UK Government debates and publications on the Bahá'í Faith1993-2013
House of Commons Hansard Debates volume 229 Session 1992-93
IranMr. David Atkinson : To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what representations have been made to the Iranian Government on the new wave of persecution of the Bahá'í community in Iran.
Mr. Illsley : To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what steps the Government are taking in respect of current human rights violations against members of the Bahá'í faith in Iran.
Mr. Lennox-Boyd : We regularly raise our concerns about human rights in Iran, including the treatment of the Bahá'í community, with the Iranian authorities. Together with our EC partners, we sponsored a resolution adopted by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on 10 March which highlighted the position of the Bahá'í community. We and our EC partners underlined our concerns during recent discussions between the EC and Iran.
Mr. Illsley : To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what steps the Government are taking following the publication on 22 February of the final report on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran by the special representative of the Commission on Human Rights, Mr. Reynaldo Galindo Pohl.
Mr. Lennox-Boyd : Together with our EC partners we co-sponsored a resolution tabled at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in the light of the February report of the United Nations Special Representative on Human Rights in Iran. The resolution was adopted on 10 March by a sizeable majority. We regularly raise our concerns about human rights in Iran with the Iranian authorities.
House of Lords Hansard Debates 593:213
Bahá'í Community, Iran
Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Iranian authorities refuse to give any further details of the nature of the offences alleged to have been committed by the two Bahá'ís or the previous Bahá'í who was convicted of unspecified national security offences and executed? Does she believe that such executions are part of aa systematic programme of repression against the Bahá'ís initiated by Ayatollah Golpaygani in 1991 and recently involving a crackdown on the institution of higher education, the sole institution offering higher education to the Bahá'ís, and raids on no fewer than 500 private citizens of the Bahá'í faith, including the confiscation of many of their goods? Will the noble Baroness protest vigorously against the repression? Will she tell the Iranians that no ministerial visit to Iran will be arranged until they lay off?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we have protested to the Iranian authorities about the two individuals under sentence of death. But, as I said to the noble Lord, we are told that the cases are subject to further review and that therefore, at the moment, the sentences are not final. Through our contacts with the Bahá'í community in the United Kingdom, we are aware of a further wave of arrests of Bahá'ís across Iran which took place around the end of September. These seem to have been directed against teachers in the way that the noble Lord described and those engaged in long-term learning by the Bahá'í community. Most were released after arrest but had to surrender property ownership deeds as a form of bail.
I assure the noble Lord that we shall continue to monitor the situation very carefully with our EU partners. We shall take further action as necessary. In particular, we shall continue to press the Iranians for more transparency about their judicial process in those and other human rights cases. We attach particular importance to that.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Bahá'í community has for many years now been exposed to intimidation and harassment on the part of the Iranian authorities and that protests, certainly in relation to the less high profile cases, seem to carry very little weight with those authorities? Does my noble friend agree, particularly as the economic relationship between Britain and Iran seems likely to improve in the short term at least, that it is very important that the Bahá'í community does not feel that it is forgotten and that economic interests weigh more heavily than their human rights.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I agree with a certain amount of what my noble friend says. It is important to remember that the Bahá'í community has been the subject of some forms of persecution on and off since the mid-19th century. However, I hope that the improved diplomatic situation between ourselves and Iran and the forthcoming exchange of ambassadors will allow us to make our points on human rights in a forthright and direct way. I assure the noble Lord that that is what we intend to do.
Lord Moynihan: My Lords, given the Foreign Secretary's ethical foreign policy and its emphasis on preventing torture, what steps have the Government taken to protest about widespread torture during the investigation phase of criminal prosecutions in Iran? Furthermore, what progress has been made in halting torture, amputations and stonings condemned by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in April and what specific discussions on this subject did the Foreign Secretary have with his Iranian counterpart, Dr. Kamal Kharrazi, when he met him at the United Nations last month?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the problems about torture continue to be a point of concern to the Foreign Secretary and, of course, to my honourable friend Mr. Fatchett. We and the European Union want these issues with Iran dealt with. We have had discussions on issues concerning terrorism.
We believe that human rights in Iran are ripe for improvement, given the improved relationship between our two countries since the position concerning Mr. Rushdie's fatwa was addressed. I hope that what we are seeing here is not an overnight change. Of course, it is not. It is an improved situation and one on which we need to capitalise bilaterally and through the EU in the discussions that we have with Iran on the issues that continue to concern us. We believe that there is a positive situation here and one we can work towards improving.
Memorandum submitted by Barnabus Leith, Bahai Community of the UK: Session 2000-2001
1. This evidence is submitted by the Secretary General of the Bahai community in the United Kingdom. This community has been established in the UK since the end of the nineteenth century and Bahai's are currently to be found throughout the country. Approximately 40 per cent of the 6,000 or so Bahai's here are of Iranian origin or descent and a significant number of these came here as refugees from persecution in Iran, the country of origin of the Bahai Faith. Intermarriage has resulted in a significant number of Bahai families in the UK being mixed British-Iranian.
2. The UK Bahai community has been involved in defending the human and civil rights of the Bahai community in Iran since 1979. Since that time, representatives of the Bahai community's national governing council, the National Spiritual Assembly, have been in regular touch with Ministers and officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the situation in Iran and have received considerable support and assistance over the years. Our analysis of evidence from the Bahais Iran and of comments from the Bahai International Community's UN Office in New York indicates that this support has contributed significantly to amelioration of the difficult conditions in which the Iranian Bahai community has been living.
BAHAI RELIGIOUS MINORITY IN IRAN
3. Since the Islamic Revolutionary regime took power in Iran in 1979, Bahais have been harassed and persecuted solely on account of their religious beliefs. They have repeatedly been offered relief from persecution if they were prepared to recant their Faith.
4. With approximately 300,000 members, the Bahai Faith is Iran's largest religious minority, but it is not recognised as a religion by the Iranian Constitution. The Islamic regime refers to it as a heresy and a conspiracy. As "unprotected infidels", Bahais have no legal rights, although Iran is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees freedom of religious belief.
5. A secret Iranian Government document published by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1993 confirms that Iran's anti-Bahai actions reflect deliberate government policy. Produced by Iran's Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council on 25 February 1991 and approved by the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader, this document sets forth specific guidelines for dealing with "the Bahai question" so that Bahai "progress and development shall be blocked". It is no less than a blueprint for the slow strangulation of the Bahai community.
6. The Bahais in Iran are no strangers to persecution. Attacks and pogroms against Bahais have happened regularly since the foundation of the community in Iran over 150 years ago. Historically, attacks on Bahais were frequently made for theological reasons by Iran's Muslim clergy, since they believe that no religion should appear after Islam. The fact that there is no clergy in the Bahai Faith may also have been perceived by them as a threat to their own status.
7. The Bahai community in Iran poses no threat to the authorities. The principles of the Bahai Faith require Bahais to be obedient to their government and to avoid partisan political involvement, subversive activity and all forms of violence. The Bahai community in Iran is not aligned with any government, ideology or opposition movement. Furthermore, showing goodwill to the followers of all religions is a tenet of the Bahai Faith and Bahais are not enemies of Islam nor, indeed, of Iran.
8. The Bahais seek no special privileges. They desire only their rights under the International Bill of Human Rights, of which Iran is a signatory, including the right to life, the right to profess and practice their religion, the right to liberty and security of person, and the right to education and work.
9. Encouraging statements have recently been heard from representatives of the Iranian Government in international fora. At the 88th Session of the International Labour Organisation in June 2000, the representative of Iran stated, "Although the members of the Bahai faith did not belong to a recognised religious minority, under the terms of the legislation approved by the Expediency Council in 1999, all Iranians enjoyed the rights of citizenship irrespective of their belief." In the Summary Record of the 618th meeting of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, held in May this year, Ambassador Khorram, representative of the Iranian Government, is reported as having said that the adoption of this new law had improved the situation of those who followed "non-recognised religions and beliefs such as the Bahai Faith".
10. Measures were recently taken by the Government of Iran which made it possible for married Bahai couples to be registered as husband and wife, and for the children of such couples to be registered.
11. Following a period of apparent intensification of persecution in the Mashhad area after mid-1998, during which Mr Ruhu'llah Rawhani was executed and three other Bahais were sentenced to death, on 3 February 2000 two of them—Mr Sirus Dhabihi-Muqaddam and Mr Hidayat Kashifi Najafabadi, who had been imprisoned at the same time as Mr Rawhani—were informed orally that their death sentences had been reconfirmed. We have recently been notified that the third Bahai sentenced to death in Mashhad—Mr Manuchehr Khulusi—has been released, although it is not clear what gave rise to his release nor the status of the verdict against him.
12. In December 1999, the Bahai International Community was unofficially informed that Mr Dhabihu'llah Mahrami's death sentence for apostasy had been commuted to life imprisonment by an amnesty of the President. We were also informed that consideration was being given to the similar commutation of the death sentence on Mr Musa Talibi, but no confirmation that this has occurred has been received.
13. Towards the end of December 1999, we were informed that Mr Farzad Khajeh, Dr Sina Hakiman and Mr Habibu'llah Ferdosian, who had been convicted in connection with their participation in the activities of the Institute for Higher Bahai Studies, had been released.
EXECUTIONS, DEATH SENTENCES AND IMPRISONMENTS
14. Since 1979, more than 200 Bahais have been killed, and 15 others have disappeared and are presumed dead.
15. Mr Ruhu'llah Rawhani, executed by hanging on 21 July 1998 after having served nine months in solitary confinement stood accused of converting a woman to the Bahai Faith. The woman concerned refuted the accusation, stating that her mother was a Bahai and she herself had been raised as a Baha«'i. There is no evidence that Mr Rawhani was accorded any legal process or access to a lawyer, and no sentence was announced prior to his execution.
16. Arbitrary arrests of Bahais continue.
17. Since November 1997 there have been 53 Bahais arrested and imprisoned, and 46 released.
DEPRIVATION OF RIGHT TO ORGANISE
18. Since 1983 the Bahai community has been denied the right to assemble officially and the right to maintain its administrative institutions, those democratically elected governing bodies which in other countries organise and administer the religious activities of the community. Since the Bahai Faith has no clergy, the denial of the right to elect these institutions threatens the very existence of a viable religious community. These sacred institutions perform many of the functions reserved to clergy in other religions and are the foundational element of Bahai community life.
19. Gradually over the last few years the Iranian Bahais have developed makeshift arrangements to worship in small groups, to conduct classes for children, and to take care of other community needs. However, authorities continue to harass the Bahai community by disrupting meetings and occasionally arresting teachers of children's or "family life" classes.
20. Events in Khurasan suggest an intensification of efforts to terrorise members of the Faith and to suffocate the spiritual life of the Bahai community in the region by further curtailing activities aimed at providing education to Bahai children and youth. An example of this abuse was the arrest, detention and summary sentence of two teachers in Mashhad, the capital of Khurasan, to three years' imprisonment, while their students were given suspended sentences, to be carried out should the young people again commit the "crime" of participating in such classes. In September 1998, three more Bahais , Mrs Nahid Sabeti, Mr Manouchehr Sharifi and Mr Hushmand Sanani, were arrested, this time in Bujnurd, northern Khurasan, for participating in Bahai "Family Life" gatherings. After spending six days in prison, they were released, having also been given suspended sentences of five years' imprisonment.
21. The use of suspended sentences is a new tactic devised by the Ministry of Information (Intelligence) to prevent Bahais from participating in monthly religious gatherings. It is a threatening device, and the Bahais in Iran are fearful that it may be extended to other parts of the country if allowed to go unchallenged. As has been the recent practice of the Government of Iran, no written documentation relating to the arrest or punishment of the Bahais has been provided to them.
DENIAL OF PROPERTY RIGHTS
22. Bahai cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, administrative centres and other assets were seized shortly after the 1979 revolution. No properties have been returned and many have been destroyed.
23. Seizure of cemeteries throughout Iran has created problems for Bahais who have difficulties burying their dead and identifying gravesites. They are permitted access only to areas of wasteland, designated by the Government for their use, and are not permitted to mark the graves of their loved ones.
24. The property rights of Bahais are generally disregarded. Since 1979, large numbers of private and business properties belonging to Bahai's, including homes and farms, have been arbitrarily confiscated.
25. In 1998 over 500 Bahai homes throughout Iran have been raided at the hands of intelligence officers. When queried about the seizure of personal household effects like television sets and pieces of furniture, these officers claimed that they had been authorised by the Attorney General to take anything they wished.
26. Seizure of personal properties, together with the denial of access to education and employment, continues to erode the economic base of the Bahai community.
DENIAL OF EMPLOYMENT, PENSIONS AND OTHER BENEFITS
27. The confiscation of property is only one of the ways in which the government is systematically weakening the economic base of the Bahai community. Many Bahais in Iran have also been deprived of the means to earn a living. In the early 1980s more than 10,000 Bahais were dismissed from positions in government and educational institutions because of their religious beliefs. Many remain unemployed and receive no unemployment benefits. The pensions of Bahais dismissed on religious grounds were terminated; some of the Bahais have even been required to return salaries or pensions paid to them. Bahai farmers are denied admission to farmers' co-operatives, which are often the only sources of credit, seeds, pesticide and fertilizer.
28. Bahais throughout the country have been bullied and intimidated into abandoning their professions. For example, fabricated excuses were used to force one Bahai doctor to close his practice. Another Bahai doctor was arrested, beaten, slandered, and forced to co-operate with the security guards.
DENIAL OF ACCESS TO EDUCATION
29. An entire generation of Bahais has been systematically barred from higher education in legally recognised public and private institutions of learning in Iran.
30. Having been denied access to higher education for years, in 1987 the Bahais established their own higher education programme to meet the educational needs of as many of their young people as resources will allow. By 1996 several hundred students were enrolled, and 11 had graduated with the equivalent of a bachelor's degree.
31. In late September 1998, more than 36 faculty members of the Bahai Institute of Higher Education (BIHE) were arrested in cities across the country. They have since been released. The arrests were carried out by officers of the Iranian Government's intelligence agency, the Ministry of Information, and also involved the seizure of textbooks, scientific papers and documentary records, some 70 computers, and items of furniture useful to students, including tables and benches. Those arrested were asked to sign a document declaring that BIHE had ceased to exist as of 29 September 1998 and undertaking that they would no longer co-operate with it. The detainees refused to sign any such declaration.
32. The Bahai Faith places a high value on education, and Bahais have always been among the best-educated groups in Iran. Being denied access to higher education for years is demoralising to Bahai youth. This erosion of the educational level of the community is, as authors of the policy envisioned, inevitably leading to the impoverishment of the community.
DENIAL OF CIVIL RIGHTS AND LIBERTIES
33. Unlike Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, the Bahai Faith is not recognised in the Iranian Constitution: therefore, Bahais fall into the category of "unprotected infidels" whose rights can be ignored with impunity. In general, the pressures placed on Bahais by the judicial system have increased.
34. While neither Bahai marriage nor divorce is legally recognised in Iran, measures have recently been taken by the Government of Iran which make it possible for Bahai couples to be registered as husband and wife and to register their children. The right of Bahais to inherit is denied. An article in the Iranian newspaper Khaber, dated 21 July 1999, dealt with the matter of inheritance by Bahais under the laws of Iran in its section devoted to answering legal questions. The article describes different circumstances in which a Bahai claimant to an inheritance cannot enjoy the rights of an inheritor because a Bahai "is considered an infidel and is excluded from the inheritance".
35. The freedom of Bahais to travel outside or inside Iran is often impeded by Iranian authorities and sometimes denied. Although the last years have witnessed an increase in the number of Iranian Bahais given passports. It is not clear whether there has been a change of policy on the part of the Iranian government on this issue.
36. Such treatment is not confined to Iran itself. Bahais applying to Iranian embassies abroad to renew their passports or to obtain visas to return to Iran have often found officials similarly uncooperative. However, the Iranian embassies in some countries do not require the applicants to state their religious affiliation; in such countries, Bahais are more likely to be able to obtain visas or to renew their Iranian passports. Passport application forms which require applicants to declare their affiliation with a "recognised religion" have been used to pressure Bahais to recant their religious beliefs.
37. Furthermore, in a number of communities the practice of summoning Bahais to the security offices on various specious pretexts and insulting and belittling them, so as to create fear in their families and weaken their spirits, still continues unabated.
38. In spite of relentless oppression over the last 21 years, the Iranian Bahai community survives and maintains its identity. Its strength and determination, as well as the pressure of world public opinion as expressed in resolutions passed by the United Nations and the Parliaments of several countries, have made it possible for the Bahai community to continue to exist in a difficult and hostile environment. The Bahais have devised ways of teaching the Faith to their children, of worshipping in small groups in private homes, of providing some education to their youth, and of preserving the spirit of the community even without their religious institutions, which were disbanded by order of the Islamic government.
SITUATION SINCE THE ELECTION OF PRESIDENT KHATAMI
39. The commutation of the death sentence of Mr Dhabihu'llah Mahrami and possibly that of Mr Musa Talibi; the release of a number of prisoners (Mr Manuchehr Khulusi, Mr Farzad Khajeh, Dr Sina Hakiman and Mr Habibu'llah Ferdosian); measures taken by the Iranian Government which enable Bahai couples to register their marriages and their children; the greater ease with which Bahais are now able to obtain passports; and statements by Iranian representatives in international fora that their government is concerned to provide for the rights of all citizens of Iran, including those who are members of religious minorities not recognised by the country's constitution—these are all hopeful signs. However, a serious level of persecution of the Bahais remains—some continue to be detained in prison by reason of their religion, a number of them under sentence of death; others are subject to arbitrary detention for short or longer periods; all Bahais are subject to discrimination in respect of social, economic, legal and educational matters; and the Bahai community continues to be denied the right to elect its administrative institutions, around which the communal spiritual and social activities of Bahais revolve.
40. The current circumstances are best understood in the context of the unique nature of the persecution to which Iranian Bahais have been subjected for over a century. The Iranian Bahai community has frequently served as a scapegoat, used by various factions struggling for political ascendancy. This has been the case regardless of the changes in the political or dynastic regime. Whenever political leaders have felt a need to divert public attention from some economic, social, or political issue, they have found the Bahai community an easy target because of the senseless hostility and prejudice inculcated in the public by generations of ecclesiastical propaganda.
41. It is not the actions of the Bahais but the circumstances of Iranian history that have conspired to make the "Bahai case" a litmus test of sincerity for Iranian public figures who represent themselves as voices of reform and progress.
ROLE OF THE FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH OFFICE
42. The present Secretary General of the UK Bahai community and his office have been in regular contact with officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Most of the contact has been with the Iran Desk and has involved sharing of information by telephone and fax as well as regular meetings in which the situation of the Bahais in Iran has been discussed and action by the FCO considered.
43. Following the execution of Mr Ruhu'llah Rawhani, immediate steps were taken by the Foreign Office to pass information to the British Embassy in Tehran and to seek joint action with EU partners, Government displeasure at the execution was conveyed to the Iranian Charge in London.
44. We have always found the officials we have dealt with to be sympathetic and helpful and to have taken actions that have contributed to the protection of the Bahais in Iran.
45. In addition to meetings with Iran Desk Officials, meetings have also been held with the Director, Middle East and North Africa.
46. The Secretary General has also met on three occasions with Ministers of State—the late Derek Fatchett, Geoff Hoon, and latterly with Peter Hain. On each occasion, the Secretary General was courteously received and listened to by the Minister and it is our impression that the involvement of the Foreign Office was reinforced by these meetings.
IRAN RESOLUTIONS AT THE UN COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS AND GENERAL ASSEMBLY
47. Each year for many years the representatives of the Bahai community have met with representatives of the FCO's Human Rights Policy Department and Ambassador Audrey Glover in the run-up to the sessions of the Commission on Human Rights and of the General Assembly. The UK has been, and continues to be, an initiator and co-sponsor of the annual resolution on human rights in Iran, a resolution that has had the greatest importance in bringing the plight of the Bahais in Iran to the attention of governments and ensuring that it remains on the political agenda world-wide. The annual renewal by the Commission of the mandate of Professor Maurice Copithorne, the Special Representative on Iran, has ensured that accurate information about the condition of the Iranian Bahai community has been placed, year by year, on the public record. Furthermore, in recent years the resolution has called for the phased, but ultimately complete, emancipation of the Bahai community in Iran in line with the recommendations made by Professor Abdelfattah Amor, the UN Special Raporteur on Religious Intolerance, in 1996. The UK Government's continued support for these resolutions is an important plank in our defence of the Iranian Bahai community.
THE PLACE OF THE UK IN THE DEFENCE OF THE BAHAIS IN IRAN
48. Historical links between Britain and the Bahais in Iran and the Middle East go back more than 150 years. There are many references to historically significant moments in the development of the Bahai community in archival government documents: the British Library contains some significant Bahai manuscripts. Bahá'u'lláh, founder of the Bahai Faith, wrote to Queen Victoria (amongst other significant monarchs): he praised the abolition of the slave trade, commented favourably upon British parliamentary democracy and called for peace in the world. Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'u'lláh's eldest son and Head of the Bahai community after his father's death in 1892, was rescued from execution by the Turkish authorities in Palestine at the end of the First World War by General Allenby's army and was subsequently knighted for his humanitarian services in feeding the populace of Haifa in the famine consequent upon the war. Immediately before the Great War Abdu'l-Bahá visited the West and gave his first public address in London. His grandson, Shoghi Effendi, who was Guardian of the Bahai Faith from 1921 to 1957, was educated at Balliol and died in London, where he is buried—his grave in the New Southgate Cemetery is a place of pilgrimage for Bahais all over the world.
49. The UK Bahai community is one of the longest established in the West and has played a special role in assisting the growth of Bahai communities in many parts of the world.
50. This community feels a particular responsibility for the defence of our co-religionists in Iran and is happy to have had so much support from the Government over the years. We look forward to continuing and reinforcing this co-operation.
Examination of Witnesses Mr Steve Crawshaw and Ms Elahe Sharifpour-Hicks, (Questions 85-99), Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence: Session 2002-03
Examination of Witnesses (Questions 85 - 99)
TUESDAY 11 FEBRUARY 2003
MR STEVE CRAWSHAW AND MS ELAHE SHARIFPOUR-HICKS
85. Mr Crawshaw, you are Director of Human Rights Watch. Ms Elahe Sharifpour-Hicks, you are a researcher on Iran for the same organisation, Human Rights Watch. May I welcome you both. Mr Crawshaw is an old hand and has helped the Committee quite recently on general human rights matters. Having welcomed you, would you set the platform for the Committee by saying what are your most serious concerns on human rights in respect of Iran?
(Mr Crawshaw) We would echo many of the points which we have just heard. Perhaps the most important thing is to say that one needs to realise that there are indeed the two parallel processes going on in Iran and that commitments that may have been made—or partially made—on one side are being either ignored or simply trampled on the other side. I think it is important to constantly press. On the one hand one is pressing on the conservatives, but those with whom the dialogue is most direct is clearly with the reformers and they, too, must take an active role in ensuring that the whole range of really quite terrible incidences that are going on at the moment need to be taken in hand.
86. What are the most awful?
87. We were told recently by a senior figure in the Iranian government that Iran did not have the worst human rights record in the region, which I did not find terribly reassuring. We have evidence of people being executed after an unfair trial. We have evidence of students being detained, religious minorities persecuted, critics of the government harassed, underground shadowy military organisations linked to hard-line clerical movements. This really is a terrible situation. It seems to me that it really is not getting any better. What is your assessment?
(Mr Crawshaw) You are right that in many respects things do not seem to be getting better. On the other hand—and I think this is what one really needs to clutch for—there was a commitment made last year on allowing in United Nations rapporteurs into the country. On the debit side, that commitment has still not been made in writing and that is where it really needs to be so that can measure it. On the credit side, we have an UN official going in as chairman of the working group on arbitrary detentions. He is going to go into the country probably within the next few days and he will be back from his visit by the time that you get there. This is the kind of thing which does imply at least the possibility of movement. I think what is terribly important is to realise those possibilities are there. President Khatami as you also know has made a stand—which was perhaps not strong enough—saying that power needs to lie with the presidency. You cannot have all these other forces moving in and taking the power away from the presidency. He has not been powerful enough. We feel he needs support on that. All of these things indicate that there is movement whereas there are systems where there is simply no movement at all.
88. Sometimes in the West we look at human rights as being an absolute freestanding proposition that human rights is a good thing and abuses of human rights are a bad thing. I am sure we would all sign up to that. I am interested in what the political effect of these abuses of human rights is. In terms of the authorities is it actually working in holding down opposition to the system or is it having the obverse effect of that in which the more you repress people the more they aspire to freedom?
89. You mentioned that newspapers were being repressed on a more widespread basis. I noticed in the briefing note that one paper was closed down on the charge of insulting the authorities. This idea of repressing newspapers, is what happens that it is like capping a volcano, that the pressure for freedom of expression will just find another way out? So while it may be relatively easy to close down a newspaper, that will find another way of expressing opposition to the system. You mentioned the student protest. Is that really what is happening?
Sir Patrick Cormack
90. You heard the exchange I had with our previous witness. When I asked him if he thought that our attitude in Britain should be frank and friendly he agreed emphatically. Do you also agree with that?
(Mr Crawshaw) We do, yes. We do not believe that the EU dialogue—or indeed between Britain and Iran—should be halted. It is extremely positive and can play a very, very positive role. That, if you like, is the "friendly" bit of your phrase. Beyond that there is the possibility of a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Sometimes there is a danger that people think that they have such a good dialogue going on that they should not do the rude thing of making a critical resolution. Our feeling is that these things can work in symmetry together and that if improvements are not there then a resolution is needed to reflect that fact. The dialogue should be seen to be taking things forward. Can I also put on record on behalf of Elahe Hicks personally but also on behalf of Human Rights Watch that during a mission when she was in Tehran last year there were a number of very complicated security concerns. Diplomats at the British Embassy were extraordinarily helpful and went to some lengths to be extraordinarily helpful. It was, for us, a very nice signal that the British Foreign Office takes the issues of human rights very seriously.
91. I am sure we are all appreciate that going on the record. I had a lot of dealings in the early 1970s as chairman of the campaign for the release of soviet Germany with those who were persecuted for their religious beliefs behind the former iron curtain. I came across some pretty horrific examples as you would well know. Would you like to say a word or two about religious persecution and can you compare it with the sort of persecution that did exist in the Soviet Union at its most repressive? Is it worse than that or is it on a par with that?
92. As far as the Christians and the Jews are concerned, we did talk to a fairly high placed Iranian official not very long ago who suggested that there are Christian members of the Majalis and Jewish members and so on, and that all was really exaggerated here in the west. Would you like to just say a word about that, particularly in the context of the Christians and the Jews.
93. Much of what you have said one could say was deprivation rather than active persecution. Is there a lot of active persecution?
94. And active persecution against Christians and Jews? Yes or no?
95. On 3 February Human Rights Watch wrote to the Foreign Secretary in advance of his meeting with the Iranian Foreign Minister and said, "We welcome your government's efforts to develop better ties with Iran and to encourage the country's closer integration with the norms and standards of the international community. We hope that your government uses this relationship to ensure better compliance with human rights standards by the Iranian government and to remind the Iranian Foreign Minister of the promises made hy the government of President Khatami to pursue an agenda of reform in the human rights field. Such reforms have yielded very little concrete progress as yet." At what point do you think that you would advocate an end to the process of engagement with Iran currently pursued by the British Government?
(Mr Crawshaw) I am not sure that we would wish to put the question that way round. I am sorry to be evasive. I try not to be in this context because in a sense that implies the acceptance of a kind of defeat which I do not think we would wish to. I am sorry if that seems cowardly that I am not going there. I would turn it around to a version of what we were saying in the letter which is that I think the temptation sometimes is to be so pleased that a dialogue is going on that one ignores terribly important things which are not being done. To flip it around, if you like, one very basic thing would be on the issues of the rapporteurs. There are a number of rapporteurs who have not been able to go in yet; they have been blocked. There are people who are locked up without trial. Those kind of thing need to be pressed forward. I think it would be unwise for us to say the point at which one just gives up.
96. You also say that the Iranian government as a whole should be judged upon its human rights record. Do you not think it is better to distinguish between the so called reformist elements and the more conservative elements? In other words, if we condemn everybody, are we not being unhelpful to the reformists?
Sir John Stanley
97. Can you give us the Human Rights Watch perspective on whether progress is being made in Iran for civil rights for women? Can you tell us in your view what are the main areas of lack of civil rights for women at the present time in Iran?
(Ms Sharifpour-Hicks) Every law, penal code and civil code regarding women have not been changed. They have not been tackled and still remain the same. We have women in parliament; we have a woman as deputy president in charge of the environment, but the ordinary Iranian women face the same problems since the beginning of the revolution. Twenty-four years. Yes, there is amendment to the law that women can seek divorce, but there is still a problem. Divorce is allowed with many conditions. It is the law that they cannot ask for divorce in terms of issues that are very difficult to prove for a woman. The custody of the children; women do not have that. Very recently, before this parliament introduced a bill to increase the age of marriage from nine to fifteen and it was rejected by the Council of Guardians. Then the law went back again and they increased it to thirteen. Those are the kind of changes referred to. Children in Iran can vote. The age of vote is 16. But the age of marriage for a woman is thirteen. A woman cannot be a judge. They can only be a judge in the lower court. A woman cannot be a president, simply because they are a woman. We do have women in parliament and they are raising issues like laws of retribution. A woman is qualified as half of a man but they are fighting that. The Iranian government and the parliament is seeking and asking to join the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and it was rejected by the Council of Guardians. Women have problems with a lot of issues with the law in the country, the civil and the penal code.
98. You have made it clear that you have concerns in the family law area. Are you saying that there is still a lot to be desired as far as basic civil rights for women are concerned in terms of right to take part in the political system, right to vote, age of voting and so on? How does the political system treat women?
99. Is the criteria of voting for women identical for men and is the age of voting for women identical to men?
Examination of Witnesses Mr Steve Crawshaw and Ms Elahe Sharifpour-Hicks, (Questions 100 - 109), Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence: Session 2002-03
Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 109)
TUESDAY 11 FEBRUARY 2003
MR STEVE CRAWSHAW AND MS ELAHE SHARIFPOUR-HICKS
100. Is the marriage age the same, too?
101. I would like to go back to the point you were making earlier about the persecution of the largest minority, the Bahá'ís. The point was made that there is a distinction between depravation and persecution in relation to Christians and Jews. I would like to take that point up with you in regard to the Bahá'ís. Would you classify what is happening to the Bahá'ís as persecution? You talked about not being able to have further education and being denied jobs, but can you give me examples of what you would call persecution of the Bahá'ís and can you give me any reason as to why they are singled out for this treatment?
(Ms Sharifpour-Hicks) I am puzzled by that too. I am Muslim Shi'ai and I think—and I am not a religious scholar—that because Bahá'í believe that the final prophet came and is presenting to the Bahá'í faith. Muslim and Shi'ai believe that the prophet Mohammed is the last one. This is an issue that they have. Again, I have to clarify that I am not a religious scholar to talk about this issue. The Shi'ai believe in the twelve commandments and the prophets and the Bahá'í believe that the prophet already came. In principle the Bahá'í believe in Islam and the prophet; they believe in their own prophet, the last Messiah. There is a lot of discrimination against the Bahá'í because it cannot be tolerated that another religion has come and said they have a prophet.
102. So the persecution is based on a difference in religious dogma?
103. Can you give me examples of the type of persecution that has been taking place?
104. Are there others in prison?
105. They are non-citizens, basically?
106. Can we move on to the European Union issues. You may have heard the questions I asked earlier. I would like to ask you similar questions to see if you agree with the previous answers that I had. It really is a question of progress in Iran on human rights and the political criteria that we discussed earlier. In this area where Iran fails to make satisfactory progress, at what point would you believe that the European Union should draw their red line and suspend negotiations? For example the proposed trade and cooperation agreement. Or do you not think they should?
107. Are you therefore saying that should that happen that the negotiations were ended and the human rights dialogue suspended, it would demoralise the reformist parties and the Iranian government?
108. Quite obviously this is about politics and about influence and about change. And obviously the trade and cooperation negotiations are closely linked with the human rights dialogue as far as the EU is concerned. But if we take the analysis one step further, which is basically not to use this as a lever, what other leverage can the EU place on the Iranian government to accelerate reform?
109. Do you think that the human rights situation in Iran is getting better or worse? Secondly, could you place it in a context, if one had a scale of really bad offenders and not quite so bad offenders? I guess I would rather live in Iran than Iraq, for instance, on that scale. Killing and imprisonment without trial seems to be a slightly more serious breach of human rights than closing down a newspaper. If one puts this in the context of other countries in the region where do you think Iran fits? Is it better or worse than Saudi Arabia or Egypt?
(Mr Crawshaw) I do not like to be seen as avoiding questions. In general terms we avoid league tables, I have to say. The one I would be happy not to dodge is your mention of Iraq where undoubtedly it is difficult to match the horrors of the Iraq regime. Beyond that we would not really get into league tables. To take the other question that goes with it, of things getting better or worse, really above all it is fragile. It is very important that your visit is going to be now at a time when there is everything to play for. One the one hand the reformists are hugely under threat. We have seen that very much in the last couple of years and even the last couple of months. On the other hand we see that society is pushing. It is really with a very great question mark, I think. Fragile would be word.
(Ms Sharifpour-Hicks) I think the human rights situation is getting worse. In a way human rights is a victim of a power struggle. The more we see the power struggle, human rights violations become more serious. We have many arbitrary detentions. This past week we have a 70 years old political activist who brought a letter to the President, to the Speaker of Parliament talking about 441 days in solitary confinement and incommunicado talking about how he was tortured, why he was imprisoned. In 2000 he had two heart attacks because he was under torture. He was forced to write confessions. We have never had this before. Human rights is becoming a victim of power struggle in Iran.
Chairman: May I thank you for this valuable session. Thank you both very much for coming.
The Committee suspended from 4.45 pm to 4.55 pm for a division in the House
House of Commons Hansard Debates 447:160
Human Rights (Iran)
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): The world’s attention is focused on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the danger that that undoubtedly poses for the region. However, there is a long-running cause of concern that should not be allowed to escape the spotlight: Iran’s abysmal record on human rights. Iran’s abuse of human rights has been condemned by the United Nations, the European Union, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. In this short debate, I shall focus on limited areas of persecution, but it is important to appreciate the context in which the abuses that I shall detail take place.
The systematic suppression of dissent in Iran permeates the whole of Iranian society. The abuses are not random. They are organised by the Government or by what Iranians call parallel institutions, such as the intelligence service and paramilitary groups. President Ahmadinejad’s Cabinet is dominated by former members of the intelligence and security services, some of whom are allegedly implicated in serious violations, including the assassination of dissident intellectuals.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the deterioration of freedom of expression and the routine use of arbitrary arrest, torture and solitary confinement. Tehran’s public prosecutor, Saeed Mortzavi, has been implicated in major violations, including the unresolved death in custody of the Iranian-Canadian photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi in June 2003, yet no proper investigation has taken place.
Executions, including those of juveniles, continue after highly questionable judicial processes. Amnesty International reports that in the past year at least 94 people have been executed, including at least eight who were under 18.
At the end of May 2006, 500 armed riot police stormed into Tehran university campus following a student protest after a purge of the university’s academic faculty. Live bullets were fired, people were injured and arrests were made. At the end of May, no further information was available about the fate of the arrested students.
A systematic purge of the media in 2000 closed newspapers and imprisoned journalists. In 2005, the Iranian Government turned their attention to targeting websites and internet journalists. Those who were arrested were sent to secret detention centres. In February 2005, a court in the province of Gilan sentenced Arash Sigarchi to 14 years imprisonment for online writing.
Those attacks on the media send out a clear message. The result is that where the media is not shut down, there is self-censorship. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report that independent harassment of human rights organisations and lawyers continues. The prominent activist and Nobel peace prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, was held in jail in January 2005 and released only after an international outcry. Akbar Ganj, the investigative journalist who exposed the role of high-ranking officials in the murder of writers and intellectuals in 1998, remains in prison. Political executions take place, and in May concern was expressed about the imminent execution of Valiolla Feyz Mahdavi, a 28-year-old member of Iran’s main opposition party.
“an atmosphere of impunity in which oppression thrives”.
It means that people are silenced because they fear speaking out and there are fewer voices to speak out about what is wrong, so abuses are not fully documented. It is against that background that I draw attention to particular concern about two minority communities in Iran.
I thank the hon. Lady for letting me intervene as chair of the all-party Friends of the Baha’i group. Does she agree that the difficulty is that the Baha’i community, whose religion is passive and seeks no ill will toward others, has been persistently persecuted? That persecution has become serious in Iran. Does she agree that the best thing the Iranian Government could do is to enter some sort of dialogue to try to understand why those of us who have supported the Baha’i community feel that this is an unnecessary attack on Baha’is, who present no threat of instability whatever to the Iranian state? Does she agree that the Iranians should enter some sort of dialogue to try to ease the difficulties that the Baha’is in Iran are experiencing at present?
Mrs. Ellman: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Baha’is are peaceful and do not pose a threat. Their persecution is intolerable and I shall outline some of the detailed concerns about their treatment. That concern is so great that the United Nations has appointed a special rapporteur to investigate their situation.
The Iranian regime wants to weaken the Baha’i leadership by attacking people in leading positions and preventing Baha’is from entering higher education. During the 1980s, 200 Baha’is were killed or executed. International monitoring had some impact on inhibiting that, but arbitrary arrests continue, and since the beginning of 2005 125 Baha’is have been arrested. As recently as May this year, 15 Baha’is, mainly young people, were arrested in the city of Shiraz while participating in a community project. Three remain in custody but no charges have been made. Those arrests coincided with six raids on Baha’i homes in which papers and computers were taken.
Recently, there have been more sinister developments. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, issued a highly significant report on the condition of Baha’is in Iran earlier this year. She concluded that she was “highly concerned” about the persecution of Iranian Baha’is and condemned the letter sent on 25 October 2005 by the chairman of the command headquarters of the armed forces in Iran to Government agencies, which stated that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has instructed command headquarters to
“identify those of the Bhai faith and monitor their activities.”
“impermissible and unacceptable interference with the rights of members of religious minorities”
Against that background, Bani Dugal, principal representative of the Baha’i international community to the UN, spoke of the unrelenting persecution of the Baha’is. Concern has since intensified with the publication of a series of defamatory articles in Tehran’s Kayhan newspaper, including one in February stating that Baha’is gather on Muslim holy days
“to consume alcohol, dance, and sacrifice a Muslim child.”
Those outrageous allegations, which have created an atmosphere of fear and hostility, were published in Iran’s national newspaper. There is no evidence whatever for the allegations. They are venomous and reminiscent of anti-Jewish blood libels that also circulate in Iran. Indeed, the 20,000-strong Iranian Jewish community, which has diminished from 85,000 in 1979, feels increasingly anxious.
“wiped off the face of the map”
is, sadly, not a new phenomenon in Iran, but its intensity and central place in the international furore about Iran’s nuclear ambitions have raised acute concern about the situation of Iranian Jews—one of the oldest Jewish communities—and created an atmosphere of fear. President Ahmadinejad stated just a few months ago:
“They have created a myth today that they call the massacre of Jews and they consider it a principle above God, religion and the prophets”.
I have viewed a highly disturbing programme that was broadcast on Channel 2 of Iranian television on 5 January. It hosted a discussion in which political analyst Dr. Majid Goudarzi stated—unchallenged—that following Jesus’ birth, the Jews of Yemen prepared a pit of fire for Christians who refused to renounce the religion of Jesus. Dr. Goudarzi stated that “burning believers” then became ingrained in Jewish consciousness so that the Jews later blamed the Germans for atrocities that they themselves had started. For good measure, Dr. Goudarzi also proclaimed that the Jews created the “protocols of the elders of Zion” to enable them to become the
“board of directors of the world”.
It is truly shocking that that statement, aired as fact, was broadcast on national television in the 21st century. National television, a public resource, stated it not even as a matter of debate—although that would not have been acceptable either—but as a matter of fact. It is little wonder that Haroon Yeshaya, the former chairman of the Jewish community in Tehran, sent a public letter to President Ahmadinejad stating that his current stance of holocaust denial had created:
“astonishment among the people of the world and spread fear and anxiety among the small Jewish community of Iran.”
I have mentioned detailed problems concerning Jews and Baha’is, but they are just two of Iran’s minority communities. Other groups such as Arabs, Kurds and Christians suffer from tremendous discrimination. The whipping-up of hostility towards them and other minorities can only damage Iran’s reputation. Sadly, the extent of Iran’s human rights abuse is immense, and in the short time available today, I have been able to describe only a small number of concerns.
At the beginning of my contribution, I referred to the systematic suppression of dissent and the absence of a free media in Iran. That means that it is especially important that voices outside Iran speak up for those who face oppression. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) spoke about the peaceful nature of the Baha’is. The Iranians think that they can persecute groups because they believe that there is nobody there to speak up for them. I hope that through the expressions made in this Chamber today, and the work undertaken by the all-party Friends of the Baha’i group and other groups, the Iranians will be proved wrong in their assessment.
Because of the suppression of freedom of speech, and the atmosphere of intimidation in Iran, it is particularly important that voices outside Iran speak up and speak up loudly. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are to be congratulated on exposing Iran’s failings on human rights. The work of the UN special rapporteurs has been invaluable in identifying abuses, although requests for visits by UN special rapporteurs on torture and extra-judicial executions have so far gone unanswered. Sadly, although the exposure has made the world more aware of what is happening in Iran, it has not changed Iran’s fundamental approach.
The world is right to be worried by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but the aggression displayed by its President is not necessarily backed by its population. Dissent in Iran is suppressed and minorities face discrimination. It is essential that the spotlight focuses on human rights abuses within Iran’s oppressive regime, and I call on the United Nations and the European Union to step up their activities.
Mr. Greg Pope (in the Chair): Order. I would like to call the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), but he needs the permission of the hon. Lady and the Minister, and to inform the Chair that he wishes to speak. I do not think that he has, so perhaps the best way to proceed would be to see whether he can intervene on the Minister during his contribution.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) on securing a debate on a subject that is of real concern to the United Kingdom Government and, indeed, to this House.
Efforts to improve respect for human rights have long been a central element of the United Kingdom’s and, indeed, the European Union’s approach to Iran. The current situation in Iran seems to be deteriorating and lacking in transparency—from the situation of religious minorities to the conduct of trials and sentencing. The situation is well reported by non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International, and in its latest report Amnesty highlighted the growing difficulties faced by ethnic and religious minorities, harassment of human rights defenders, the erosion of free expression and the serious concerns about Iran’s use of the death penalty.
We have frequently set out those concerns bilaterally and through the relevant international human rights mechanisms. As my hon. Friend mentioned, that includes our concern about the position that the Iranian Government have taken towards Israel. President Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be wiped from the map and his attempts to cast doubt on the holocaust are outrageous and unacceptable.
We have long-standing concerns about political freedoms in Iran. An unelected committee, the Guardian Council, comprised of jurists and clerics, was able to prevent all women and many reformists from standing in last year’s presidential elections. Many reformist candidates, including a third of the sitting Members of Parliament, were similarly excluded from standing in the parliamentary elections in 2004.
We are also very concerned about Iran’s treatment of women. Although the situation for women is in some respects better than in certain other countries in the region—women can, for instance, vote and drive, and they make up more than half of the university population—they nevertheless face significant discrimination. For instance, the evidence of a woman continues to be worth less than that of a man in court, and women do not enjoy equal rights in cases involving divorce, inheritance or the custody of children.
Andrew Mackinlay: The Minister has referred to the serious deficiencies—to say the least—in the legitimacy of the parliamentary process in Iran. This Parliament should beat its breast and apologise. As you know, Mr. Pope, I personally opposed elsewhere the receiving here of a delegation from the Majlis. I thought that it was a mistake, although I understand the compelling case for Committees such as the Foreign Affairs Committee to become engaged. My judgment might be wrong on that issue, but where this Parliament has got it wrong is in respect of the Inter-Parliamentary Union having Majlis delegations.
I put it to the Minister that the British Government and this Parliament would not countenance comparable relationships with the Parliament of Belarus. For all their warts and deficiencies, the Lukashenko Government and that Parliament are innocent compared with the abuse of human rights and the denial of true franchise seen in Tehran. We have double standards. I wonder whether the Minister will comment on that.
Mr. Hoon: I am aware of the delegation, which is led by an experienced Member of Parliament who is a former Foreign Office Minister. I anticipate that he and other members of the delegation will be well aware of the issues that my hon. Friend has quite properly raised. However, I think it is for the judgment of individual Members of Parliament and members of delegations whether such visits go ahead. By visiting, it is possible to identify some of the very concerns that my hon. Friend is anxious about.
House of Commons Hansard Debates 447:160
I was dealing with the question of political freedoms, and I turn now to freedom of expression. As anyone who reads Iranian newspapers will be aware, they certainly engage in colourful and sometimes vigorous debate, but it appears that the confines of such debate are closely circumscribed. In the course of the past five years, the regime has quietly extended its control over the Iranian people’s ability to express their views. Dozens of newspapers have been closed and journalists have been arrested. The journalist Arzhang Davoudi received a 15-year sentence simply for producing a documentary about another journalist who died in custody in suspicious circumstances.
The Iranian Government’s clampdown on the internet has largely passed unnoticed but is also of concern. Many websites that were accessible in Tehran two years ago are now censored, including the BBC’s Persian news website. The Iranian Government recently announced plans to establish a national internet. That would further restrict communication between Iran and the outside world. It would also facilitate control by the authorities. It appears that the Iranian Government do not believe that the Iranian people should be able freely to choose what they read.
The situation of Iran’s trade unions is also of concern. Strikes are not permitted, and in January hundreds of Tehran bus drivers were arrested for taking part in a series of strikes. The wives of some protestors were also arrested and several houses were searched. The head of the bus drivers’ syndicate remains in custody, some four months after the strikes.
Hon. Members voiced concern about the situation faced by Iran’s religious minorities, and I am grateful to them for their continuing efforts in ensuring that Parliament is kept abreast of developments. Reports that Iran’s supreme leader has instructed the army to identify Baha’is and monitor their activities are especially worrying. Hundreds of Baha’is have had their property confiscated, faced intimidation or been denied access to education. Mehran Kowsar is one of many members of the Baha’i faith to have been arrested for his religious beliefs; he has been in prison for well over a year. It is clear from that case that elements of the Iranian judicial system are in need of urgent reform.
So far, the one group that has not been mentioned is lesbians and gays. Many gay men have been executed in the past year. Indeed, execution comes not just through the courts but through officially or unofficially sanctioned death squads roaming villages, trying to find young gay men and executing them. That is outrageous and extraordinary. Has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had an opportunity to raise that specific issue with Tehran?
Mr. Hoon: Certainly there is concern about the situation faced by homosexuals and we are monitoring the situation carefully. We are not aware of any individuals being executed in Iran over the past two years solely on the grounds of homosexuality, but clearly there are other ways in which homosexuals are seriously affected by how the law operates there.
Chris Bryant: I would be very worried if the FCO genuinely believed that no one had been executed solely because of their sexuality. Trumped-up charges are brought before courts regularly, and it is the work of many organisations in this country to reveal the true outrages going on in Iran. The FCO should look into the issue much more carefully.
Mr. Hoon: I chose my words carefully, and I do not see any need to resile from them. Charges are brought for other matters, but I accept the force of what my hon. Friend was suggesting and the issue is of concern to us.
Referring to the Iranian judicial system, we have concerns about court hearings not always being held in public and about the principle of due process not always being respected. Cruel punishments such as flogging, stoning and amputation remain on the statute book. In a prominent recent case, the Iranian authorities executed two youths—one aged 17 and the other 20—on 13 May this year. They were hanged in Lorestan province barely a month after their alleged crime. The case raises important questions. How could a fair trial be completed in such a short time? Were the two able to exhaust every avenue of appeal open to them? Why does Iran continue to execute under-18s, in violation of international law?
The UK Government and the European Union have, naturally, posed those questions to the Iranian Government, but the case highlights important inconsistencies between Iran’s stated policy of ending such executions and its actions. The international community clearly has a duty to respond to such developments, which undermine basic principles of human rights, and we are committed to addressing that issue.
Andrew Mackinlay: I hope that the Minister will not think me impertinent, but before he concludes I would like him to tell us precisely what Her Majesty’s Government have done about such issues. Anyone who looks at the record tomorrow will see that, in the past few minutes, the Minister has acknowledged that we are aware of the problems. I want to know—as does the House—what he and his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office do in the face of those repeated human rights abuses, of which they are aware.
Under the British presidency of the European Union, we raised our human rights concerns with the Iranian Government on no fewer than 16 occasions. We led the European Union in issuing five statements, covering many of the issues that we have discussed today. We were pleased that all EU member states supported a UN General Assembly resolution that highlighted Iran’s human rights record last December. We have continued to be active in supporting EU action since then. We said at the start of our presidency that human rights would be a priority in our relations with Iran, and it remains a central part of our policy approach. Progress in our relations with Iran is dependent on action by the Iranian Government to address our human rights concerns.
Lembit Öpik: Is the Minister, like me, an optimist about human nature, and if so, does he agree that however difficult it has been so far to secure a change through dialogue with Iran, there is mileage in hoping that, through dialogue and by presenting the benefits of constructive action by the Iranian Government, we could make progress? I would be less optimistic if I had not seen some signs of response from the Iranian Administration in the past, especially when they knew that the public abroad were watching. Does the Minister think that dialogue might be worth while, and if so, can we discuss, outside today’s debate, the options for holding such dialogue with regard to the Baha’i?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He sets out the position sensibly and in a way that allows for progress. By highlighting the problems, we draw attention to how the Iranian Government should improve their record on human rights, but we must also acknowledge that the picture is not uniformly bad. There are areas where progress can be made—and indeed the benefit of this debate is that it allows us all to set out our concerns—but we acknowledge that in some areas there has been progress, although clearly far more work needs to be done.
In the recent past, under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, Iran seemed to be taking significant steps forward. I regret that that progress has slowed in recent years. Indeed, as we have discussed, in many areas Iran is, sadly, moving backwards. However, we should not devalue the efforts of those in Iran who are working for reforms. Their task is being made increasingly difficult.
Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Minister heard the chairman of the all-party Friends of the Baha’i group request a further meeting with him. As vice-chair of the group, I also make that request, but I know that my right hon. Friend may have to speak on behalf of another Minister.
Mr. Hoon: Well, I am always delighted to offer meetings on behalf of other Ministers, but I will ensure that my hon. Friend’s comments, and those of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), are drawn to my colleague’s attention. I am sure that they will be shown the normal courtesy extended to Members of Parliament.
It is important to recognise that real change can only come from within Iran. Obviously, we will continue to do everything that we can to support those working to achieve that change. This debate has been important. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside again for securing and initiating a debate on a subject that the Government take extremely seriously.
Westminster Hall Debates 448:38
I want to concentrate on the narrow but important domain of human rights. The greatest condemnation of the mullahs’ regime should be reserved for their dreadful human rights record. I remind hon. Members that that state is probably second only to China in the number of people it kills by capital punishment, and there is an argument that it may kill more people than any other state. The hon. Gentleman referred to the way in which it conducts those punishments. Hanging people publicly from various capital equipment is horrific, and last Saturday’s Daily Mirror shows graphically the 59 people who were hanged in January.
Whatever else one thinks about Iran, it is a great nation. It is not Arabic, but consists of Farsi-speaking people. We should always respect it and want to work with it, but until it improves its human rights record, it is up there with the nations that I feel deeply about—including Sudan, Zimbabwe and so on—because of the way it subjugates its people.
As has been said, do not be a member of the opposition in Iran, because people who are have every chance of being arrested, imprisoned and subsequently hanged. Do not be a Baha’i. I was pleased to see early-day motion 937 on that issue, tabled by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). Again, the Baha’i are being singled out for mistreatment, arrest and worse.
I was also pleased to see in today’s Hansard that the Minister has answered the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on how many representations he has made to Iran on behalf of Christians. He said that he had made more than 40 representations. Do not be a Christian in Iran. Those are minority religions, but they are important religions. If we were mistreating Muslims in this country, I would expect us to be held to account in the court of world justice. Iran does it, because it appeals to the mob, and that has to stop.… Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) on securing the debate. There could hardly be a more important foreign affairs topic and one more deserving of debate in the House.
British policy towards Iran should be based first and foremost on a hard-headed and pragmatic assessment of where the British national interest lies. That interest certainly lies in seeing Iran once again become engaged as part of the mainstream of the international community. Several hon. Members have talked about the impact of economic change on Iran. Anybody who has been to Iran and experienced the planned power cuts every day or looked at the half-mile queues outside filling stations in that oil-producing country will have some awareness of the economic pressures that are biting on ordinary Iranian families.
There is no doubt that, with 60 per cent. of the population under 30, there is a tremendous appetite for economic growth and educational development, and for Iran to become part of the world once again. However, as my hon. Friend and others have said, the political obstacles in the way of that re-engagement are formidable, and the time available—particularly given the crisis over nuclear policy—is very limited.
As I look at Iran, I see a country that takes enormous pride in its history and cultural achievements. There is perhaps a parallel with China, in that Iran also has an abiding sense of resentment at having had its interests trampled over by the dominant powers in the world—the powers of the western world—for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. We do not necessarily have to agree with the Iranians’ view of the world to want to understand what it is like to be in their shoes. If one talks to Iranian Ministers and officials in Tehran, one hears that they feel surrounded. They say, “We have a nuclear Russia to the north of us, which occupied the northern part of our country not so many decades ago; we have a United States fleet to our south in the Gulf; we have an American army in Iraq to the west and Afghanistan to the east; we have a nuclear-armed Sunni power in Pakistan; and we have Israel, which is assumed to possess nuclear weapons, which talks about Iran representing an existential threat.” One of the starting points in considering policy must be to appreciate how the other side sees the world.
There are huge differences. I want briefly to digress, because the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) was right to flag up the continuing importance of human rights in any dialogue between London and Tehran. It is ironic that when one visits Tehran the Iranians talk with great pride about how there are designated seats in the Majlis for representatives of the Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian minorities. That must be contrasted with the appalling apostasy laws and the ruthless treatment of members of the Baha’i faith, whose leaders are even now imprisoned without trial, possibly awaiting charges for which, if found guilty, they could face a capital penalty. As the hon. Member for Stroud pointed out, not only is the death penalty used, but it is used in the most barbaric fashion, and there is imprisonment without trial or due process. I encourage the Minister to continue to exhort the Iranians to improve their record on human rights.
Mr. Wallace: Does my hon. Friend agree, on the subject of rights, that the Iranian constitution gives many rights, and protects human rights for all, but that the problem is that the present regime especially has tried to step outside the constitution and veto those rights, continually using terrorism and national security as an excuse? Does he agree that one thing that the west should do is urge Iran to stick to its constitution and stop it making exemptions in its laws under the guise of national security?
Iran has the capacity to play an important and constructive role in the politics of the middle east and south-western Asia. Initially, it was hostile to the Taliban and it co-operated with the coalition forces in 2001 when they first entered Afghanistan. There is no doubt, from talking to Iranian leaders, that they are acutely aware of the damaging impact of the drugs trade and large numbers of Afghan refugees on the stability of their society. There is scope for Iran to become a partner for stability in Afghanistan, but it would need a change of heart from Tehran, which would need to be willing to turn language about wanting co-operation into concrete policy.
It is fair, too, for the west to acknowledge that Iran has legitimate national interests at stake in Iraq and the wider Gulf region. However, if Iran wants the west to take its interests seriously, it needs to understand how destabilising are comments such as those made recently by one of the President’s advisers, asserting that Bahrain should be part of Iranian territory. I should like the Minister to say whether the Government have pressed the Iranians to make a clear assertion—because I think it is now needed—that they respect Bahrain’s sovereignty and independence. The current President of Iran has used inflammatory language about Israel. I have said to Iranians that they grossly underestimate the fear that such language has provoked in Israel. There is no doubt that there is genuine fear in Israel that Iran poses a threat to the state’s very existence, yet speeches are made by Iranian leaders—most recently by Dr. Larijani at the Munich security conference in February—in which they talk about Israel as they talk about other states; they do not talk about the Zionist entity, but about Israel, a country that exists: it is a country that they do not like, and with whose policies they are at odds, but they see it as part of the region, and part of the world. If the Iranians would make it clear that they are willing to accept the existence of Israel, and the reality of the Israeli state, it would help things to move forward.
I must finish with a few words about the nuclear programme. There are some unpalatable facts. The programme is popular in Iran. There is a question as to how far we can trust any opinion survey, but there are surveys that show that up to 80 per cent. or more of the Iranian population support the case that Iran should have a nuclear capability. There is no doubt that the non-proliferation treaty gives Iran the right to civil nuclear power, but that right is subject to the rules and inspection regime of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The verdict set out in the IAEA’s most recent report of 19 February is clear: the Iranians are still refusing either to accept the additional protocol, which provides for unannounced inspections of key installations, or to provide full access to and co-operation with inspectors along the lines that the agency has been seeking.
Westminster Hall Debates 495:108
Human Rights (Iran)
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I thank right hon. and hon. Members for attending this debate. I am particularly grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting my request for this debate on human rights in Iran. That we should be holding it now will come as no surprise. Regrettably, the authorities in Iran have not chosen to build bridges, despite the olive branches that have been offered by me and so many others. In the past few weeks, we have clearly seen demonstrated both the internal tensions within Iran and the readiness of elements in the Iranian state to use violence and oppression.
I come from the perspective of the problems faced by Iran’s Baha’i community, but I note also the plight of many other Iranian minority communities and the treatment of Iranian women. And who can ignore the Iranian state’s use of capital punishment? Few nations on earth execute people as often or for as many different reasons.
Nevertheless, I want to make it clear to this House and to the Iranian authorities that my objective is not to pillory that great nation. I do not conduct politics through confrontation or simplistic condemnation of individuals or Governments. Rather, my two goals are to resolve the pressing human rights issues facing the Baha’is in Iran and to prevent a dreadful miscarriage of justice in the days ahead.
The Baha’i faith has 5 million adherents worldwide, and there are 6,000 in Britain. However, the historical roots of the community lie in Iran. Despite persecution since the inception of the religion in the 19th century, the Baha’is remain the largest single religious minority community in that country, numbering around 300,000 members.
Baha’is have historically been treated as scapegoats during times of social tension, but conditions sharply deteriorated after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Sadly, that situation continues to this day. Since 1979, more than 200 Baha’is have been killed and 15 others have disappeared—we must presume that they are dead. Repression of their community has included executions and imprisonment, as well as denial of the right to educate their youth. There have been regular and persistent attacks on their social, economic and cultural rights.
The Baha’is seek no special privileges. All they seek are conditions that accord with the International Bill of Human Rights, of which Iran is a signatory. The right to life, the right to profess and practise their religion, the right to liberty and security of person, and the right to education and work: those are not heady demands.
The Baha’i faith requires Baha’is to be obedient to their Government and to avoid partisan political involvement. Indeed, I am the chairman of the all-party Friends of the Baha’is group only because I am not a Baha’i myself. Were I to sign up to the faith, technically, I would have to leave party politics—something which I am glad to say I have not yet been persuaded to do. [Hon. Members: “Go on.”] Until this moment.
It is important to note that subversive activity and all forms of violence are not permitted by the Baha’i faith. It follows that the Baha’i community in Iran, and, in fact, in the United Kingdom, is not aligned with any Government, ideology or opposition movement. Furthermore, showing good will to the followers of all religions is a basic, fundamental tenet of the Baha’i faith. The Baha’is are not enemies of Islam nor, indeed, of Iran. One could not find a more benign and humanistic religion anywhere on earth. The faith is of a pure, gentle and spiritual giving nature. It threatens no one but holds out a hand of friendship to one and all.
Given the character of the Baha’i faith, it is all the more tragic that, in the past few years, there has been a resurgence of extreme forms of persecution directed at the Baha’i community of Iran. The upsurge has alarmed human rights monitors who fear not only for those Baha’is affected by the Government’s renewed campaign but also that such attacks portend something far worse.
International experts on ethnic, racial and religious cleansing have identified a number of warning signs that often foreshadow widespread purges. Several recent developments add to those concerns, and I shall cite them now. First, seven members of the Baha’i leadership group have been arbitrarily detained for more than eight months and still have no access to legal counsel. They form the core concern that has led to this debate. There are worrying precedents to the situation. After the revolution in Iran, the nine members of the National Assembly were abducted and disappeared. Nothing has been heard of them since then, and they are presumed dead. A new National Assembly was elected, and in 1981 eight of the nine members of that body were executed.
Secondly, arbitrary arrests and detentions are being made, chiefly by the Intelligence Ministry. Currently, 31 Baha’is are in prison, and, as of June 2009, 78 Baha’is who had been detained and then released on bail are awaiting trial. Thirdly, there has been a general upsurge in vigilante attacks against Baha’is and their properties, such as the bulldozing of Baha’i cemeteries and the torching of Baha’i homes. Fourthly, there appears to be an increase in incitement and propaganda in state-run news media to vilify and defame Baha’is as individuals and the faith as a whole. The fifth example is the deliberate policy of denying Baha’is their right to a livelihood by banning them from employment options, confiscating their means of business, and blocking their access to higher education.
Much of that is part of the Iranian Government’s strategy to suppress the Baha’i community without attracting undue international attention, as outlined in a secret memorandum from 1991 that aimed at establishing a policy regarding “the Baha’i question”. So we know that there has been a strategy behind all this in the past, and it is reasonable to assume that there is a similar strategy at present.
Little wonder, then, that the Baha’is of Iran are denied the right to practise their faith freely, which is a right guaranteed under international human rights instruments such as the International Bill of Human Rights, to which, I stress again, Iran is a state party.
Our experience indicates that bilateral and multilateral scrutiny of Iran’s human rights record is the best method of engaging the Iranian authorities and preventing further deterioration of human rights for the many citizens of that country who face repression. The seven members of the Yaran—the Friends—constitute an ad hoc leadership body that co-ordinates the activities of the 300,000 strong Baha’i community in Iran. The elected administrative bodies of the Baha’i faith are banned, so these people, detained and on trial as they are, represent the focus of the matter in hand. This, despite the fact that the Iranian authorities have had regular, if informal, contact with the Yaran for many years.
The secretary of the Yaran, Mrs. Mahvash Sabet, was arrested on 5 March 2008 while attending a Baha’i funeral. The remaining six members, Mrs. Fariba Kamalabadi, Mr. Jamaloddin Khanjani, Mr. Afif Naeimi, Mr. Saeid Rezaie, Mr. Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Mr. Vahid Tizfahm, were arrested on 14 May 2008. I expect the Minister to read out all those names as well when he responds. All seven have been detained for more than a year in Evin prison, Tehran. They have been held in section 209, which is under the direct control of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. The five male members have been incarcerated in a cell with no bedding.
In June, the Centre for Human Rights Defenders in Iran learned that the seven will face revolutionary trial, and our best guess is that that will happen on 11 July—this Saturday. The lawyers have indicated that they have had the opportunity to review the related case files but have not been able to complete the process as the files are unusually extensive.
Further to the decision of Ms Shirin Ebadi of the Centre for Human Rights Defenders in Iran to serve as legal counsel for the seven Baha’is, fraudulent claims have appeared in the Iranian media that aim to malign or intimidate her and thereby prevent the Baha’is from having legal representation. Untrue and erroneous stories have also asserted that Ms Ebadi’s daughter has apostastised from Islam and converted to the Baha’i faith. Ms Ebadi has also had death threats pinned to the door of her office, one of which was signed “The Association of Anti-Baha’is”.
It is understood that the trial will be carried out under the jurisdiction of branch 28 of the revolutionary court. That is significant because the recent case of American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi was also tried in branch 28, in camera, in proceedings that lasted a single day, at the end of which she was sentenced to eight years for espionage.
Under Iranian law, the lawyers for the Baha’is are not allowed to reveal information they are privy to from the case file. Amazingly, it remains unclear whether the seven Baha’is have been formally charged with any offence to date—just days before the trial. However, reports in February 2009 indicated that they will be charged with
“espionage for the state of Israel”
“spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic”
“insulting religious sanctities”.
“spreading corruption on earth”—
The Baha’i international community categorically denies the accusations against these individuals, but fears that they may none the less face execution. So-called spying has long been used as a pretext to persecute Baha’is and as an attempt to impede the progress of the Baha’i community. Since the 1930s, Baha’is have successively been cast as tools of Russian imperialism, of British colonialism, of American expansionism and, most recently, of Zionism. The Baha’i faith has never been a part of any of these movements. There is no truth in this allegation and no evidence to support it.
That the international headquarters of the Baha’i faith is located within the borders of modern-day Israel is purely the result of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the faith, being banished from his native Tehran and sent by Persian and Ottoman authorities in the 19th century to perpetual exile in the city of Acre, near Haifa. Baha’u’llah arrived in Acre in 1868, 80 years before the establishment of the state of Israel. The Iranian Government know this but wilfully choose to misrepresent the facts.
What would we like to see? Initially, we ask our British Government to apply whatever pressure they can to encourage the Iranian authorities to release the seven members of the Yaran. They have done nothing wrong and do not deserve the treatment that they have received; they deserve justice and release from their unjustified incarceration. If a trial goes ahead—as I say, it is scheduled for 11 July, which is this Saturday—we ask Ministers to impress upon the Iranian authorities before then that it must be carried out in an open, transparent manner, according to international standards, with proper access to legal representation and with no effort to fix the outcome.
In terms of wider action by the Government, we ask for collective action by British Ministers and our European and international partners for a longer-term easing of the persecution that is being endured by the Baha’is and others, including Christians, in Iran. In this context, I cite the plight of Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh, both held in Evin prison since March 2009, apparently for being Christians. We understand the considerable difficulties in dealing with the Iranian authorities and the limitations of international pressure.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise for missing the first few minutes of the hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech. Does he accept that although Christians are less subjugated in Iran they are often the butt of other forms of criticism? Christian Solidarity Worldwide did a great deal of advocacy, as it does in many parts of the world, to get those two ladies out. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take that matter up. The Baha’is are special people, but the Christians also face difficulties.
Lembit Öpik: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I underline the points that he has made to the Minister and to hon. Members. The church that I attend, the Hope community church in Newtown, does a great deal of international work. Alan Hewitt, the chief pastor there, shares the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman. I hope that the Minister will comment on the plight of Christians and other oppressed minorities, not all of them religious minorities, in Iran. There are considerable difficulties for Christians, as the hon. Gentleman has underlined, but especially for Baha’is.
Scrutiny from national and international bodies has in the past helped to discourage a ratcheting-up of abuses and, hopefully, we can do so again now and in future. Our experience indicates that bilateral and multilateral scrutiny of Iran’s human rights record is the best method of engaging the Iranian authorities and preventing a further deterioration of human rights for the many citizens of that country facing repression. A number of Governments, international organisations, and prominent individuals have reacted to the announcement of the trial of the seven members of the Baha’i leadership, including the European Parliament, the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the United States State Department, the European Union, the Government of Australia, a Canadian parliamentary committee and Amnesty International, which has done tireless work in this regard.
Naturally, the Baha’i international community is calling on the international community at large to request that the Iranian authorities ensure that the seven are either released or receive a fair and open public trial that will be held according to international standards.
I have no visceral dislike of Iran, its people or its Government; it has a great and noble history that exceeds that of many other countries. I have even requested permission to visit Tehran to discuss these matters directly with Iranian officials and politicians to see how we can best resolve these matters to the mutual benefit of all concerned. So far, I have not been able to secure permission to go, but I will keep on trying, despite the fact that the Iranian embassy informed me that I was not able to go due to technical difficulties and the technical impossibility of going there. I hope to overcome those technical difficulties and have a meaningful dialogue in Tehran.
Lembit Öpik: If push comes to shove, I have a small aircraft of my own and I can see if I can make it in eight short hops. However, it would be safer for me, and easier for the country, if the Minister used his considerable weight and the considerable stature of the British Government to seek once again to extend an olive branch to Iran and make it clear that we do not seek to attack it, but merely want to encourage it to take a more benign, positive view towards the Baha’is and other oppressed minorities, and towards these seven Baha’i leaders in particular.
My requests are simple. I ask that the British Government do all they can to prevent a miscarriage of justice in regard to the seven Baha’i leaders facing trial. I ask the Iranian Government for engagement. Ultimately, this is the best pathway to justice. Iran can have many friends in Britain and worldwide, and I would like to be one of them. By lightening the load of oppression on the Baha’is and others, Iran will find for itself the best avenue to lead itself and its citizens into full partnership in the international community. I am sure, with all my heart, that that is something we would all like to see.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on securing this timely and welcome debate. I endorse all the points that he made about religious freedoms and tolerance, which are necessary in any modern society. In Iran, which has a plethora of ethnic communities and religious groups, that sort of tolerance is more important than in many other countries. I therefore support what the hon. Gentleman said about the rights of Baha’is, Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, non-Shi’a Muslims, and people of other religious faiths to be able to practise their religion and to operate in freedom. What he said this morning is extremely important and it is important to have that on the record. Iran is a signatory to the United Nations charter—obviously, because it is a member of the UN—and the universal declaration of human rights. All those rights are protected in international law, so it is perfectly right and proper to exert that pressure.
These are stirring and important times in Iran. The demonstrations of the past few weeks following the election have been unprecedented since 1979—phenomenal numbers of people have appeared on the streets. I deplore the way in which many of the demonstrators have been treated—the beatings and killings. That is not acceptable in any society, be it in Iran, China or anywhere else in the world. People have an absolute right to express their views peaceably on the streets.
Coverage of the demonstrations that was received around the world was interesting. Initially, various Iranian channels reported the demonstrations, as did the BBC, CNN and others, and there was an interesting degree of opening in political debate, both inside and outside Iran, immediately after the elections. One should be pleased about that.
“the arrest, torture and murder of protesters...and urges the Iranian Government to accept free and fair UN-supervised elections.
I do not believe for one moment that Iran will accept outside supervision of elections, but every country in the world, including the UK, should be more than happy to accept international observers and reporting of elections. We should not be so precious about that. We send observers to other countries and we should welcome observers here. Every country’s electoral process should be open to observation, which would create a degree of equality.
House of Commons Hansard Debates 564:19
Tuesday 18 June 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): I was proud to receive that letter from a large number of faith leaders in the United Kingdom. It is a powerful expression of support for the imprisoned Baha’i leaders in Iran. I hope that the concerns of those with faith will be heard anew in Tehran, and we continue to call for the release of the seven imprisoned Baha’i leaders.
Naomi Long: I thank the Minister for his comments and for receiving the letter and meeting us. On this day 30 years ago, 10 Baha’i women were hanged for refusing to abandon their faith. The continued incarceration of seven leaders is clearly of great importance to the Baha’i community, not just in Iran but around the world. What hope does the Minister have that the change in President may have an impact on the approach towards their persecution?
Alistair Burt: I am grateful to the hon. Lady not only for asking the question but for being present at the handing over of the letter. It remains the case that the human rights record in Iran is appalling. A lot of hope is being pinned on the possibility of change in Iran. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said yesterday, it is rather too early to tell, but it has been reported that the new President talked at yesterday’s press conference about a more inclusive constitution. I am sure that we will wait to see what happens, rather than just judge on words. If there is any opportunity for the release of Baha’i leaders and for better treatment of the Baha’is and all other religious minorities in Iran, it would be warmly welcomed by the House.
Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): There are 7 million Baha’is living all over the world, many thousands in the United Kingdom. Would it be possible to contact the faith and religious groups in this country, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, to see whether they could act as a bridge to the spiritual leader to discuss the release of these prisoners?
Alistair Burt: The excellent thing about the inter-faith letter that I received on 14 May is that it was signed by a collection of leaders from virtually all the faiths represented in the United Kingdom, and they made exactly that point—that spiritual leaders can speak to spiritual leaders. I have no doubt at all that those in the United Kingdom continue to urge religious tolerance throughout the world and they made that particular point in their letter.