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Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2008

Volume 702: debated on Monday 23 June 2008

rose to move, that the draft Order laid before the House on 21 May be approved. 21st Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the People’s Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran—the PMOI, as it is more generally known—is opposed to the Iranian Government. Its stated aim is to replace that regime with a secular democracy. Most of its members are based at Camp Ashraf, which is located in Iraq, and under Saddam’s regime it operated as a de facto wing of the Iraqi military. Although it currently describes itself as a non-violent democratic movement, there can be no doubt that the PMOI was responsible for acts of terrorism over a long period, stretching back some two decades prior to 2001. These acts were not attributed to it by the Iranian authorities: the PMOI expressly admitted responsibility for a number of horrendous crimes carried out against the Iranian people, both civilian and military targets. The PMOI is not widely supported in Iran because of those attacks and because it fought alongside Iraqi forces against Iran in the war between those countries.

The PMOI says that it decided at an internal meeting in 2001 to renounce violence and that it now seeks instead to pursue its objectives by peaceful means. It has not conducted any attacks since then, although it has not made any public statement renouncing violence. Until 2003, it maintained an extensive arsenal at Camp Ashraf, at which point it found itself surrounded by US forces and surrendered its arms.

The PMOI was added to the list of proscribed terrorist organisations in 2001. Proscription is a tough but necessary power, and its effect is that the proscribed organisation is outlawed and is unable to operate in the United Kingdom. The consequence of proscription is that specific criminal offences apply in relation to a proscribed organisation. They include membership of the organisation and the provision of various forms of support, including organising or addressing a meeting and wearing or displaying an article indicating membership of the organisation. Further criminal offences exist in relation to fund raising and various uses of money and property for the purposes of terrorism.

A group of 35 interested parties, comprising noble Lords and honourable Members of another place, disagreed with the PMOI’s proscription. A statutory procedure exists for any proscribed organisation or anyone affected by the proscription of an organisation to apply to the Home Secretary for that organisation to be deproscribed. Members of this group correctly followed this procedure and wrote to the Home Secretary to request that the PMOI be deproscribed. They argued that the PMOI was no longer concerned in terrorism, having renounced violence and disarmed itself, and that their desire to express their legitimate support for the PMOI and its objectives was unlawfully curtailed by its continuing proscription. The then Home Secretary carefully considered this application but continued to believe that the PMOI was concerned in terrorism, which is the statutory test for proscription. He formed that view in the light of the PMOI’s lengthy history of violence, in the absence of any public renunciation of violence and taking into account the fact that it only disarmed two years after the decision to renounce violence, when it had no choice in the face of the overwhelming force of the US military.

While accepting that there had been no attacks since 2001, the then Home Secretary took a cautious approach and was not satisfied that the renunciation of violence was more than a temporary cessation for pragmatic reasons or that the 2003 disarmament would have taken place were it not for the war in Iraq and the artificially restrictive circumstances arising from that. He was concerned that the PMOI might return to terrorism in future as a means of achieving its objectives, if the situation in Iraq were to make it possible and if it became strategically advantageous for it to do so.

Let me make it clear that this decision was not taken lightly. The Government share the desire of those 35 honourable Members and noble Lords to see the advance of democracy and the promotion of human rights around the world. Given the wide-ranging impact of proscription, we are committed to ensuring that proscription decisions are lawful and proportionate. However, the Terrorism Act 2000 sets out the definition of terrorism and the criteria for considering whether an organisation is concerned in terrorism. The Act does not refer to the motivation or political agenda of those who perpetrate acts of terrorism and, as POAC accepted, the Secretary of State is entitled to conclude that there is no right to resort to terrorism, whatever the motivation. We do not condone terrorism anywhere, whatever its justification or its target.

The Home Secretary’s refusal to deproscribe was appealed to POAC, the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission, which upheld the appeal and found that the PMOI was no longer an organisation concerned in terrorism. POAC directed that the Government lay an order before the House deproscribing the PMOI. Although POAC considered that the Government were wrong to refuse to deproscribe the PMOI in 2006, it agreed that the original proscription in 2001 was justified and that the PMOI was responsible for many terrorist attacks over an extended period. It also stated that the Government were entitled to give little credibility to public statements made by the PMOI, as their public statements contained spin and the evidence submitted in the course of the hearing was “contradictory and potentially misleading” and demonstrated “a shifting approach”.

Our subsequent application for permission to appeal POAC’s ruling to the Court of Appeal was refused. Naturally, although disappointed by the decision, we have complied with the judgment and have moved quickly to lay the order that the House is debating today. It will give effect to POAC’s order and will remove the PMOI from the list of proscribed organisations.

An article in today’s Times has been drawn to my attention. It comes under the heading, “Labour stands up to judges by backing Tehran on dissidents” and makes certain suggestions about the intentions of the Prime Minister and those of the Home Secretary with regard to an organisation described as the National Resistance Army of Iran. Simply, there is no basis in fact for the conclusions that the article draws or for the headline, and we refute any of the suggestions in the article. There is no intention on the part of the Government to circumvent in any way the effect of the order to deproscribe as the article suggests. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 21 May be approved. 21st Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

My Lords, I can be unusually brief on this occasion. I have read most of the judgment by the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission. Much of it is the background to which the noble Lord has referred. In the circumstances, the Government have no alternative but to put the order before the House and to deproscribe this organisation. In view of the fact that no appeals are allowed to the High Court and the judgment was very clear, there is nothing that we could do or wish to say to stop the order proceeding.

I have only one question about something that is not terribly clear. The order says that it comes into being in accordance with Article 1, which says simply that the order,

“shall come into force on the day after the day on which it is made”.

Perhaps we could have a date on which it will come into effect.

My Lords, after so many years of waiting and campaigning and so many setbacks and frustrations, at last our Government have seen the light. I am therefore extremely grateful to them for this order, despite the fury of the Iranian regime and the threats of dire consequences should the order be passed. I am very proud that we do not listen to threats from such people.

The order could not have come at a better time for the families of those who are still suffering the torments of the invidious regime in Tehran. By deproscribing the PMOI from the terror list, which in all conscience it should never have been on in the first place, this country sends this strong message to the mullahs and despotic rulers in Iran; “You must immediately cease your despicable actions against your own people and your meddling in Iraq or face the consequences of your actions in the future”. Those actions are why I have spoken in support of this organisation for a number of years now.

When I learnt that women were being flogged for not veiling in the way that the mullahs decreed and not wearing socks in public, and that clothing shops and hairdressers for women were being shut down, I despaired. However, worse—so much worse—has been happening in Iran and has been well documented by independent journalists and those who have escaped the regime. Women are denied equal rights with men in marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance. If a woman goes to court, her evidence is considered to be worth only half that given by a man. A girl under 13 can be forced to marry a much older man if her father permits it.

Women can be stoned for allegedly committing adultery, and that stoning is to be done in a very special way. A woman is buried up to her shoulders. She cannot escape. Interestingly, if a man is being punished by stoning, he is buried only up to his waist, and if he can wriggle free he is spared the stoning. No such luck for a woman. Rules govern the size of the stones that can be used as well. They must not be so small that they do not hurt, but nor must they be too large to be able to kill outright. The execution is public and children may be brought along to watch their mother’s stoning. What kind of people are these?

At last there is hope for the poor people of Iran, who have had so much to endure. The National Council of Resistance of Iran—the campaigning arm of the PMOI—is led by a charismatic woman, Mrs Maryam Rajavi, who insists that there must not be war with Iran, but nor must the mullahs be appeased. She calls for support for the Iranian people in their resistance, and is determined to bring about full democratic change in her country. We can only applaud her for this and tell her that the eyes of the world will be on her and her supporters when that day comes. We should offer our help and support to end, by severe sanctions, the regime that is clinging on to power now.

I thank the Minister for coming to this House tonight and beginning a process that I hope will rapidly see the European Union, too, deproscribing the PMOI and supporting those brave Iranians, especially those in Ashraf city, the enclave of displaced Iranians, who are forced to live under UN protection in Iraqi territory but near the Iranian border, who are fighting for the freedom of their country and who hope, one day soon, to be able to live there in peace.

My Lords, it is plain that Governments have to deal with acts of terrorism. It is no less obvious—if it is not, it should be—that no one should be put on or remain on a proscribed list unless there is clear evidence to establish it. The very strong judgments of the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission, the Court of Appeal and indeed the European Court of First Instance made it utterly plain that justice required the PMOI to be taken off the list. There can be no doubt about that.

Secondly, it is of great importance that if, as I trust, this order proposed by the Minister is approved tonight both by your Lordships and by the other place, it will do a great deal to establish and underline the concept of the rule of law. To have two such excellent judgments in this country by eminent judges so clearly stated and not to approve them would be the most dreadful attack on the concept of the rule of law. I am very glad that the Minister was able to come and do this tonight. I strongly endorse his proposal that this order should be made. I would like to thank him for the clarification in his newspaper article this morning which, to me at any rate, came as a bit of a surprise. The Minister has done a great deal to take away my surprise. Therefore, I support this order.

My Lords, people can argue about what the PMOI has done in the past—and the Minister delved into history—but that is not the point. The tests here, in front of both courts, is whether the PMOI is presently—not in the past, distant or near—concerned in terrorism or preparing to be concerned in it. The Government’s argument at both the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission and the Court of Appeal can be summed up this way: once a terrorist, always a terrorist. This is a nonsense. Both courts, after considering all of the evidence, open and closed for security reasons, rejected that argument and found no evidence to support assertions that the PMOI was concerned in, or preparing to be concerned in, terrorism. This order rights a great wrong done to the 4,000 members of the PMOI, part of Iran’s resistance coalition. They sit in exile in the deserts of Iraq because the theocratic regime in Tehran has stolen their freedom and slaughtered around 120,000—yes, that is right—of their friends and supporters.

Why was this ban put in place? The then Home Secretary said it was because the mullahs insisted upon it as the price of opening talks with the EU on its nuclear weapons development programme. Ludicrously, in making the ban, the Government said that the PMOI had no presence in the UK and no record of harming British or western interests anywhere in the world. Who are the terrorists? It is not the PMOI which makes and supplies the roadside bombs which slaughter British and coalition troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; that is done by the mullahs' private army, The Revolutionary Guard, itself labelled as a terrorist organisation by the United States.

This resistance revealed two weeks ago that an estimated eight out of every 10 of the roadside bombs slaughtering our British troops come from Iran, smuggled across the border on 51 networks. Details of these networks and those who run them have been given by the resistance to the coalition forces and to our own Ministry of Defence. It is not the PMOI which is seeking to build nuclear weapons; it was the resistance which revealed the secret sites where this work was going on and, last year, corrected a wrong estimate made by the United States intelligence outfits that they had stopped work on these sites, when they had scattered this nuclear development in 12 sites around the country making it harder to monitor and inspect even when the mullahs agree.

It is hard to understand why the Government refused our request to deproscribe the PMOI. When challenged by 35 Members of your Lordships’ House and those in another place, the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission ruled that that refusal was,

“perverse … flawed and must be set aside”.

Scathingly, it added that it was,

“in the (perhaps unusual) position of having before it all of the material that is relevant to this decision. In our view, that is a requirement of the 2000 Act”.

In plain English, what the POAC decided was that the Government had got the law wrong, ignored the evidence and asked the wrong questions, which led them to come to this perverse and flawed decision. When the Government appealed to the Court of Appeal, they had their nose rubbed once more in the evidence they had ignored, when the Court of Appeal said,

“Closed material was also available to the applicant"—

that is, to the Government—

“We have considered that material. It has reinforced our conclusion that the applicant could not reasonably have formed the view … that PMOI intended in future to revert to terrorism”.

That is a damning indictment of the way the Government have handled this matter. The Government now have a duty to ask the EU to remove the ban on the PMOI imposed at their request and I want to ask the Minister to tell me tonight how and when and how soon this will be done.

The order will give new hope to those millions inside Iran who cry freedom and want to see their country a respected member of the international community, rather than a pariah—a country which respects human rights, not least the rights of women, and ends its nuclear weapons development and its murderous interference in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza and elsewhere. Iran will be free. Freedom may be delayed but it cannot for ever be denied.

My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, reminded us of the history of the matter; it is not a happy one. However, there is little point in my repeating it now that it has been given to your Lordships, so I shall briefly touch on another matter. Tonight may be a time less for recrimination and more for thanks to all those who have brought us to the position in which we are today. I would like us all to record our thanks to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn of Hadley. To have such a distinguished lawyer on our side was an enormous bonus, and what he had to say obviously carried enormous weight. The noble Lord, Lord Corbett, should be thanked by all of us for his magnificent leadership as chairman of our committee. Then there were those who represented us in court—they did a marvellous job—and the members of the NCRI in London, who had campaigned tirelessly for years to achieve this result.

One thing is left to be done. It is now surely up to the Government to see that the EU listing, which was based on the then Home Secretary’s original order to proscribe, is also brought to an end. On 12 June the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said at col. 670 that as the British listing alone underpinned the EU listing it was likely to be reviewed. That is simply not good enough. When a decision no longer has any legal basis—the decision in Europe does not any more, because the legal basis was proscription in this country—it should be reversed forthwith, not reviewed. It is the Government’s job and duty to see that that reversal takes place.

My Lords, as someone who has listened to the debate on the subject for a long time, I want to make a small intervention to compliment the noble Lords, Lord Clarke of Hampstead and Lord Corbett, and all those in the Chamber who have fought so strenuously on behalf of the people and their freedom and rights. I feel proud that, across the Benches in this House, all parties have pulled together in support of justice.

My Lords, it is not on every occasion on which I have followed the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, in debates in this House that I have been able to say that I agree with every word that he said, but on this occasion I can say it without any reservation. I am grateful that my noble friend intervened as one who can judge the matter a little more objectively than some of us, because he has not been involved in all the debates.

This may be technically a debate, but there is really no question for the House to decide. The Government have brought the order before us because they had no alternative; Section 5 of the Terrorism Act 2000 said that they must. Had the Government listened to some of us before the unseemly saga began, the Secretary of State could have come before us tonight with a good grace and claimed the credit. My noble friend on the Front Bench would not have had the task of making the speech that he did; if I may say so, it was hardly a gracious retraction on the part of the Government.

The Government have suffered a humiliating defeat in the courts. Their attitude has been labelled as perverse. The unhappy story is not yet over, as, already, two noble Lords have pointed out. The PMOI is the subject of a decision by the Council of the European Union to include it in the European list of terrorist organisations, so that its assets in the EU territories are frozen and so that Europe sends out a signal that the PMOI is perceived as a terrorist organisation. It is no secret that that was done at the instance of the United Kingdom Government, as my noble friend has said. A ruling by the EU Court of First Instance that it is wrongly included has been evaded by what can be described only as a shameful piece of sophistry.

I believe that the conclusions reached by all three of the distinguished courts will be vindicated by the verdict of history. It is perverse that those who so courageously opposed a regime, which is the very centre and source of a web of terrorism and has been condemned by United Nations’ human rights bodies on more than 54 occasions, and whose families in Iran are suffering persecution for their resistance to terrorism, should ever have been labelled as terrorists.

It is not too late to rectify the injustice or to congratulate the PMOI and the National Council of Resistance on their complete vindication. This is not the end of the ordeal suffered by the Iranian people at the hands of the mullahs, but I believe that it is the beginning of the end and that the people of Iran may look forward at no great distance to the dawn of a new freedom and the restoration of their country to its rightful place in the international community.

My Lords, I have to declare an interest: for more than 25 years I have been a supporter of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. I also have an interest as one of the 35 people who made the application to POAC. Today, we are able to say that a long chapter of shame by the British Government is ending. It has sullied the reputation of our nation, my political party and those who, in their positions of influence, have given sustenance and the appearance of respectability to the murderous and inhumane regime that rules Iran and subjects its citizens to barbaric treatment.

As we welcome the late arrival of this long overdue removal of the NCRI and the PMOI from the proscribed list of terrorist organisations, we should stop and consider just what these wicked people have done. Children have been executed. My thoughts tonight are with the young, mentally handicapped, 16 year-old girl who had the audacity to question the judge at her trial by saying, “You should be trying the man who attempted to rape me, and did rape me, rather than put me on trial for adulterous behaviour”. What was her punishment? It was summary execution. She was taken out and hung publicly. My thoughts are with the memory of that young girl and her family.

Mention has just been made of United Nations resolutions. The mullahs’ regime has cocked a snook at the United Nations time and time again. It cares little about the world’s opinion of its barbaric behaviour. No one in this nation should ignore the rantings of the mullahs. As my noble friend Lord Corbett said, they will continue their evil activities until they are removed from power once and for all. Such a removal will be achieved only when the people of Iran are able to enjoy free and fair elections, unencumbered by the interference of the theocratic guilty men. My thoughts then will be that if the Iranian people get free elections, the brave and courageous Madam Rajavi will take her place on a ballot form. She will subject herself to the democratic process. By her example over these past years, I have no doubt that the people will respond in the way that they should.

I was not going to say much this evening but we have had a little bit of history from the Minister. I also want to provide a bit of history because, when the order was put before the House, and included the PMOI, I and others from this House and the other place, went to see Mr Straw. I reminded Mr Straw that, as a member of the Labour Party and as a chairman, I encouraged people at the conference to welcome Madame Rajavi and people from the resistance. To a person, they rose and applauded this brave lady and the people around her. Do you know what the response was? The response was, “Tony, we are in Government now”. I find that on the offensive side because principles cannot start and finish when elections are taking place. If it was good enough to give support to oppressed people in opposition, we should have the courage to give them support now we are in power and to do something about it.

Mr Straw made a statement on BBC television. The world saw a British Minister saying to the world that it is on the list because the mullahs asked him to put it on the list. Can noble Lords think of anything that is more offensive in a democracy? A seemingly laughing face was seen on our televisions as the same Mr Straw rubbed shoulders with the mullahs. Time is short and many noble Lords will share my joy at the end of this period.

My message to the Government, critical as I am, is a genuine plea. Do not appease despicable people just because of the oil that lies beneath the ground in Iran. Think of the threat to the democratic state of Israel that comes out of the mouth of President Ahmadinejad, who wants to drive the Israeli people into the sea. I ask the Government to show the world that this country is rightly concerned about the export of terrorism from Iran. Bullets and bombs from Iran are killing and maiming brave coalition forces, not just in Iraq but also in other countries. Our former prime minister, Tony Blair, also told the world that Iran was the greatest exporter of terrorism in the world. We should all be concerned about the nuclear ambitions of these despots. I plead with the British Government to speak out against the atrocities and let all of us hold our heads high as we work not just here but within the European Parliament.

Quite recently in Brussels, talking to other people from other nations, it was clear that the lead given by the British Government, which has now been proved to have been unlawful, motivated other countries to put the PMOI on the European list. The Government should work now to redeem themselves. They can do a penance by saying to our friends in Europe “We got it wrong”. Have the courage to say this. Some of those countries can be forgiven for taking an example from this country with its long tradition of democracy. Let us once and for all rid ourselves of the shame of our Government who have used every legal advice to assist the wicked and evil rulers who reside in Teheran.

My Lords, I am delighted that this order is before the House this evening. I first became interested in the PMOI some time ago when I was interested particularly in its campaign for women. I became a member of a group of parliamentarians in both Houses and we have together campaigned to try to get the organisation deproscribed. I never believed it was a terrorist organisation—on the contrary. I could see that it was led by a charismatic woman in the shape of Madame Rajavi and its agenda calls for gender equality for all women. It has the same sort of agenda as a political organisation and I emphasise that it is a political organisation that seeks change by political means and not by terrorism. It has an agenda which we should all be willing and happy to support and I hope that now the organisation is being deproscribed that will be the stance that we take in the future.

The people we have worked with—the Iranian colleagues in this country who have supplied us with briefings and so on—have been very courageous in their fight for deproscription. They should be congratulated, and we should also congratulate ourselves on having succeeded in this campaign.

I hope that the Government will now not pursue proscription via the EU. I support everything that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, has said. It really is disgraceful that the Government were able to persuade the EU to adopt the line it did—they should not have done so. We can now go forward and I hope that we can work in future with this group of people to ensure that eventually the people of Iran achieve the democratic state that they deserve.

My Lords, I pay tribute to all those who have contributed to this debate. I would be foolish to deny that very strong passions are evoked by the history of the proscription of the PMOI—that much is evident from all sides of your Lordships' House. But we are where we are, and we should proceed.

Our Government—any Government—have to take a longer view when approaching such an issue. It has to be approached with caution and thought. Although noble Lords clearly disagree with the position advanced by the Government in proscribing the PMOI at the outset, it was a position honestly adopted. I refute the suggestion that it was to appease the Iranian regime. The Government’s record in advocating support of a democracy in Iran, expressing their concern about the treatment of juveniles within the justice system there and arguing the human rights case is very strong, which colleagues should recognise. That is not to say that I do not understand the very powerful views that have been expressed in the House this evening and the intention behind them, because I do.

We have now moved to deproscription; we have moved in good time and in good order. We have complied exactly with the POAC ruling, and we will proceed, as we always do in these matters, quite properly. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn, said that he acknowledged and supported our approach. He is right to make the case for the rule of law. That is how we should proceed in these circumstances.

I was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, when the order will come into effect. It will do so the day after it is signed by a Minister, which will probably be tomorrow, so it is pretty immediate. My noble friend Lord Corbett, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and my noble and learned friend Lord Archer have pressed me for details of when it is expected that Council of Europe Ministers will consider these matters. We have already advised them of the POAC decision and said that we intend deproscribing the PMOI. Because we were the national competent authority making the decision, the PMOI was listed under common position 931. The fact that that decision has now changed and the PMOI has been deproscribed will inform our EU partners, who are on notice. It is now for the Council to consider what action it needs to take in the light of the deproscription. It would be wrong of me to say that deproscription will be automatic but the fact that we were the national competent authority which originally made the decision will be weighing on Council Ministers when they reach their decision. It would be strange if they did not follow our lead. They would need to be advised again and reminded that we have now deproscribed and that that order is in effect.

Although I would like to, I cannot advise the House as to when the Council will make its decision. Its procedures and proceedings are for Council Ministers, but they have been fully advised and kept up to date. They know exactly what the position is within the United Kingdom, as the competent authority. It will be up to them to make their decision based on actions that we have taken.

I am grateful to noble Lords who have participated in this discussion. I understand full well the passions, enthusiasms and urgings to democracy in Iran. I certainly share those views, but we have now deproscribed. We have to move forward and it is my hope that noble Lords will feel happier and freer in their own campaigning activities for a cause that I am sure many of us share.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.53 pm.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.36 to 8.53 pm.]