[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]
I am pleased to be conducting this Adjournment debate under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea.
This debate draws attention to Iran’s horrendous human rights record. The abuses affect a wide range of people—women, gay people, dissidents and the human rights lawyers who try to defend those people, including the lawyer Abdolfatah Soltani, held since September 2001 for creating propaganda against the system. Last September, three Iranian men were executed after being found guilty of charges relating to homosexuality. Last week, the daughter of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former President of Iran, received a six-month jail sentence for allegedly spreading propaganda against the regime. Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman who was due to be sentenced to death by stoning for alleged adultery, may now be hanged; we are told that the change of punishment from stoning to hanging is some kind of progress.
However, I wish to focus on an area of persecution that has received too little public notice and attention: the long-standing and ongoing persecution of the Baha’is, adherents of the Baha’i religion founded in Iran in the mid-19th century. The persecution is not widely acknowledged, although it is pervasive and is escalating dangerously. There are thought to be more than 300,000 Baha’is in Iran and 188 Baha’i communities worldwide.
Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, 200 Baha’is were expelled and thousands were imprisoned. The 1991 memorandum of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution set out what still remains official policy towards what is ominously called the Baha’i question. The memorandum makes it clear that official policy is repression of the Baha’is in an effort to crush the religion and its adherents—in the words of the Iranian Government’s official policy, to block their progress and development. The repression takes a number of forms in an ongoing and systematic persecution. It means arbitrary arrest and imprisonment and the denial of access to higher education and areas of employment. The homes and businesses of Baha’is have been subject to arson attacks, cemeteries have been destroyed, and children have been harassed.
There are 102 Baha’is imprisoned in Iran. One current issue of major concern is the trial of the seven former leaders of the Baha’i community of Iran: Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm. They were detained in 2008 without charge and were denied access to lawyers for a year. In January 2010, they appeared in court on charges that could have led to their execution. In August, they received sentences of 20 years. Although the sentences had been reduced to 10 years following international condemnation, the length has since been restored.
In May 2011, another series of raids was held on 39 Baha’i homes in Tehran, Karaj, Shiraz, Gohardasht, Sari and Zahedan. In the ensuing weeks, eight people were released, but 11 remain imprisoned. The charges were of conspiracy against national security and conspiracy against the Islamic Republic of Iran by establishing the illegal Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, an online programme to support Baha’i youth barred from universities. I have raised the persecution of the Baha’is previously.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this afternoon’s debate. Canadian Senator Dallaire, a former commander of the UN mission in Rwanda, recently drew attention to the escalation of attacks on Baha’is and others in Iran, which he described as
“a slow-motion rehearsal for genocide”.
Does my hon. Friend agree that such comments from such a distinguished observer of human rights are a great cause of concern, as are the issues that my hon. Friend outlines?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Those comments show how the situation is escalating. They should lead not only to increased concern but to increased action. I intend to refer to that comment later, and will say what I think should be done to address the situation.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s work on behalf of the Baha’i community. We are both members of the all-party friends of the Baha’is group, which tries to advance the cause of the Baha’is. Does she agree that one of the big problems with Iran is raising awareness of the human rights issue in Iran? I am thinking of the case of Madam Ashtiani, of the 600 people who have been executed over the past year, and most definitely of the Baha’i community in general. That is where contributions from Canadian senators and others are particularly important. There has been a huge awareness deficit across the world of the extent of human rights violations in Iran.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is extremely important to raise awareness, knowledge and consciousness of these atrocities. It is important that people take action to prevent or stop persecution, but unless they become aware of it, it is less likely that action will be taken. Contributions such as his are important in increasing that awareness.
Reference has been made to members of other faiths. Has my hon. Friend read the report of the United Nations special rapporteur, which condemned the actions taken against Arabs, Azeris, Baha’is, Balochs, Christians, Kurds, Sufis and Sunni Muslims? The report was published in September by the special rapporteur, Ahmed Shaheed, who was appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
That report is extremely important in documenting the wide range of persecution in Iran. It is important that the report is made known more widely and leads to action. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work during the previous Parliament as Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which considered human rights in Iran and specifically referred to some of these issues, including the Baha’is and other groups to whom he referred. The Select Committee’s work in drawing public attention to the situation is extremely important, but what also matters is that the information is used and followed by action, in this country and internationally. I note that both the present Government and the previous Government have taken the issue of general persecution against a range of people in Iran seriously and have raised it. Their work has been good, but much more still needs to be done.
In March 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed a special rapporteur to monitor Iran’s compliance on human rights, and last December the General Assembly expressed deep concern about a wide range of abuse that is continuing and, in some cases, escalating. It stated that the abuse includes a “dramatic increase” in the use of torture, the systematic targeting of human rights defenders, pervasive violence against women, and continuing discrimination against minorities, including members of the Baha’i faith.
Regrettably, those representations, and the work done by our Government and others in the United Nations—and, indeed, in Europe—have not had a great deal of effect. Persecution continues and concerns are escalating. My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) referred to the concerns expressed by the Canadian Senator, Roméo Dallaire, who has drawn attention to the rise in atrocities in Iran, both generally and specifically against the Baha’is. It is extremely important that the world does not wait until there is a genocide. It should heed warning and take further action to put pressure on the Government of Iran to stop what they are doing. The Minister does good work in this area, but what further representations does he intend to make? Will he make representations to those members of the UN Human Rights Council who did not feel able to join in the condemnation of the atrocities, in order to persuade them to increase the pressure and join that widespread condemnation?
I have a specific request: will the Government call for Dr Bielefeldt, the UN special rapporteur on the freedom of religion or belief, to be granted a visa to visit Iran, so that he can compile a new report on freedom of religion or belief there? Dr Bielefeldt’s comments in October 2011 on the extreme nature of the persecution of the Baha’is in Iran are extremely alarming. Will the Minister do all that he can to support the issuing of a visa from Iran to allow Dr Bielefeldt to visit and conduct further investigations?
Too little is known about the plight of the Baha’is. Some Members may be aware of it only from their constituency work and their work with refugees. Many of us find that people in our constituencies are seeking asylum on grounds of persecution following their experiences in Iran. I have met a number of such people. Indeed, I am in the process of making representations on behalf of two Baha’is from Iran who are seeking asylum following persecution in their homeland, in this case for their work in the field of the arts. That demonstrates the Iranian regime’s repression of its whole population.
Last July, the popular Iranian comedian, Omid Djalili, wrote in The Guardian about the plight of the Baha’is and, indeed, his own experience as a Baha’i. He wrote about his experience as a member of an Iranian football team in Northern Ireland. He was a valued and successful member of the team, but when his colleagues discovered that he was a Baha’i, he was cold-shouldered and dropped from the team, which is an example of absolute prejudice against Baha’is.
The hon. Lady referred to the 1991 memorandum. Does this not go beyond a culture? It is an actual black-and-white policy, as laid out by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. The memorandum needs to be withdrawn so that there is not a policy in black and white, with expulsion from universities, exclusion from employment, and general exclusion from life in Iran.
I agree with the tenor of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. In the context of the whole field of human rights in Iran, we are talking not about persecution by individuals, and something that is inconsistent with the general tenor of the way in which the Government operate, but about state-sanctioned persecution, which is what makes it so ominous and horrendous. That is why it so important that action is taken, not just nationally—we cannot achieve very much on our own—but internationally. It is extremely important that people understand what is happening—that this is part of the state apparatus, not an anomaly.
Omid Djalili wrote a number of interesting things in his article. He wrote about his own experience. I was privileged to hear him speak about it directly at the House of Commons only a few months ago when he addressed a meeting held by the all-party friends of the Baha’is group—of which I am the treasurer—about human rights in general. In his Guardian article, he took the issue further than his individual experiences. He wrote about the general situation in Iran in relation to Baha’is and how he felt that their plight had been ignored for far too long in Iran as well as outside it. He wrote:
“Nowadays, the climate feels different. In February 2009 a group of Iranian intellectuals, writers, activists and artists signed an open letter to the Bahá’ís stating their regret concerning the Iranian government’s treatment of its Bahá’í minority. They made an open apology for their silence during Iran’s long-running persecutions: ‘a century and a half of oppression and silence is enough’. This letter was welcomed by the Bahá’ís, who have always made it clear they are humanitarians, not political activists, working towards social transformation for all at a grassroots level, not concerned with overthrowing governments.”
It is important that people understand that the nature of the Baha’is is peace-loving. They want to unify people and do not seek division and dissent. It is important that that gentle approach is not misunderstood, that people understand what is happening to the Baha’is and, indeed, to other groups, and that they are willing to take action about it.
I hope that this debate will focus attention on Iran’s deplorable record on human rights across the board. The abuses affect far too many people. I hope that it will shine some light on the position of the Baha’is, whose plight is little known and little understood. What matters most, however, is that action is taken. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this vital debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr McCrea, and I warmly thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) for bringing this issue to the Chamber. I am indebted to Christian Solidarity Worldwide for assisting my preparation for this debate. I could not speak in front of a more apposite ministerial representative than the Under-Secretary, who has taken a great interest in the issue throughout his years in the House.
This is a period of unprecedented tension between the west, broadly speaking, and Iran, but that should not mean that we resile from confronting Iran with the reality of the human rights abuses and persecution that it is inflicting on many of its citizens. In the context of human rights, I would like to focus specifically not on the Baha’i faith, but on the wider Christian community and the suffering that it endures at the hands of the state.
Iran has witnessed a steep rise in the persecution of religious minorities during 2011, principally of Christians belonging to both the sanctioned Churches and the unsanctioned house-church networks. The most worrying forms of persecution include regular raids on gatherings; harsh interrogations and torture of Christians, including demands for the recantation of faith and for information on the identities of fellow Christians; detention for long periods without charge and other violations of due process; convictions for ill-defined crimes or on falsified political charges; the economic targeting of the Christian community through the demand of exorbitant bail payments; and the threat of imminent execution of a house-church pastor.
Both evangelical Christians and Christians within the traditional Armenian and Assyrian Churches who conduct services or church activities in Persian are deemed a threat to the Islamic integrity of the nation and live increasingly in an atmosphere of instability. Targeted persecution has been undergirded by a proliferation of anti-Christian rhetoric from senior figures in Iran and, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside has said, has been accompanied by the continuing repression of the unsanctioned Baha’i religious community.
I particularly want to raise the very worrying case of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, which I have previously brought to the Minister’s attention. Pastor Nadarkhani was sentenced to death for apostasy—abandoning Islam—in 2010 and was involved in two further court cases last year. The case went to appeal at the supreme court in June 2011, and the verdict of the lower court was not overthrown. However, the supreme court requested a re-examination of whether Pastor Nadarkhani had practised Islam as an adult before his conversion to Christianity. The re-examination took place in September last year, and it was ruled that although the pastor had never practised as an adult, he was nevertheless guilty of apostasy due to his Islamic heritage.
In a series of hearings from 25 to 28 September, the pastor was given three opportunities to recant his faith to secure his acquittal and release. He refused very courageously each time and was returned to prison to await a final written verdict from the court. A significant international outcry raised the profile of the case and the courts have twice referred to the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, for his opinion. However, the ayatollah has so far avoided commenting on the issue and no official final decision has been reached. Pastor Nadarkhani remains in Lakan prison.
On 23 December, the sanctioned Assemblies of God church in the city of Ahvaz was raided during a Christmas service. Everyone in the building, including children attending the Sunday school, was detained, interrogated, threatened and eventually released. However, the church’s senior pastor, Pastor Farhad, remains in detention along with some of the church leaders. Although direct attacks on sanctioned churches were rare in 2011, a large number of unsanctioned or underground house churches were violently raided, items confiscated and members arrested and interrogated. More than 300 members of house churches are known to have been arrested and interrogated in at least 48 cities throughout Iran in 2011. However, the complete figure is almost certainly significantly higher. The majority of those arrested were released following questioning and a short incarceration, but many have been recalled for further questioning, and at least 41 have spent a month to a year in prison. Some of those arrested have not been formally charged and many of them face long periods of solitary confinement.
Farshid Fathi-Malayeri, who was arrested on 26 December 2010 in Tehran, is still being held in Evin prison. He has not been formally charged and a court date has not been set. That evangelical church leader and father of two young children has been kept in solitary confinement for a large part of his incarceration. The equivalent of £120,000 was demanded as bail for his release, and his family eventually managed to raise that, yet the authorities still refused to release him. On one occasion, as a form of psychological torture, Farshid was told to pack a bag and get ready to leave. The guards led him as far as the outer gate of the jail where other prisoners were being released, but he was then suddenly ordered back to his cell. Noorollah Ghabitzadeh, a church leader arrested in Dezful on 24 December 2010, is also believed to be still detained, although little is known of his condition.
Detainees regularly face solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, illness as a result of privations, denial of medical treatment, unsanitary conditions in prison and forms of psychological and physical torture during interrogation. Torture is used to pressure individuals to make confessions and to provide information on others. As I mentioned, exorbitant bail postings secure the release of individuals, along with illegal documents that religious detainees are forced to sign. Such documents demand an end to participation in Christian activities, the renunciation of faith, and compliance with further questioning when summoned. Laptops and mobile phones are often confiscated during raids on private Christian homes and are used to obtain information on the activities and identities of other Christians.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) on bringing the matter to the House today. One of the repercussions of the issue being discussed relates to employment and the owning of property. It is not just about being hit for worshipping God in church; there are repercussions beyond that. Does the hon. Gentleman know whether the Government have made any representations to the Iranian authorities to reduce and minimise the threats to Christian people?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has taken a great interest in these issues. If he will bear with me, I will make some key requests of the Minister when I conclude. I certainly agree with the tenor of his comments.
The majority of Christians arrested in the past year have been released and are either on bail awaiting trial or have been issued with severe warnings and threats against other Christian activity. The Church of Iran evangelical denomination has been particularly targeted with legal action in the past year. Pastor Behnam Irani is a pastor from that network who has been imprisoned since May 2011. He is currently serving a five-year sentence in Ghezel Hesar prison in Karaj for action against national security. The verdict against him includes text that describes Pastor Irani as an apostate and reiterates that apostates “can be killed”.
According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide sources, Pastor Irani is sharing a cell with criminals who regularly beat him and, as a result of injuries sustained during these assaults, he is now having difficulty walking. Christian Solidarity Worldwide was informed that, during the first few months of his imprisonment, he was held incommunicado in a small cell, where guards would repeatedly wake him from sleep as a form of psychological torture. He was moved into a cramped room where inmates could not lie down to sleep, before being transferred to his current cell.
The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling contribution about the distressing persecution of the Christian minority in Iran, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) did about the Baha’i. Does he agree that it is bizarre that the Iranian Government claimed to support the Arab spring, when people were demanding democracy, freedom and human rights, while they oppress their citizens and abuse their human rights in the most appalling way, whether on the basis of religion, sexuality or for daring to express a political viewpoint?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. It is more than distressing; it is of extreme concern to anyone who values freedom, liberty and democracy. We are seeing the beginnings of a systematic approach that sometimes prefaces genocide, and our Government—and other Governments—are starting to realise that.
I am mindful that other hon. Members want to speak, so I will make some progress. The Islamic Penal Bill, which would amend the Islamic penal code, is expected to be passed into legislation by the Iranian Parliament this year. The Bill will almost certainly increase the severity of human rights abuses in Iran. The initial approval of the Bill by the Iranian Parliament on 9 September 2008 was a worrying development, as the original draft stipulated the death penalty for male apostates and life-long hard labour or imprisonment for female apostates. In June 2009, Ali Shahrokhi of the Parliament’s legal and judicial committee reportedly told the Iranian state news agency—the Islamic Republic News Agency—that the committee had decided to remove the reference to the death penalty from the Bill as it was not
“in the interest of the regime”.
However, it is possible the death penalty clause may still be in the text. There were fears that, if that was the case, the clause would be implemented in the case of Pastor Nadarkhani without warning at any time and would endanger other Christians.
The persecution of Christians has been accompanied by a proliferation of anti-Christian rhetoric from authority figures in Iran. In October 2010, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei declared from Qom that Christianity was being deliberately spread by Iran’s enemies as a means to weaken Islam within Iranian society. Likewise, on 4 January last year, Mr Morteza Tamaddon, governor of Tehran, made a speech in which he openly threatened further arrests of Christians. He declared that evangelical Christians had inserted themselves into Islam “like a parasite” with the backing of the west. We must think back to the vile propaganda of the Nazis before the war and the way in which Jews and others were characterised when we consider the appalling comments that have been made by leading figures in the Government of Iran.
In August 2011, Ayatollah Hadi Jahangosha echoed this sentiment in a presentation on Mahdivism—belief in the twelfth Imam. He declared that
“the West is trying to devour our youth by publishing and advertising false Gnostic books…our enemies have noticed that Satanism and false Gnosticism are not popular in Iran and because of that they are taking a religious approach to expand Christianity.”
He identified the house-church movement as a deviant sect by stating that
“the ‘real Christians’ do not believe in this distorted Christianity-Protestantism.”
Furthermore, following the seizure of a consignment of 6,500 bibles in Zanjan province in mid-August, Dr Majid Abhari, adviser to the Iranian Parliament’s social issues committee, declared that Christian missionaries were attempting to deceive people, especially the youth, with an expensive western-backed propaganda campaign. In seeking to portray evangelical Christians as part of a foreign conspiracy against Iran, the regime seeks to justify its continuing crackdown on house churches and individual Christians.
I had intended to speak on the Baha’i faith persecution, but it has been covered admirably by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside. I will, however, conclude by way of putting questions to the Minister. Perhaps he will respond by saying what action is necessary by the international community, and by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Government. We should urge the Iranian Government to uphold their obligations under their own constitution and penal code, which do not codify the death penalty for apostasy, and their obligations under international law, including provisions for freedom of religion or belief, contained within the international covenant on civil and political rights, to which Iran is a state party.
We should urge the Iranian Government to ensure the removal of the clause stipulating the death penalty for apostasy from the draft Bill for the amendment of Islamic penal code in light of Iran’s human rights obligations, and to make the amended draft publicly available.
On the point about the possible amendment within Iran, I, like others, was lobbied regarding the pastor. Thankfully, the death penalty was not used. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that our Government should, at every level possible in the immediate future, in the next weeks and months, ensure, as far as we can, that pressure is applied to the Iranian Government, and that we should not pre-emptively take any action that would endanger the life of the pastor about whom we are all concerned, as well as the lives of other Christians and Baha’is in Iran who could suffer a fate similar to that which has, unfortunately, been hanging over the pastor’s head?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. It is important to make the point to the Iranian Government and Iranian parliamentarians that the world is watching and that they cannot inflict their vile regime, systemic torture and abuses of human rights without very serious ramifications on the part of the international community. We should urge the Iranian Government immediately to release all Baha’i detainees held on account of their beliefs and to end official discrimination, monitoring intimidation and other hindrances to their freedom of religion.
A comment was made earlier by the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) about Mr Ahmed Shaheed, who must to be able to continue and complete his work unmolested. He is newly mandated as the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. He needs to continue to monitor the regime’s compliance, specifically with respect to international human rights standards, including freedom of religion or belief.
Finally, the motto of Christian Solidarity Worldwide is, “Be a voice for the voiceless”. This debate is vital. Again, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside, because at least in this Chamber in our Parliament, the voiceless do have a voice this afternoon.
Order. It is normal to call the Opposition Front Bencher at 3.30 pm, followed by the Minister. A number of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. I should like to allow as many of them as possible to speak, so I ask colleagues to be mindful of that when they are making speeches.
I welcome the debate and the opportunity to raise the issue of human rights in Iran and, from that, our relationship with Iran. I deplore intolerance. I deplore the attacks on the human rights of religious people and religious minorities, dissidents within Islam or, indeed, linguistic minorities in Iran. Most countries in the world, including our own, have gone through periods of the most grievous intolerance towards minorities. One hopes that at some point Iran will come through this.
The current intolerance towards many dissidents in Iran is not particularly new. Indeed, it has gone on since the 1950s. The high point of freedom in Iran was the nationalist Government of the early 1950s. The coup of 1952 brought in the Shah’s regime and his secret police. The revolution of 1979 brought in the Islamic Republic and a great deal of repression of its opponents, particularly in its early days and more latterly. We should recognise that large numbers of people in Iran stand up for human rights, democracy and their own rights. Any change within Iran is more likely come from internal opposition and internal organisation than from anything that is done from outside or any outside pressure.
To add to the list of people affected, I draw attention to an early-day motion that I tabled early in December:
“That this House is alarmed at the re-arrest of Ebrahim Madodi from the Vahed Trade Union Syndicate in Tehran; calls for his release and that of fellow trade unionist, bus workers’ leader, Reza Shobabi immediately; and supports the rights of independent trade unionists in Iran to represent their members without the threat of imprisonment.”
Ebrahim Madodi was released after an international campaign mounted by the TUC in this country and supported by many other unions. Indeed, campaigns have been mounted on behalf of Christians who have been under threat in Iran. The regime responds when there is enough international pressure. They do not send an e-mail straight away saying, “Thanks for your representations; it has all changed.” What one notices is that subtly, over a period of a few months, usually some kind of change happens. It is therefore well worth raising these issues, and it is very important that we continue to do so.
I should like to draw attention to a couple of other points, but I am mindful of what you said about time, Dr McCrea. The UN special rapporteur on extradition and summary executions in Iran, supported by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, drew attention to the very large number of executions that have taken place in Iran, either for alleged drug dealing or alleged consumption of drugs. This country has a policy of absolute opposition to the use of the death penalty. I pay tribute to our representatives at the UN Human Rights Council, who routinely and absolutely assiduously, whenever a peer group review comes up of the human rights in any country, immediately raise the issue of the death penalty if it is applied in that country. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will be able to assure us that, when the next opportunity arises at the council, the death penalty in Iran will be mentioned again and complaints will be made about it.
In the context of what is happening in Iran, it is worth referring to documents from the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre, as well as to its campaigns for media freedom, for film makers and for legal representation to be available to all those who have been arrested or detained by the Iranian state. We recognise that work, and we want to put pressure on the Iranian Government to ensure that the centre can carry out its work without let or hindrance.
It is also worth recognising that there is a problem in Iran beyond that which has been mentioned so far. A number of bombings and assassinations of scientists—nuclear scientists and others—employed by the Iranian Government are taking place in Iran, and mysterious explosions are taking place at military bases. I do not know, any more than anybody else in the Chamber knows, who is perpetrating those attacks, but there is clearly a pattern. I do not believe that any country, whether Iran or anywhere else, should have nuclear weapons. Iran is still a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and I hope that it remains one. I also hope that we take steps to achieve a nuclear-free middle east.
The British Government were obviously concerned when the attack on the British embassy took place, and all diplomatic representation has now been withdrawn from Iran. I should be grateful to the Minister if he explained what options are now available to people in Iran who want to contact British representatives, because I have constituents of Iranian origin with family members in Iran who want, quite legitimately, to visit family in this country. Under normal circumstances, they would be perfectly able to do so, but they now find it extremely difficult to know how to apply for the appropriate visa. I should be grateful to him if he explained how they could do that.
In this country, we have considerable freedoms to speak, as well as protection for minorities and tough anti-discrimination and anti-racist legislation. All that is absolutely right and proper, and I would want the same for everyone in every country in the world. I therefore support those in Iran who are doing their best to stand up for rights, democracy and accountability in their society. However, I am not convinced that such rights will be won for Iranian people by imposing isolation and sanctions on Iran’s Government, threatening military action or, indeed, attacking Iran. That will not bring about change but make the situation considerably worse for people in Iran.
Will the Minister therefore explain exactly what dialogue is taking place with the Iranian Government and what dialogue took place with civil society before the withdrawal of British diplomatic staff? Dialogue with civil society can be helpful in protecting people, but it can also be helpful in promoting changes in society. I want to see changes, but I also want to see peace. The presence of US warships in the region and sanctions against Iran will not necessarily bring about those changes; in many ways, such things are probably strengthening the regime and its intolerant side, rather than its more tolerant side.
We should pay tribute to those who demonstrated during the election process to call for free and fair elections, those who stand up in universities demanding intellectual freedom and those who stand up for plurality in society. Surely, that is really what the Persian tradition is about—not the intolerance and oppression that all Members in the Chamber have rightly drawn attention to.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) on securing this important debate. She may be interested to know that Michael Nazir-Ali, a Member of the House of Lords and formerly Bishop of Rochester, was very active on behalf of the Baha’i community in Iran in his recent travels to that country.
I want to echo some of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), who talked about the persecution of Christians in Iran, a subject I have raised on the Floor of the House with the Minister. It is important to say at the start that Christianity in Iran is as old as Iran itself. We know from the New Testament that Parthians, Medes and Elamites—all tribes from Iran—were present on the day of Pentecost. Furthermore, some of the earliest Christian missionaries to China were Iranians, and there is a lot of evidence that the early Church in Iran went back to the early centuries after the birth of Christ, and to people such as Tatian the Assyrian.
Any idea that the regime in Iran tries to put out that Christians are somehow not intrinsically Iranian, not patriotic or not part of the country is therefore historically wholly untrue and is not borne out by the facts, even though Christians are few in number in Iran. Their numbers are growing, however, and there is considerable growth in the Church. That is despite the fact that eight Christian leaders have been murdered for their faith since 1979. Open Doors, another excellent charity, which looks at religious freedom around the world, says Iran is the second-worst country in the world in which to be a Christian, after North Korea. Some colleagues in the Chamber were at this morning’s debate on North Korea, in which we looked at the position of minorities—Christians and others—in that country.
I was delighted by the Foreign Secretary’s intervention in the case of Pastor Nadarkhani, which was bold and clear, and it was heard in this country and around the world. I agree with the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who said that our interventions do have an effect. Things may not change immediately, but countries do not like justified, evidence-based international criticism. Such debates are worth while in a small way, because when we mention the names of people who have been wrongly treated for whatever reason, we show our concern for them, and that has an effect. Those of us who are privileged to have a platform from which to speak in this place are called to be a voice for the voiceless, as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough rightly said.
It is right that we go on raising the case of Pastor Nadarkhani, and that of Pastor Fahad, who is in detention. Pastor Fahad’s Christmas service was raided on 23 December, when many of us were enjoying the freedom to go to carol services and so on in our communities. Children in the Sunday school were arrested and taken into detention—what an appalling thing to do to children.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that intolerance in Iran towards Christians and, indeed, other religious minorities, including Jewish people, is outwith the traditions of Persia before the Shah’s time, when there was considerable religious tolerance of a wide variety of faiths?
That is a good point, and it adds to some of the historical context that I was trying to give earlier. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for quite properly putting that on the record.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough, I want to mention the case of Farshid Fathi, who was imprisoned just over a year ago, on 26 December 2010. He is still in Evin prison, and I have not met him, but I have met Dr Tony Sargent from the International Christian College in Glasgow, who knows him well. Farshid Fathi is a very bright and dynamic young man who is the life and soul of the party, but he is languishing in prison when he should be free to nurture a church, as he feels called to. Similarly, Pastor Behnam Irani was imprisoned in May 2011, and he, too, is someone we should not forget. I agree with the concerns my hon. Friend raised about the Islamic Penal Bill. There is still the possibility that the death sentence could appear in it for apostates.
In mid-August last year, 6,500 Bibles were seized in Zanjan province. It is illegal for Christians in Iran to print or sell Persian Bibles, such as the one that I am holding. Bibles have been seized, and there have been reports of some having been burned. Christians around the world rightly condemned the threatened burning of a Koran by a rather fringe and slightly lunatic pastor in Florida some years ago, so some condemnation by Muslims of what we have heard from Iran on the burning of Bibles would be welcome and would give us a bit of reciprocity.
I have had meetings with diplomats from the Iranian embassy, but I do not think that there will be many more, because they are back in Tehran at the moment. I met Mr Mousavi and Mr Sahabi, and got the impression that they were personally slightly uncomfortable with what is going on in Iran, which is perhaps a glimmer of hope for the future. When I met them in the Pugin Room, they gave me a document, which I have with me today, called “Minorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran”. It reads very well, as documents from Governments with poor human rights records tend to, and it says that Christians in Iran should
“Enjoy freedom in holding religious ceremonies and rites.”
We know from what my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough eloquently said that that is not the case at all.
It is right that we keep raising such matters and do not give up. History tells us that the cause of freedom shines through in the end. Whether one is in Islington, Bedfordshire or any other part of the world, such rights, as the hon. Member for Islington North said, are universal. We will continue to raise these cases for as long as it takes.
During the previous Parliament, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs went to Iran in autumn 2007, and in February 2008 it published a report that went into considerable detail on many issues, including the human rights situation. The Select Committee concluded that Iran is a complex and diverse society ruled by a theocratic regime. My impressions are of a young country that wants to engage with the rest of the world, but is prevented from doing so by the policies of the ruling clique. However, another problem is that there is not one ruling group; that touches on the point about how the authorities sometimes move in unexpected ways, because decisions are not taken in a way that is transparent from our point of view.
How we deal with a country such as Iran is a dilemma. On the one hand, we try to encourage a process of openness and reform, but on the other, we recognise its appalling behaviour, whether in systematically breaching obligations under the non-proliferation treaty; sponsoring terrorist actions in other countries; or defending the autocratic, repressive Syrian regime, as it is doing at the moment. We and the European Union had problems with the policy of so-called “constructive engagement”, which has run into the sand. We saw the newly elected President Obama extending his hand to the Iranians when he came to office in early 2009 and being snubbed. How do we deal with a country of that kind?
I, too, was in the delegation to Iran in November 2007. Would my hon. Friend agree that we were given privileged access to, among other things, some of the dissenters? Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), there are quite a number of dissidents who stand up for the things that they believe in—a free, open, democratic and pluralist Iran—despite being oppressed day in, day out.
I accept my hon. Friend’s point, but I think that we were not “given privileged access”; rather, our diplomats made it possible for us to engage with some people. It was a privilege for us, but those people were taking great risks in contacting us, and some of them are no longer in Iran and are not allowed to return, due to their activities at that time and because they would not be secure and safe.
I want to conclude by making a contrast. BBC journalists are not allowed to report in Iran, and the Iranian authorities make systematic efforts to jam international broadcasts and satellites, including the BBC World Service Persian television service, which has been very popular with the Iranian people. The regime tries very hard to keep from the people the truth about the atrocities in June 2009, when protestors against the rigged election were on the streets in huge numbers, and about what subsequently happened to protestors’ families. Propaganda is broadcast to Iranian homes by state-controlled Press TV, including broadcasts from London of people who claim that the demonstration against tuition fees was parallel to the protests of June 2009.
Will the Minister say something about the anomaly of the BBC not being allowed in Iran and foreign broadcasts systematically being prevented from getting through to Iran—so far as the regime is able to prevent that—when we allow representatives of the Iranian Government, through their mouthpiece, Press TV, to broadcast propaganda about this country that completely distorts what is happening in the world? Given the current crisis, and the fact that diplomatic relations are broken, I find it difficult to see why we do not take steps to prevent Press TV from behaving in such a way. Would we have allowed Nazi media to broadcast from London in 1939? I ask that question as a serious point for us to think about for the future.
I am now even more grateful to serve under your extremely lenient and enlightened chairmanship, Dr McCrea.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) on choosing a subject that is even more topical today than she probably realised it would be when she secured the debate. It is clear that the human rights situation has worsened since the contested elections in Iran in 2009. Amnesty International’s recent report states:
“The authorities maintained severe restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly. Sweeping controls on domestic and international media aimed at reducing Iranians’ contact with the outside world were imposed. Individuals and groups risked arrest, torture and imprisonment if perceived as co-operating with human rights and foreign-based Persian-language media organizations. Political dissidents, women’s and minority rights activists and other human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and students were rounded up in mass and other arrests and hundreds were imprisoned. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees were routine and committed with impunity. Women continued to face discrimination under the law and in practice. The authorities acknowledged 252 executions, but there were credible reports of more than 300 other executions.”
It is almost inevitable that the true total is higher.
The situation for human rights defenders, lawyers, protestors, trade unionists and ethnic minorities seems to be getting worse. The regime’s intolerance of not only dissenting political beliefs, but, as many hon. Members have pointed out, dissenting personal beliefs is increasingly clear: secular teachers at universities have been purged; Ahwazi Arabs have been sentenced to death for enmity to God; and Amnesty has drawn attention to the plight of Sunnis, dissident Shi’as, Christian converts and evangelists, and the Dervish and Sufi communities, who all suffer discrimination, arbitrary detention and attacks on community property.
By drawing attention to the plight of those of the Baha’i faith, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside has shown that she is particularly well informed. The faith is not even recognised as a legitimate religion in Iran, so the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) was right to say that discrimination against the Baha’i is systematic and institutionalised. My small group of Baha’i constituents have shown me great hospitality in my constituency, and I promised them that I would take every opportunity to support the rights of the Baha’i in Iran. I am happy to fulfil that pledge today.
My hon. Friend reads out a devastating roll-call of abuses. However, the situation is even worse than he outlined. He mentioned 252 executions, but in 2011 that number included the execution of a juvenile. There are currently 143 juvenile offenders on death row in Iran, in complete defiance of international law.
My hon. Friend makes a devastating point in support of her argument.
The last faith group in Iran that I shall mention is the Jewish community, which is extremely long-established. There is a history of tolerance of the Jewish community in Iran, but there is increasing evidence that anti-Semitism is growing there, and that the small Jewish community there is being blamed for the actions of the Israeli Government. Those actions are beside the point; an unfair collective punishment is, in effect, being imposed.
I support the consistent calls from the United Kingdom Government and the European Union for an improvement in the human rights situation in Iran. Certainly, the decision by the EU in October to increase targeted sanctions on officials—those identified as responsible for particularly grave human rights abuses—was exactly right. The sanctions regime is interconnected with the nuclear programme in Iran, but targeted sanctions relating to human rights are every bit as justified, in my view, as those relating to the nuclear programme.
It is important, as the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned, that we do not pursue a path that leaves the regime no escape route and inadvertently strengthens the hands of the hard-liners in the regime. Iran is not North Korea. Iran is not a monolithic society; it has human rights defenders, courageous and independent-minded writers, filmmakers, journalists, bloggers, lawyers and young campaigners; it does, in effect, have opposition; and, above all, it has a young population that is quite aware of what has happened in the neighbouring Arab countries in the Arab spring, and is aware of what democracy really looks like—and what oppression looks like.
Of course, Iran has a tradition of vigorously contested elections, even though they are not democratic in the sense that we would recognise. That tradition of independent thought and resistance should be reinforced and supported wherever possible. That means that the exercise of soft power can have some effect, can still be deployed and is likely to have positive effects.
The jamming of international radio and TV broadcasts—I cannot remember which hon. Member mentioned that—is an important issue. I draw attention to it again and ask for ministerial support to raise it at the International Telecommunication Union world radio conference in Geneva, which begins on 23 January. The jamming of the BBC Persian TV service has resulted in that service being taken off the Hot Bird satellite, which is the main satellite for the region. That illegal censorship is, in effect, denying freedom of information and human rights to the Persian-speaking population. I welcome Ministers raising the profile of that issue in advance of the conference.
The Persian people, like their Arab neighbours, have the potential to tackle the human rights issue once and for all themselves, through their own resistance and traditions of championing freedom. We should do everything we can to support them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea.
I, too, thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) for securing this debate. I do not intend to touch on the issues that she raised with regard to the Baha’i faith, because she did comprehensive justice to those and we will hear the Minister’s response. We also heard from the hon. Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) about the plight of Christians. Both issues have been raised with me on a number of occasions by local campaigners, including members of the Baha’i faith and the Christian community in Bristol and on a wider scale.
I join hon. Members in paying tribute to the work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which was also mentioned earlier today during a debate on human rights in North Korea. CSW does sterling work campaigning there, as well. It is testament to that organisation’s powerful campaigning on this issue that so many hon. Members have mentioned it.
I was going to mention the BBC World Service Persian TV service being jammed, but that has already been mentioned by hon. Members. Will the Minister comment on what representations have been made? That has been going on for a couple of years, and since 2009 there has been almost consistent jamming of the service and only intermittent ability to broadcast. I should be grateful if the Minister said a few words about that.
It is 17 years since Iran last submitted a report to the UN human rights committee. As we have heard, the scale of human rights abuses in the country is vast. It is not just people of religious faith who have come under threat: political activists, women and ethnic and sexual minorities live under the real and ever-increasing threat of arbitrary arrest, torture and even death. The UN has called on the Iranian Government to engage with the international community in strengthening human rights safeguards and we fully support this approach.
A key area of concern is the deplorable attack on the British embassy in Tehran last November. The Iranian Government have blocked access to the embassy’s website, which detailed Iran’s human rights obligations and important information about how Iranians could travel to the UK. Given that the Government have now closed our embassy in Iran—a measure that Labour spokespeople supported—will the Minister say how they intend to continue to monitor human rights violations in the country? Does the Minister accept the concerns of some human rights campaigners that the embassy’s closure will inevitably have an impact on the UK’s ability to appeal to the Iranian Government regarding ongoing and future human rights abuses? Will he also say what impact the closure of the embassy will have on our work with civil society groups within Iran?
Although the attack on the embassy was utterly deplorable, we should not allow that to deter us from trying to find ways to continue to promote human rights and hold the Iranian Government to account for their abuse of those rights. The campaign to save Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani from being stoned to death has already been mentioned; that is a compelling example of how international pressure can have an effect on the regime. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, there are small signs that such things have an impact, even though they may not deliver overnight the ideal situation that we would like. The campaign to save her life continues. There is still a threat of death by hanging. It is important to try to mobilise international opinion on such issues.
At some point, Iran will have to submit itself for an in-country review of human rights at the UN Human Rights Council. I do not know when that will be, but it cannot be that far away, because it is near the end of the first tranche of in-country reviews. That would be an ideal time for the concerns that hon. Members have raised here to be rearticulated by the British representative in Geneva.
It is important that Iran is subject to such intense international scrutiny.
The UN special rapporteurs have difficulty coming up with authoritative statistics. Figures show that 252 officially announced executions were carried out in 2011. However, Amnesty International, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, and the UN have reported that more than 300 people were secretly executed in Iranian prisons in 2011. There is a strong suspicion that the real figure is probably far higher.
Among those secretly executed were women and a great number of foreign nationals, particularly from Afghanistan, the majority of whom were accused of drug trafficking offences. Testimony from relatives and other inmates reveals that the majority of the victims were not informed of their sentence until a few hours before the execution was carried out and that most executions occurred without families being given prior notice. Most deplorably, as has already been mentioned, Iran continues to execute children, who are widely reported to have been tortured into making confessions. It is suggested that 143 children remain on death row.
In respect of the figures that the hon. Lady mentioned, approximately 550 and 600 people were executed in Iran last year—and probably every year for a period of time. Iran is second only to China in that regard. Does its being number two in the world league of executions lead to concern?
We oppose the use of the death penalty in any circumstances, but the crucial starting point is that information on executions that are carried out should be transparent. We should know the figures for what people have been convicted of and how many executions have been carried out—half the executions I mentioned were carried out secretly, and most people would regard it as inappropriate that offences such as drugs trafficking should carry the death penalty. The issue is significant, and one on which we should continue to put pressure on the Iranian Government.
The hon. Lady is giving a good overview of the difficulties. Does she concede that, because of its role as a state sponsor of terrorism and other activity in the middle east, in particular in support of despotic regimes, Iran is in many ways exporting human rights abuses throughout the region?
There is certainly concern about the international role played by Iran. I do not want to stray into the territory of its foreign policy, particularly because Iran does not fall under my brief in the shadow foreign affairs team, but I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the influence of the Iranian regime, in particular in the region, and the wrong message being sent to other regimes.
We have not debated in much detail today the impact of human rights abuses on women in the country. Officially, under article 20 of the Iranian constitution, there is equality between men and women. It states:
“All citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria.”
As a recent report by the UN confirms, however, Iranian law provides an insurmountable barrier to gender equality. To give a few examples, under Iranian law, a woman’s testimony is worth only half a man’s testimony; the age of criminality starts at the age of nine for girls, whereas it is 15 for boys; mothers may never have guardianship of their children, even if they are widowed; and women do not have equal inheritance rights. For some time there has been growing concern about the crackdown on women who fail to adhere to the traditional dress code in public. For example, the number of women applying to university has declined since measures taken by the regime to enforce the dress code there.
Disturbingly, Iranian authorities blame women who have been raped for inducing their attackers to sexually assault them. In June 2011, 14 women were kidnapped and gang-raped, but the Government claimed that the women had brought the attack on themselves and that the manner in which they had been dressed was reason enough not to bring the attackers to justice. Recently, we have seen the imprisonment of women’s rights activists who signed the “One Million Signatures” campaign to repeal discriminatory laws. One activist was sentenced to nine and a half years in jail for assembly and collusion against the regime and to a further two years for participating in a protest against laws discriminating against women. Another women’s rights activist was given three and a half years in one of Iran’s most notorious prisons in May 2011.
Three gay men are known to have been hanged in Iran in 2011, and two teenage boys, in a case that drew widespread international attention, were hanged in 2005 for the same offence. Some observers report that that is only the tip of the iceberg, because in many cases the families are not prepared to make public the fact that their relatives were executed under the sodomy laws.
I finish with a few words about the role of social media in Iran. We heard from the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) about how a fairly well organised, well educated opposition movement exists in Iran, and how it is struggling to break free from the regime’s grasp. According to Harvard university, the rate of growth of internet usage is higher in Iran than in any other country in the middle east. An estimated 700,000 active blogs come from the country. In 2009, the regime was quick to blame the use of the internet, social networking sites in particular, for the outbreak of protests following the disputed presidential election. Today, the regime does all it can to block access to websites promoting democratic change. For example, in September last year, a blogger received a nineteen-and-a-half year prison sentence for propaganda against the regime, and the UN’s recent report on the state of human rights in Iran gives numerous examples of bloggers and journalists imprisoned for similar activities.
It has now been reported that internet cafés have been asked to record customers’ online footprints and to install security cameras. As recently as Monday this week, the Iranian regime announced that it intends to introduce its own internet operating system, to enable it to block websites considered unsuitable and to monitor online activity. As we saw in other countries during the Arab spring, social media are incredibly important in spreading democratic ideas and in enabling people to mobilise opposition to human rights abuses and undemocratic practices. I urge the Minister, in his discussions on human rights in Iran, to stress that freedom of expression is an important human right, and that access to the internet and to social media is now a fundamental freedom that should be protected.
I echo the sentiments of others, Dr McCrea, that it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank all colleagues who have spoken, in the spirit of a collective Parliament speaking across party lines on matters about which we think similarly. I appreciate the challenge offered by one or two colleagues and will do my best to respond.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman)—an old friend in such matters over the years—on securing the debate and on how she raised the issues, from deep knowledge. She mentioned a series of individual cases, and I might touch on some during my remarks, although there were too many for me to comment on them all. She spoke for all of us when she hoped that such debates shone some light on the situation of the Baha’i community for instance, or others under pressure in Iran. As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) said, we collectively act as a voice for the voiceless and for those minorities known and unknown to us, in what we do here. Colleagues have certainly lived up to such obligations.
The human rights situation in Iran continues to deteriorate sharply. The United Kingdom, together with the international community, continues to urge the Iranian regime to respect its human rights obligations and to improve the situation of its people. Our efforts and those of Iranian and global civil society ensure that the international spotlight remains on the serious human rights violations taking place in Iran today. Before I comment on some of the individual items that came up, let me refer to one or two general issues raised by colleagues.
Concern is not felt simply by those outside Iran, and I pay tribute to the bravery of those operating in Iran. In September last year, The Times ran a good seminar entitled “Imprisoned in Iran”, to raise awareness of the plight of victims of human rights abuses. The event was well attended, raised a large number of issues and was addressed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Among his remarks, he said:
“2011 has shown that demands for human dignity are irrepressible. Iranians should take solace from this… Iran is very different from its Arab neighbours. But the lessons of the Arab revolutions hold true for Iran just as they apply to repressive countries across the world. Simply refusing to address legitimate grievances about human rights or attempting to stamp them out will fail.
While some governments across the region are waking up to this truth, Iran is moving in the opposite direction. The actions of the Iranian regime are holding Iran back, isolating its people and suffocating their immense potential, and preventing Iran from enjoying normal and productive relations with the outside world.”
My right hon. Friend conveyed the sense of how well we understand the dynamics. Iran is a complex society, not a monolithic one. At one and the same time, we can condemn the activities of the regime and express support for the Iranian people. When relations with the regime have necessarily to be rather more restricted than they were, it is still possible to engage the Iranian people and to have contacts with the regime itself. Colleagues said that they wanted the United Kingdom Government to be aware of that sentiment, so let me elaborate.
I thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for her support and that of her Front-Bench colleagues in relation to the appalling attack on the embassy. When there is a problem and an embassy must be evacuated, neighbours step in to provide support. We are working actively to find a country that will take on the obligations and we are in negotiation, but until that is done, under the Lisbon treaty—if a Minister may mention that—EU partners can provide support for one another in such circumstances. We are grateful to other EU member nations that have been able to provide support.
At the moment, they can take the matter up with any other EU embassy. In due course, one designated embassy will take on responsibility as a protecting power. That process must be negotiated not only with the country willing to take that on, but with Iran—that may explain the time that has been taken—but for the time being a partner EU nation can take on that request. I hope that that explanation is helpful.
Despite the invasion by regime-backed paramilitaries and the subsequent closure of the embassy, our wish to maintain strong support for and friendship with the Iranian people remains. We have always stated that our disagreement with Iran on human rights is with the Iranian leadership regime, not the people. Human rights are universal, and Iran’s failure to meet its obligations is punishing and stifling the fulfilment of the wishes and aspirations of millions of people.
Dialogue continues, and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside and others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), spoke about the importance of continuing a dialogue using social media and the like. Again, the Government are well aware of that. We have a good system of direct contact with people in Iran. We have a Farsi service and can communicate directly with people in Iran. They are savvy and open to the world; they know what is going on; and they know the limitations of their own regime. We are also aware of how we can continue to contact and work with them. We have a Farsi spokesperson to speak directly to the Iranian people, so colleagues may be absolutely sure that we will do that.
The embassy is not the only way in which to make representations to Tehran. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside was right to raise the matter, because closure of the embassy makes that more difficult but not impossible. Our contacts through other channels and with other agencies will certainly be kept up. The balance is difficult to maintain, but we are endeavouring to do so.
The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) speaks with a deep background of the issues and raises the awkward and realistic ones that need to be raised. It is clear from our contact with Iran on the nuclear issue that an offer of negotiation is available. We urge Iran to respond to the latest letter from Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative, because we will not be caught out by the Iranians saying that they have been backed into a corner. The opportunity exists for them to talk. We oppose the killing of civilians, and we want a negotiated solution to the problem. We are also alert to the fact that human rights issues in Iran may often be more powerful than the nuclear one, which is why we are concentrating on the matter today.
I shall respond to some of the specific issues raised. The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned the situation of women in Iran. In 2010, we opposed Iranian membership of a specific UN women’s committee because of Iran’s discriminatory practices in relation to women. In June last year, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke out about the arrest of women activists and praised those whose conscientiousness and achievements should be celebrated but who are instead behind bars. We will continue to highlight and to encourage Iran to address gender discrimination in Iranian law.
Iran’s excessive use of the death penalty is a major cause of concern. In 2011, reliable sources reported that about 650 people were executed, although because of the opacity of the Iranian judiciary and penal system, it is quite possible that the number is much higher. That maintains Iran’s inauspicious record as the country witnessing the highest number of executions per capita in the world. Iran’s use of the death penalty shows little regard for minimum international standards in the application of the death penalty, including a lack of fair trial and the execution of juveniles. We should not forget other brutal punishment methods, including stoning. Fourteen people still live under sentence of stoning.
On freedom of speech and assembly, last year Iran was described by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the
“biggest prison for journalists anywhere in the world”.
It finished the year with more journalists and bloggers in prison than anywhere else, including China. The traditional forms of media in Iran are all run by the state, with satellite television banned and most foreign journalists denied entry. The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) raised that matter. Iran blocks more than 10 million websites and is pursuing a separate and highly censored Iranian internet, disconnecting Iran from the world wide web.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the contrast between Press TV and everything else. The contrast is this: we do not control and we do not censor through Government as such. The law does that. Press TV may be investigated by Ofcom. That is the appropriate regulatory body. That is how we do it here, not through Government diktat. That is the contrast between the two nations. Press TV must obey the laws of this country, but is handled independently, as we all know.
In 2011, we have again seen brutal crackdowns by the Iranian state. During the first one in February, several people were killed by the security forces. In April, more than 30 people reportedly died during protests in Ahwaz in southern Iran. In August, security forces attacked people who were protesting peacefully against the neglect of a natural salt lake in Azerbaijan province in northern Iran, and several deaths were reported. The range of activities that a repressive regime may clamp down on is extensive.
The majority of colleagues wanted to raise the issue of minorities, including the Baha’i and Christian communities. In 2011, we saw increasing patterns of violence and intimidation against minorities. The authorities have continued to crack down on Kurdish and Baluchi groups, as well as those mentioned today. Religious minorities have been subject to arrest and intimidation, as we have heard. Christians and Baha’is in particularly have suffered harassment, and I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for their remarks. I echo the tribute to Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
We have spoken in the House about both issues a number of times, and the Government have made representations on them. I have met the Baha’i community in the United Kingdom, and I made representations direct to Iranian representatives when they were here. We continue to raise the matter, and we have done so also in relation to Christian persecution, about which colleagues spoke movingly. We particularly deplore the pressure that has been put on the Baha’i community in Iran, and the attacks on the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education, and its closure. We will continue to raise all those issues.
A general point about the protection of religious minorities is that protection of an individual minority must be done in company with all. In our experience, those who oppress one minority usually oppress others, and it is collectively safer if we raise the issue on behalf of all—the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, women, Christian minorities, Muslim sect minorities and Baha’is. If we seek to protect the rights of all, we are doing the best that we can.
On UK action at the UN and through the Human Rights Council, colleagues can be assured that we press other countries to support resolutions that we have co-sponsored. The result of a vote in December showed how effective lobbying had been because the margin was the largest ever in relation to a country-specific resolution against Iran. That showed how successful some of the work had been, and we will continue with that. The next periodic review when Iran must deal with the issues will be in 2014, and we will press at the council in March, as we do at every council, for Iran to deal with the record against it that colleagues have spoken about. There is no doubt that the issues raised here will continue to be raised by colleagues, but they may rest assured that their concerns are echoed by the Government. We will continue to stand up for the rights of those who are oppressed in Iran.