iran’s interest. All of us who know about Iranian society know that women are extremely voluble about what they believe they can contribute to society. They should be given full opportunity of expression.
We share the concern about continued persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Iran. Homosexual acts are criminalised in the Iranian penal code, and the punishment can range from 100 lashes to the death penalty for both men and women. It is also against Iranian law for people of the same sex to touch and kiss, and for people to cross-dress. There is no legal protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in Iran, and there is widespread social intolerance of homosexuality.
Transsexuality in Iran has been legal since a fatwa was issued in 1987 by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. There is, however, still a great deal of social stigma attached to transsexuals, and they can obtain legal identification documents in their preferred gender only if they have undergone gender reassignment surgery. That makes it difficult for those who do not want to undergo surgery to find employment and access medical services and education. Again, we have repeatedly called on Iran to fulfil its international and domestic obligations to protect the human rights of all Iranians, and we continue to do so.
In conclusion, the Government share colleagues’ concerns about the human rights situation in Iran.
I raised the issue, which I hope the Minister will respond to in the last three minutes, of how the Government will ensure that human rights concerns are embedded in the cornucopia of trade deals that they will be negotiating.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for reminding me. The Government have repeatedly said, and I can say again here, that human rights considerations are not being, and will not be, sacrificed for trade deals. That is not the Government’s intention, as the hon. Member for Leeds North East indicated from the Opposition Front Bench, and we have repeatedly said so. I can give that assurance to colleagues in the House today.
Before the Minister concludes, both my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and I raised the issue of the 1988 massacre, to which my right hon. Friend the Minister has not replied. Will he lead the campaign in the United Nations to get a proper report into that?
I stand by the letters that I have already signed off on that subject, which say that in our dealing with the issue of progress in Iran we do not at this stage plan to raise the 1988 executions at the UN or to support the inquiry. We are, however, working closely with the UN special rapporteur and we remain concerned about related issues that have come up. I have to say, however, that at present we do not have any intention to raise it specifically.
My hon. Friend also raised the matter of the NCRI, which I should refer to before I sit down. We do not have an official contact with it, and we do not endorse particular opposition groups in Iran. Choosing Iran’s Government should be a matter for the Iranian people, and we remain of the view that we will not favour particular opposition groups in Iran.
I want to conclude, because I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet needs a moment to speak as well. I thank colleagues for continuing to raise this matter. I hope that at the beginning of my remarks I gave a sense of how we are trying to deal with this difficult issue: we will continue to raise matters and we will not neglect them. Progress in Iran may well be slow, but we want it to be certain to fulfil what we believe are the hopes and desires of the Iranian people.
I thank the Minister for his speech today. I very much take on board the complexity of the process, which he has described as not only holding the Iranian Government to account on their human rights record, but trying to guide them towards a better future on these matters.
The one point I would leave with him is that I hope he will look again at the issue of the 1988 mass killings. They happened, they were a terrible crime and not enough attention has been given to them. There is a strong case for an independent investigation and I hope that he and his colleagues in Government will give that their most serious consideration.
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