Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the current human rights situation in Iran.
My Lords, I thank the Minister and those noble Lords who have put their names down to speak for being present for this short debate. I and many others think this is a very pressing issue for us to address as a nation.
The appalling human rights situation in Iran continues to deteriorate, with the authorities there increasing the pressure on political prisoners, prisoners of conscience and activists, and at the same time increasing the number of executions and public hangings. Reports during this last month include mention of continuing barbaric punishments, as has been the case for so many decades. The punishments include amputation of limbs, public hangings and public floggings. It is clear that the condemnatory resolution of the United Nations General Assembly adopted on 19 December is being ignored by the despotic rulers in Tehran. We should not be surprised by the mullahs adopting the position that they always have; they have been doing it all these years. There have been 60 or more resolutions in various United Nations committees and councils, but every one of them is ignored by those people in Tehran.
Two weeks ago, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Ms Asma Jahangir, stated her alarm over the health of several prisoners of conscience in Iran who have been on a prolonged hunger strike contesting the legality of their detention. She also expressed deep concern over the continuous detention of human rights defenders in the country, who she said have been tried on the basis of vaguely defined offences and who were heavily sentenced following trials marred by due process violations. Ms Jahangir urged the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those who had been arbitrarily arrested, detained and prosecuted for exercising their rights.
The hopes of the international community that things would improve, raised when the so-called moderate Hassan Rouhani took over the presidency in 2013, were quickly dashed. The following year he was saying that executions were, “God’s commandments” and,
“laws of the parliament that belong to the people”.
He quickly appointed Mostafa Pourmohammadi, one of the main perpetrators of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Iran, as his Justice Minister—a murderer.
It is well worth recalling what was said at the 71st session of the UN General Assembly last October. Speaking about the increase in executions in Iran, the special rapporteur said:
“The right to life is still under heavy assault in Iran today”.
Iran continues to execute more individuals per capita than any other country in the world. Human rights organisations estimate that between 966 and 1,054 executions took place in 2015 alone—the highest rate in over 20 years. At least 420 executions were reportedly carried out between January and October 2016. More recently, since 1 January, there have been 40 executions.
The authorities continue to execute juveniles, showing their contempt for the commitments they have signed up to in the case of juveniles. The ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by the Iranian regime is itself testament to the disregard they have for human life, even if it means killing children.
I recognise the efforts made by our own Government, as they have given support to the various calls for an end to the evils of the mullahs’ regime. This evening I call clearly on the Government to join other nations in calling for those clearly identified as being responsible for the 1988 massacre of the 30,000 victims to be tried in the International Court of Justice. The international community has a duty to speak out against those who callously and wantonly condemned the 30,000 human souls to death.
While the political bickering between the various factions in Tehran goes on, especially following the death of Rafsanjani two weeks ago, and becomes more intensified, the Iranian people, particularly the younger generation with its desire for fundamental freedoms and civil liberties, continue to pose the greatest threat to the ruling theocracy. The protests inside the country continue with little or no coverage by media outlets in the West. During 2016, thousands of popular protests and rallies took place in spite of the repressive security measures by the authorities to prevent such expressions—just expressions of a desire for human rights and a people wanting to see an end to the theocratic and inhumane rulers in Tehran.
Many of the gatherings of protesters start off with a call for an end to the appalling living conditions endured by many. Protests about poverty and unpaid salaries grow quickly to loud calls for an end to the regime, the release of political prisoners and an end to the widespread corruption and oppression in that country.
The president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, Mrs Maryam Rajavi, has proposed a 10-point plan. There is not time this evening for me to go through the 10 points but I am confident that the Minister and the Government are aware of Mrs Rajavi’s 10-point plan. It seeks nothing more than what we take for granted in our lives: the right to speak out and the right to protest. I am not being critical in any way of what has gone on, although I could say something about the lack of effort when the nuclear deal was being done, when human rights were not even mentioned by the negotiators. However, I do not hold the Minister responsible for that.
It is now 30 years since a young man came into my office in Clapham and showed me pictures of young men hanging from gibbets—impromptu gallows, cranes similar to those used four months ago in the football stadium when they executed those people. It is 30 years since he showed me those pictures and it stays in my memory and always will—to see young men dangling in the air because they had dared to speak out about that in which they believed.
I also remember the young lady with whom some years ago I had a telephone link from Camp Ashraf. She was a young girl of 16. We got on quite well considering her English was good and my Farsi was absolutely rubbish. I went home and said to my wife that it had been a wonderful evening, being able to speak to a young lady suffering with lots of people in Camp Ashraf. About three weeks later I asked my colleagues in the National Council of Resistance of Iran how she was getting on and heard the terrible news that she was among the 50-odd people massacred in one of the raids on Camp Ashraf—raids perpetrated by the Iraqi Government on behalf of the mullahs in Tehran.
Many expressed great joy and relief when last year the successor to Ashraf, Camp Liberty—if ever anything was misnamed it was Camp Liberty, which was in my view a concentration camp—finally closed and the residents were taken in by the Albanian authorities. The world owes a great deal to Albania because, in contrast to all the other nations which ignored the problem, it took people in and gave them a new life, ending the uncertainty, the living in fear and the daily persecution that they had suffered.
The international community continues to be misled by the Iranian authorities. Witness to this feeling is the so-called Iranian nuclear programme agreement. The discussions on that agreement do not include the dreadful human rights record. We shall regret that.
You could speak about the number of people and go on and on. Only today we saw the news of somebody’s appeal having been rejected, so a young mother will be deprived of her family life for another five years. In asking the Government this Question, all I can say is: please, pursue those responsible for historic crimes against humanity. It may just have some effect on these people who rule by fear and oppression.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, for bringing this important matter before the House, and for giving the Minister the opportunity to update the House on progress that the Government are making in trying to improve human rights in Iran. It is a great privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, after his heartfelt and commanding speech on the human rights being abused in Iran.
It is a great shame that we still need to debate this subject this evening. I am sure that after July 2015 many of us hoped that not only would diplomatic relations be properly re-established, but that the Iranian Government would have time to reflect properly on the egregious human right abuses taking place in Iran. These result in a great stain for such a great country that, for two millennia, was known for its pursuit of civilisation. It is important that we distinguish between the great Iranian people and the current apparatus of the state. The two are very different. As the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, has already said, the people in Iran crave improvement in their human rights and are prepared to put their lives at risk to protest against abuse of those human rights.
Any passing interest in Persian or Iranian history would tell your Lordships that the Iranian-Persian civilisation was based on the diversity that any great state or nation requires. Yet we see under the current state apparatus that diversity is viewed as a threat rather than something to be celebrated. Each religious minority is picked upon and forced from the public sphere. Jews are forced to keep a low profile or emigrate. Sufis—whose tradition was a central tenet of and came from the Shia religion—are persecuted. The Baha’i—in many ways the most oppressed religious minority in present-day Iran—are pursued from the public sphere. Christians, whether Armenians, Assyrians or converts meeting in house churches, are again forced to keep a low profile and suffer discrimination. Ethnic minorities—Arabs, Azeris, Kurds—find it difficult to gain access to higher education. All these groups are minorities, but minorities that add up to a majority overall in the Iranian state, a state where gender and sexuality are the determinants of how the state views one, judges what one is worth and determines the punishment one must face if going beyond what is expected in the public or private sphere.
It would be easy for those from that state apparatus in Iran to claim that we are nothing more than cultural imperialists who fail to understand the religious and cultural context of human rights in Iran. How, though, can that be the case when Iran signed the Geneva Convention in 1957, when President Rouhani himself was elected on a platform of reform, and when the Iranian parliament discusses the need to reduce capital punishment and the use of the death penalty but the state apparatus refuses to allow the restoration of human rights throughout the country?
That state apparatus has enforced a false theology that does not reflect traditional Shia Islam or the diversity that existed under various regimes in the past. As the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, said, in the past five years we have seen a massive increase in the use of capital punishment, reaching a peak of over 1,000 deaths in 2015. The UN rapporteur reported in March 2016 that 160 juvenile offenders were on death row. That is despite a change in 2013 to the penal code to discourage judges from sentencing juveniles to the death sentence.
Torture, flogging and stoning to death have become, and remain, key elements of the penal code. This is the very torture, as executed by the then state apparatus through SAVAK, which was an important component in creating the circumstances of the 1979 revolution in the first place and it continues. In the last month, concern has been raised by the UN special rapporteur on human rights; and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has been written to by his uncle, who reprimanded him on the poor human rights record for those imprisoned for involvement in the green movement. In the last 24 hours we have seen the danger of the failure of the Iranian state to recognise dual nationality, in the case of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. When the Minister responds, will she address this issue in particular?
I also hope that the Minister will be able to reassure the House that the Government will continue the excellent work for human rights that they have pursued directly with the Iranian Government on a bilateral basis and through the United Nations. While we will inevitably be drawn first to those suffering in Iran who have a connection to the United Kingdom, we must not forget the ordinary Iranians, whose only wish is to enjoy the same human rights as their ancestors were able to enjoy under so many different regimes in the past. The UK has a unique place in being able to speak for these people. For too long Iran was able to use diplomatic isolation as an excuse to avoid scrutiny. That can no longer be the case. As we move forward, I ask that her Majesty’s Government use all avenues open to them to improve human rights in Iran.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, on obtaining this debate and opening it so well. He and I have made common cause on these issues for many years. There are not many opportunities to debate them and we are fortunate tonight to be able to do so in the presence of the noble Baroness, who is a senior Foreign Office Minister and who will, no doubt, be willing to answer a number of the questions put in the course of the debate. It has also been an absolute pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, who gave a lot of colour to the historical aspects. These make the issues we are debating so depressing, because abuses in Iran have gone on for so long.
I hope that the House will indulge me for a moment in reflecting on the fact that I am speaking for the first time from this Bench. I hope it is proper for me to thank the House authorities, the Convenor of the Cross Benches and his staff for their guidance so that my move to this Bench could be made in compliance with the customs and practices of your Lordships’ House and with as little fuss as possible. I thank colleagues in this House for their courtesy in a difficult time, and I include in that members of the Liberal Democrat group which I left to come to this Bench.
Policy towards Iran has changed with the relaxation of the United Kingdom’s previously severely critical approach towards the regime. It is a matter of judgment whether one believes the asserted commitment to the deal designed to inhibit the proliferation of nuclear weapons and their development in Iran. In so far as trust has been reposed in the Iranian theocratic regime, I hope that this is justified, though personally I doubt it. I would welcome hearing from the Minister what evidence there is to corroborate whatever confidence our Government have in the integrity of the regime on the nuclear issue or, for that matter, any issue. I have followed Iranian affairs quite closely for a number of years and I have seen absolutely no evidence to support the view that the regime is truthful. Indeed, it appears to be as unfamiliar with the concept of truth as it is with the concept of trust.
One of the benchmarks of trust is the attitude of the Government concerned to human rights. Theirs is a Government with a plainly threadbare approach—even a scorched-earth one—to human rights. There is international evidence in abundance, not least from the United Nations, to support that view. Others in this debate have already spoken about this human rights record. I will provide six headline points, though I could have made 66. First, trials take place in Iran without legal representation, even in capital cases. That would be unbelievable about any modern state if it were not, unfortunately, true. Secondly, defendants are convicted, and lose their appeals, without being told the charges they face. The concept of appealing against a conviction and losing the appeal without ever even seeing the charge is just an abomination in the modern world. Thirdly, children are subject to the death sentence, which can be carried out when they reach 18 years old—well outside international human rights norms and treaty requirements. Fourthly, in a gruesome peculiarity of their law, girls in Iran can be sentenced to death at nine years old, whereas boys can be sentenced to death at 14. Obviously, no juvenile should be sentenced to death in any state—it is barbaric—but the extraordinary disparity between boys and girls is one of the many examples of a total disregard by the Iranian Government of international obligations, juristic norms and equality of the sexes.
Fifthly, Iran imposes its laws and violence wherever it can spread its influence. The noble Lord, Lord Clarke, referred to Camp Ashraf. The Iranian Government have been responsible for multiple missile attacks at that camp and its successor, Camp Liberty, on innocent, unarmed and in many cases elderly refugees from Iran to Iraq, killing many. I have been to Albania and spoken to many of those refugees and the story they have to tell justifies the use of the word horrific. The role of Iran in Syria is extremely questionable at best. My sixth point is: who is in charge of justice in Iran? As the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, said, the Justice Minister is Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who was instrumental in the 1988 massacre of no fewer than 30,000 political prisoners. Justice in Iran is supervised by a war criminal. How on earth can we pay any credence to a Government who have a war criminal as their Minister of Justice?
I turn briefly to some specific cases, specifically those of the dual nationals Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi, which have been mentioned already. Mrs Ratcliffe has been taken away from her family; she has a two year-old who was not allowed to leave Iran to live with her father, Mr Ratcliffe, in the United Kingdom. Without going into the facts further, I ask the Minister whether the Government can confirm that they have not only been protesting against what has happened to Mrs Ratcliffe but calling for her release in their discussions with their Iranian counterparts. It is extremely important that that should be done. Failure to call for her release may indeed be a misuse, at least, of administrative action. I ask whether the Foreign Secretary will make a public statement calling for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the 77 year-old Kamal Foroughi to be released.
I remind your Lordships that Kamal Foroughi is a British Iranian serving an eight-year sentence in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran on charges of espionage and possession of alcohol. He was arrested in 2011 and kept in solitary confinement, then convicted at an unfair trial at which he was not properly represented. He did actually see the charges brought against him—the day before the trial. The authorities have barred him from legal advice and much contact with his family, and he has been denied consular assistance. According to Iranian law, a prisoner can be released after serving a third of their sentence, yet he has been in prison for more than five years. That is typical of the arbitrary and inexcusable way in which these cases are treated. Again, I ask the Minister whether she will take up this case and call for his release.
My final point is that the 10 recommendations in the UN special rapporteur’s report of 30 September 2016 have been ignored. What are the UK Government going to say and do about that?
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the gap. I am a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights, and I was determined to get here to say a word in support of my noble friend Lord Clarke, who has been a long-standing champion on this issue, and whom I salute without reservation in that context.
It is true that apparently, so far, progress is being made on the nuclear issue. We cannot discount that because to succeed on the nuclear issue will have immense human consequences in terms of the dangers that would otherwise be there. It is also essential to recognise that there are large numbers of courageous people within Iran who are doing their best to stand up for decency and the things that matter. We must be careful that, in criticising from outside, we do not undermine their effectiveness as they bring pressure to bear. They are very brave people indeed.
I want to underline what has already been said. The human rights record remains deplorable. Iran is one of only four countries in the world to conduct some executions in public. Hanging is, of course, the most common means—and very questionable forms of hanging, too—although recently we have also heard of shootings. The number of executions in 2016 was unbelievable: between 400 and 500. Amendments to the penal code allow judges to use their discretion not to sentence children to death, but they still execute children when they reach 18.
Many detainees accused of capital offences, as the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, underlined, are denied access to legal counsel during the investigative phase when in detention. Indeed, in February 2016 the entire adult male population of a village in southern Iran was executed for drug offences—and this news came from the Vice-President for Women and Family Affairs in Iran itself.
Prison conditions, and the treatment of prisoners in solitary confinement, are indescribably bad—and sometimes, in solitary confinement, amount to torture. We must be firm. It is no good believing that we can have a lasting, effective relationship with Iran if we prevaricate. We must leave the Iranians in absolutely no doubt that their conduct on human rights is totally unacceptable.
My Lords, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, has had a long interest in Iran, as have a number of other noble Lords and our colleagues in the other place. The noble Lord, Lord Clarke, has given us a very disturbing account, as have other speakers. I know that there is an almost constant presence in Parliament of an organisation that flags to parliamentarians its case in relation to Iran.
I pay especial tribute to someone not speaking tonight: the wonderful noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, whose wisdom on the subject of her home country is, in my view, second to none in this House, and whose debate on the subject in December I read with great interest. Unlike some noble Lords, she welcomed the lifting of sanctions on Iran, for the benefit of the Iranian people. Nevertheless she herself pointed out:
“I fear that in my own birthplace I would be put in prison and maybe the UK Government would not be able to help”.—[Official Report, 8/12/16; col. 945.]
Like others, she is very concerned about the abuse of human rights in Iran. She pointed out that Iran signed the Geneva Conventions in 1957 and voted in favour of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nevertheless, as has been said, we hear of acts of torture, and the extraction of apparent confessions without a lawyer present. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, made the point that trials may be carried out without legal representation.
Amnesty International notes that the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, as well as freedom of the press, remain heavily curtailed in Iran, with hundreds of activists, journalists, human rights defenders, women’s rights advocates, trade unionists, lawyers, student activists, and members of ethnic and religious minorities being detained and given increasingly harsh prison sentences. The noble Lord, Lord McInnes, spelled out so many groups who are vulnerable in Iran. In December’s debate the noble Lord, Lord Collins, flagged the especial vulnerability of LGBT people. It was shocking to read what the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said in that debate about what she described as the “wretched” situation of Shirin Ebadi, the human rights lawyer who was given the Nobel Peace Prize and who is now unable to return to her country, or continue her work and family life there.
In August 2015 the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology announced the second phase of “filtering” of websites deemed to have socially harmful consequences, and the authorities continued efforts to create a “national internet”. In June 2015 a spokesperson for the judiciary said that the authorities had arrested several people for “anti-revolutionary” activities using social media.
Amnesty has also recorded the execution of at least 73 juvenile offenders between 2005 and 2015, including at least four in 2015. According to the 2014 report of the UN Secretary-General on the situation of human rights in Iran, more than 160 juvenile offenders remain on death row.
Another issue raised by Amnesty is prisoners’ access to medical care. It reports that political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, are denied adequate medical care—a key human right under international law. In some of the cases there is also evidence that that denial is being used as a means to extract “confessions” from political prisoners or to intimidate or punish them.
Then there are the cases that we have already heard about, of the British-Iranian nationals. One whom my right honourable friend Tom Brake has been supporting is Kamal Foroughi, to whom the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, also referred. Another who is particularly in the public eye at the moment is Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose specific case I will raise at Oral Questions on 2 February, and whose appeal against her five-year sentence has been declined, as we heard yesterday. I note recent ministerial engagement in this case. Can the Minister confirm to the House that the Government have asked for Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release? The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, also made this point.
There has, of course, been much international engagement over Iran’s nuclear programme. As the Foreign Secretary himself said, we know that conflict in the Middle East, especially in Syria, owes much to proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, when she was the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, surely did much commendable work in helping bring Iran back into the global fold. We are now in uncertain times with the election of Donald Trump, who has made his opposition to the deal with Iran very clear. Might we hope that Iran might address some of the issues we have mentioned today as it seeks not to be sanctioned and ostracised once again? It may well hear the lack of sympathy for the regime expressed in this debate. That may mean that Iran should be looking to improve its record on human rights. The UK Government must not hold back in defending their citizens when they are caught in the Kafkaesque situation in which they now find themselves.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for initiating today’s debate and keeping these issues very much in the public arena. His record on standing up for the rights of oppressed people throughout the world is second to none. Certainly, his record in doing so as a trade unionist is one of which I am particularly proud.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said, it is just over a month since we last debated Iran and its human rights record. Sadly, little has changed apart from one significant change which has been referred to in the debate—namely, the developments in the case of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We heard only yesterday that a court in Iran has rejected an appeal against her five-year prison sentence, originally handed down in September by a revolutionary court. Although official charges were never made public, she was accused of allegedly plotting to topple the Government in Tehran. According to her husband, the appeal was dismissed in a secret hearing of an Iranian revolutionary court on 4 January, but announced only yesterday. He added again that the precise charges against her remain secret, although apparently two new accusations were made at her appeal. One was that she had been head of recruitment for the BBC’s Farsi service when it was launched in 2009. The other charge, apparently, was that she was married to a British spy.
Monique Villa, the chief executive of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had never worked for the BBC Farsi service and that her husband,
“is not a spy but a reputable accountant”,
and that she is fully convinced of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s innocence.
As was mentioned in the last debate, we have heard that the Prime Minister raised strong concerns about the case directly with the Iranian President in August. Have any further representations been made at the level of Heads of Government? Can she confirm whether the UK Government have called for Mrs Zaghari- Ratcliffe’s release in all discussions with Iranian counterparts?
As we have heard in the debate tonight, the problem is that Iran does not recognise dual nationalities, meaning that those detained cannot receive the consular assistance and access that we would normally expect with British citizens. As we have also heard in the debate, other dual nationals are in prison in Iran. We need better to understand what the Government will do to represent our country’s citizens who are deserving of our fullest support. I hope that the noble Baroness will outline those actions tonight. I also hope that she will support a meeting between the Foreign Secretary and the families of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi to update them on exactly what action the United Kingdom Government have taken to date and on their upcoming plans.
In the last debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, reminded us that since the UK reopened the embassy in Tehran in 2015 and upgraded our diplomatic ties to ambassador level, we have seen the relationship between the two countries grow stronger. In addition to the FCO designating Iran as one of its human rights priority countries, the noble Baroness assured the House then that the Government were using the improved relationships as best they could to urge respect for human rights. As we have heard in the debate, the key to bringing Iran back into the international community, with all the obligations and responsibilities which that entails, was the Iran nuclear deal. The new, improved diplomatic relations with Iran have also enabled a dialogue not possible before on tackling security concerns around al-Qaeda and Daesh.
Whatever the gains of such an improved relationship, they must not be at the expense of our responsibility—as my noble friend Lord Judd said—to challenge Iran’s obligations under international law on human rights. We need to hear from the Minister, as the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, suggested, what steps the Government are taking in our improved relationship to highlight abuses of human rights. The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that he is determined to ensure that human rights remains a key element in the United Kingdom’s foreign policy. We need to understand that engagement works and we need to make clear our position. We must not make concessions on human rights.
As my noble friend Lord Clarke highlighted, sadly the truth is that, since July 2015, opponents of the regime have continued to be executed, religious minorities continue to be persecuted and, as I said in the last debate, LGBT communities have been victimised and murdered with impunity. The additional challenge, highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, now faced by the Government is that in the US presidential campaign President Trump repeatedly dismissed the joint comprehensive plan of action and the nuclear deal. In the forthcoming meeting with President Trump, which the Prime Minister will be undertaking shortly, I hope that the questions of human rights in Iran are raised, along with the role of engagement and improved diplomatic relations in addressing them. Our responsibility is to remind our longest standing and strongest ally of the needs to uphold those international obligations. As we have heard in the debate, following the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the resolution on human rights in Iran at the end of last year, and the earlier renewal of the mandate of the UN special rapporteur, we need to ensure that that pressure is constantly maintained. What representations have the Government made to the Iranian authorities to allow greater access for the UN rapporteur to undertake their duties properly?
We have heard that there are no fair trials, certainly not to international standards of fairness. The regime persistently attacks and harasses lawyers—and this is something I want to highlight—who act in defence of political activists or those fighting for minorities. At the end of the day, we need—and this is a responsibility of all of us in this House—to ensure that we expose those constant violations and that everyone fully understands exactly what is going on in Iran.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, for securing this debate. The fact that it is the second on Iran this year does not mean that there are too many. It is important that this House holds both the Government of this country and the Government of Iran to account on the issue of human rights and how we press the Government of Iran to improve their responses on human rights.
First, I intend to set out our assessment of the human rights position in Iran, and then I will turn to the consular cases, which are much in people’s minds and hearts at this moment. The human rights situation in Iran, as noble Lords have made clear, continues to be of serious concern—certainly of serious concern to the British Government. It is clear that the Government of Iran could and should do more to improve the rights and freedoms of its citizens. The United Kingdom has consistently pressed Iran to improve its human rights record, both through bilateral engagement and with our international partners, including through the UN and the EU. We continue to do so. This is vital to ensure that human rights in Iran continue to be given prominence in discussions, and also to maintain pressure on Iran to abide by its international obligations. Last year we strongly supported the renewal of the mandate of the UN special rapporteur and, in December, we welcomed the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Resolution on Human Rights in Iran. I am pleased that the resolution passed with an increased number of votes in favour—in part due to UK lobbying efforts.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the specific issue of what the Government have been doing to follow up on the matter of support for the UN special rapporteur. We continue to call on Iran to allow the UN special rapporteur access to the country to carry out the mandate and for Iran to move towards ending the death penalty, providing equal rights for women, and ending discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. Those are indeed the areas of concern that have been raised by noble Lords.
First, on the continued and extensive use of the death penalty, the British Government are firmly opposed to the death penalty, in all circumstances and in every country. We regularly raise this issue with Iran, bilaterally and through action with the international community. We are also, as noble Lords have said, particularly concerned about the number of executions of individuals who were minors when convicted, which continues despite Iran being a signatory to international conventions that prohibit juveniles being sentenced to death.
The noble Lord, Lord Clarke, among others, raised the issue of alleged executions in 1988. What I can say is that at the moment the UK is in the position of having very little corroborated evidence of the reported massacre of political prisoners in 1988. I certainly hear what noble Lords have said. I have in the past expressed at the Dispatch Box that if there was corroborated evidence, we would be able to take action. At the moment, the Iranian Government have repeatedly denied that it took place, although noble Lords have graphically set out what they and certainly many people believe took place.
The treatment of women in Iran is another important area of concern. The special rapporteur’s October 2016 report highlights continuing unequal treatment of men and women. It is absolutely clear that women continue to face discrimination—travel restrictions being one example. Married women need the consent of their husbands to leave the country. They cannot obtain or renew a passport if their husbands refuse to sign the required paperwork. This is surely completely unacceptable in the 21st century.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, we too are concerned by continuing restrictions on freedom of expression. Dissent is not widely tolerated, and the Government control the majority of newspapers, as well as TV and radio channels. They systematically block access to information and restrict free speech on the internet. Last month, restrictions were placed on the most popular social media platform, Telegram. The most followed users now have to seek official permission to operate. There have also been reports of Telegram channels being hacked by the Iranian cyberpolice. If true, this is a clear attempt to silence and intimidate independent voices within the country. The UK, along with our EU partners, has already placed sanctions on the Iranian cyberpolice following reports of other hacking activity carried out by them.
Sadly, as my noble friend Lord McInnes set out so clearly this evening, the Iranian state also continues to discriminate against certain religious groups and minorities. That includes continuing persecution of followers of the Baha’i faith. Last November, many businesses owned by followers of the Baha’i faith closed temporarily to observe their holy days. The Iranian authorities’ reaction was permanently to close down 100 of these businesses. This discrimination is completely unacceptable. An inclusive, free and fair society is in the best interests of everyone in Iran. I was pleased to join other distinguished panellists for a discussion on this very subject at a UK Baha’i community event last year. Christians face similar types of discrimination. There have been reports of house church leaders and Christian converts being arrested or harassed by security services, and of Church property being confiscated. These actions by the Iranian authorities are not commensurate with a free and open society and they must stop. The UK has clearly and repeatedly made known our views on this.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred in particular to the issue of LGBT rights in Iran, and I am pleased that he did so. We are profoundly concerned by the continued persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Iran. We repeatedly call on Iran to fulfil its international and domestic obligations to protect the human rights of all Iranians, including members of those communities.
On UK dual nationality consular cases, like many Members of this House, the Government are, of course, deeply concerned for the welfare of several UK-Iranian nationals currently detained in Iran. The Iranian Government do not recognise dual nationality, and on that basis continue to reject our repeated requests for consular access. In answer to my noble friend Lord McInnes, who properly raised this matter, the consequences of that is that it hobbles every opportunity to be able to learn exactly what charges are being faced, what the evidence is and how we can best help people—or even how we can meet them. That does not stop us asking, but it certainly gives the Iranian Government the opportunity to block our efforts.
My right honourable friend the Prime Minister and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary have both raised our concerns with their Iranian counterparts. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, the Prime Minister has not raised these matters subsequently, other than on one occasion last year, but they were raised by the Foreign Secretary again this morning and on multiple occasions by our ambassador in Iran. When my noble friend Tobias Ellwood met the Deputy Foreign Minister responsible for consular issues in Tehran last week, he reiterated our request for consular access to all detained British Iranian dual nationals. He also requested that detainees receive appropriate medical treatment and access to lawyers.
I recognise that this is such as very difficult time for all the families of detainees, let alone for the detainees themselves. The FCO is in regular contact with the families and we will continue to provide support. Tobias Ellwood has met family members and reassured them that the Government are making every possible effort and that we will continue to raise these cases with the Iranian Government at every possible opportunity.
On the condition of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, naturally we were hugely disappointed to hear the outcome of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s appeal. Tobias Ellwood called Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ravanchi earlier today to express our concerns at the outcome. FCO officials are in regular contact with Mr Ratcliffe and have met him in person on multiple occasions since Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s arrest in April last year. Tobias Ellwood met Mr Ratcliffe on 28 November to discuss her case. He will meet Mr Ratcliffe again shortly to provide an update on his—that is, Tobias Ellwood’s—visit to Tehran on 18 January this year. FCO officials are also in contact with Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family in Tehran and Tobias Ellwood met them during his visit to Tehran. Consular officials stand ready to assist Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family with any support they require. We also stand ready to assist Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family to bring her daughter Gabriella back to the UK should they wish to do so.
I was asked particularly about the matter of calling for release. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, who is learned in law, will know that, as of yet, the process of appeal is not yet finalised. The family have yet to reflect on whether they wish to take any further legal action—that is, if further legal action is possible. We stand ready to support them in consideration of those matters. As is the case in this country too, one does not call for release until one is aware of the circumstances of evidence and proof and, finally, of the disposal of the case. That is all so obscure because of the judicial system in Iran—perhaps the court system might be a better way of describing it—which provides great uncertainty to those who are within it, both during the process of trials and subsequently.
We are also very concerned for Mr Foroughi’s health and we have raised this with the Iranian authorities. Indeed, my honourable friend Tobias Ellwood raised this case with the Deputy Foreign Minister just last week in Tehran. Throughout all this, it is vital that we continue to uphold the human rights of all the citizens in Iran with our international partners. We must never forget—and this Government do not forget—that the nuclear deal has within it an ability to hold Iran to account that is separate from the matters of the dual nationals. We will not forget them and, I know, neither will this House.