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Execution of Alireza Akbari

Volume 826: debated on Wednesday 18 January 2023


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 16 January.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement on the execution of a British national in Iran.

On Saturday morning, Iran’s regime announced that it had executed Alireza Akbari, a British-Iranian dual national. I know that the thoughts of the whole House will be with his wife and two daughters at the time of their loss. They have shared his ordeal—an ordeal that began just over three years ago when he was lured back to Iran. He was detained and then subjected to the notorious and arbitrary legal process of the regime. Before his death, Mr Akbari described what was done to him and how torture had been used. Let there be no doubt: he fell victim to the political vendettas of a vicious regime. His execution was the cowardly and shameful act of a leadership that thinks nothing of using the death penalty as a political tool to silence dissent and settle internal scores.

In February last year, Mr Akbari’s family asked the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for our support, and we have worked closely with them ever since. I want to pay tribute to them for their courage and fortitude throughout this terrible period. In line with their wishes, the Minister of State, my noble friend Lord Ahmad, lobbied Iran’s most senior diplomat in the UK as soon as we learned that Mr Akbari’s execution was imminent. We maintained the pressure right up until the point of his execution, but, sadly, to no avail.

When we heard the tragic news on Saturday morning, we acted immediately to demonstrate our revulsion. I ordered the summoning of Iran’s chargé d’affaires to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to make clear our strength of feeling. Our ambassador in Tehran delivered the same message to a senior Foreign Ministry official. Ten other countries have publicly condemned the execution, including France, Germany and the United States, and the European Union has done the same. I am grateful for their support at this time.

We then imposed sanctions on Iran’s Prosecutor General, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, who bears heavy responsibility for the use of the death penalty for political ends. His designation is the latest of more than 40 sanctions imposed by the UK on the Iranian regime since October, including on six individuals linked to the revolutionary courts, which have passed egregious sentences against protesters, including the death penalty. In addition, I have temporarily recalled from Tehran His Majesty’s ambassador, Simon Shercliff, for consultations, and we met and discussed this earlier today. Now we shall consider what further steps we take alongside our allies to counter the escalating threat from Iran. We do not limit ourselves to the steps that I have already announced.

Mr Akbari’s execution follows decades of pitiless repression by a ruthless regime. Britain stands with the brave and dignified people of Iran as they demand their rights and freedoms. Just how much courage that takes is shown by the appalling fact that more than 500 people have been killed and 18,000 arrested during the recent wave of protests. Instead of listening to the calls for change from within Iran, the regime has resorted to its usual tactic of blaming outsiders and lashing out against its supposed enemies, including by detaining a growing number of foreign nationals for political gain. Today, many European nationals are being held in Iranian prisons on spurious charges, including British dual nationals, and I pay tribute to our staff—both in Tehran and here in the UK—who continue to work tirelessly on their behalf.

Beyond its borders, the regime has supplied Russia with hundreds of armed drones used to kill civilians in Ukraine. Across the Middle East, Iran continues to inflict bloodshed and destruction by supporting extremist militias. And all the while, the steady expansion of the Iranian nuclear programme is threatening international peace and security and the entire system of global non-proliferation. In the last three months alone, Britain has imposed five separate packages of sanctions on Iran, and today we enforce designations against more than 300 Iranian individuals and entities. We have condemned the regime in every possible international forum, securing Iran’s removal from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and, alongside our partners, creating a new UN mechanism to investigate the regime’s human rights violations during the recent protests.

The House should be in no doubt that we are witnessing the vengeful actions of a weakened and isolated regime obsessed with suppressing its own people, debilitated by its fear of losing power, and wrecking its international reputation. Our message to that regime is clear: the world is watching you and you will be held to account, particularly by the brave Iranian people, so many of whom you are oppressing and killing. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, the execution of Alireza Akbari is a barbaric act of politically motivated murder at the hands of the Iranian regime. I am sure the whole House will express condolences and solidarity with his family at this time. Mr Akbari’s execution is a direct message to the British Government. Such executions are, in the words of Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, state-sanctioned killings.

I am sure the Minister knows that he and the Government will have the support of all sides of the House and from all parties to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Does he agree with the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Jonathan Hall, that the National Security Bill could contain a power to proscribe state bodies on the basis of their hostile activity? If so, could this be an opportunity to proscribe the IRGC?

The IRGC’s brutal actions are designed to silence the protests of the Iranian people by striking fear into their hearts both inside and outside Iran. James Cleverly said on Monday that the United Kingdom will continue to work on a cross-department basis and internationally on the most effective ways of curtailing Iran’s malign activity—within Iran, in the region and globally—and to hold it to account for its brutality and atrocities.

I have raised before the plight of the BBC Persian service staff. Can the Minister reassure the House that the FCDO is working closely with the Home Office and the BBC on measures to protect them and their families?

During the Commons exchange on this Statement, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee asked about the existence of the IRGC’s operating centres within the United Kingdom. What assessment have the Government made of those reports? On curtailing the regime’s malign activities, can the Minister tell us what recent discussions have been held with the United States and the EU to achieve the objectives of James Cleverly without isolating the more moderate voices within Iran?

My Lords, I share the sympathies the noble Lord extended to the family of Alireza Akbari. As the Statement from the Foreign Secretary indicated, the family welcomed the support from the Foreign Office. I also welcome the Foreign Secretary’s response: there should be no impunity for those who have been responsible for both human rights abuses within Iran and the mistreatment of British dual nationals.

Can the Minister state how many dual nationals there are in Iran? Can we guarantee consular access for them? Are there routes for their safe exit from Iran if they need to leave, as well as for those who are vulnerable to the human rights abuses of the regime? On a number of occasions, I have asked for preparations to be made for such safe and legal routes, primarily for vulnerable women who have been persecuted and oppressed by the Iranian regime to an alarming degree.

A Norwegian NGO has suggested that 481 people have been killed by the Iranian regime directly, including 64 children and 35 women. Will the Government work hand in hand with our EU and other allies to ensure that new suites of sanctions—both targeted and general —on the regime are fully co-ordinated so that there are no gaps in their operation?

I have also raised concerns that while we have seen some progress in the commissioning and establishment of an inquiry to investigate the abuses of the Iranian regime, unfortunately, some of our Gulf allies did not support that route. What work are the Government doing with our friends and allies in the Gulf to ensure that even if the UK, the US and the EU have a joint position, it is not undermined by them?

Can the Minister clarify the position of the Government on the proscription of the IRGC? There is absolute merit in its proscription. However, unlike with non-governmental organisations, the proscription of a government organisation will inevitably bring about other consequences, especially if there are repercussions on dual nationals, or indeed on UK interests. Of course, there would be an impact on UK relations with Iraq and neighbouring countries which have predominantly Shia populations and which the IRGC is operating within.

Greater information is usually provided on proscriptions; if we do see the proscription, I hope we can have a full debate in the Chamber on not just the statutory instrument but the UK’s relations with Iran, which are fundamental, given the gross abuses of human rights of that regime.

My Lords, I join the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Purvis, in condemning unequivocally—as all did when this Statement was debated in the other place—the abhorrent practice of using executions as a means to suppress communities and citizens, as well, of course, as the abhorrent actions last weekend, which bring us to this very sad occasion today. Of course, our thoughts and prayers are with the family.

I assure noble Lords that we worked to the last hour on this. I can say that with some conviction, because while I was abroad, I called directly the highest diplomat of the Iranian Government here in London to again implore him and to make clear in the strongest terms that, while we deplore every execution in Iran, this was a very different case, because it involved a dual national who had lived in Britain for a number of years. Indeed, members of his family are here in the United Kingdom.

I can share with noble Lords that we continue to work very closely with the family. Indeed, any direct engagement we have had with the Iranian authorities and the Iranian regime has been based on the direct co-operation of and requests from this family, just as we have acted previously at the request of other families.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, asked about the number of dual nationals in Iran. While there is no requirement to register, some will no doubt make themselves known to us as events evolve. The noble Lord will be aware that our excellent ambassador was called back to London and has been here this week for consultations. It was a temporary callback to understand fully the implications of the situation on the ground and to address certain key issues. I met with our ambassador to Tehran earlier today and yesterday to consider all options.

On the point the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised concerning co-operation, we are working very closely with our European allies and friends. Our ambassadors are engaging in a very co-ordinated fashion in Tehran; that will continue, and it includes engagement on sanctions. Noble Lords will be aware that we immediately took action to sanction Iran’s prosecutor general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, who is one of the most powerful figures in Iran’s judiciary and is responsible for Iran’s unacceptable use of the death penalty. On his watch, we have seen the number of death penalties increase, including this current tragic case.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about the United States and our strong partnership and work. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has been in Washington and, as part of a broad range of discussions on our priorities, will undoubtedly discuss the situation in Iran regarding this tragic case.

We welcome the fact that many countries—10, as well as all the countries of the European Union—have condemned the execution. We are working on sanctions and whatever further levers need to be used. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said, we are working in co-ordination, and we are also looking at all the options available to us.

It is not the first time we have talked about proscribing the IRGC in your Lordships’ House. As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, the steps we have taken do not preclude further action. We are working in a very co-ordinated fashion with all colleagues across His Majesty’s Government, and we will continue to do so. I am fully aware of the strength of sentiment on the issue of proscription, and the Government are not ignoring that. I assure noble Lords that we are keeping all options under review, including further sanctions and other actions we could take, and that everything we do will be done in a co-ordinated fashion.

These condemnations matter to the Iranian regime; you see it in its reaction, as I have through direct engagement. However, it is important that we remain persistent and consistent in keeping the focus on the appalling and abhorrent situation in Iran.

We are working very closely with the family, and I was shocked to learn about the accessibility issues for members of the deceased’s extended family in retrieving his body. They were told different things: that the execution may have taken place at a different time, and that the body of the deceased had already been taken to a cemetery and buried. One can only imagine the horror of not only having to deal with the execution, but the shock of then finding that even the last rites could not be guaranteed.

My direct challenge to the Iranian Government is this. Often, they say that in certain countries the death penalty is permitted under their own laws and jurisprudence. Even if we accept that for a moment, under what law or moral principle have the Iranian Government discarded the rites which are guaranteed by every faith and community to the deceased? Clearly, that has not happened, which adds to the abhorrence of this barbaric attack.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, pointed out the number of civilians who have died, which is getting closer to 500. Tragically, that includes 64 children, which is a cause for further abhorrence. Some 18,000 Iranian citizens have been arrested, yet the protests continue. We are working with our other Gulf partners. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, says; as the Minister for the Middle East, I am acutely aware of the situation and I can assure him of my good offices in raising these issues consistently to ensure that we have the widest possible condemnation. Equally, however, we support the civilians of Iran, who have no hand in this tragic situation. It is important that they are able to hear that we stand with them.

The noble Lord asked about BBC Persian. Again, we work closely to ensure that we safeguard all British interests when it comes to Iran. The services provided are essential. A smaller number of people are now reliant on the radio service; nevertheless, while decisions are being taken, I recognise totally the importance of communication at this extremely challenging time.

I further assure all noble Lords, particularly the Front-Benchers, that as the situation evolves—it is quite dynamic, even over the last 48 hours—I will seek to update them on events. I will of course reach out to both noble Lords to update them on further issues as they arise, and I will return to the House as the situation evolves.

The clear message has been given to the Iranian regime that, while we have our differences, different perspectives and disagreements in this House and the other place—and indeed in the challenges we pose to each other across the country—when it comes to abhorrent issues such as this, we are at one. That is an important message to communicate.

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the register of interests. Is my noble friend aware that it is almost impossible to find words strong enough to condemn this outrage—this judicial killing? Is he also aware that the Iranian regime has suggested that Sir Richard Dalton, our former ambassador in Tehran, was the British key point of contact with Mr Akbari? When I spoke to Sir Richard 48 hours ago, he told me that to the very best of his knowledge, he has never met Mr Akbari in his life, either here in London or in Tehran. Is this not just yet another lie by the Iranian regime, designed to impress on the Iranian people the myth that somehow, their problems are caused by foreigners rather than by their own brutal incompetence?

My Lords, I totally agree with my noble friend and I could not express my abhorrence of this in clearer terms than those he has outlined. What is becoming increasingly clear is that these abhorrent executions take place on trumped-up charges, often relating to people who are perhaps seeking through their own good will to provide hope for Iran and to bring some semblance of normality to the future of Iranian communities and the Iranian people. Shockingly, this goes from bad to worse.

If I may, I missed a point that I wanted to raise with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about activities here in the UK. I know of a particular centre in Maida Vale into which the Charity Commission is working on an inquiry. We are working closely with the Home Office and across government on all these issues to ensure that, as I said, all the levers that we have in our hands are exercised effectively.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred to the vulnerability of BBC Persian staff. What can be, and is being, done to support the family members of those staff, who have also been targeted with threats and violence—in particular, the family members of BBC staff who are London-based and, by definition, cannot offer their family members in Iran any personal or direct support?

My Lords, there are those who are based here in the UK and receive threats, including those who work for British interests and are receiving threats. When I say “British interests”, I mean British companies such as BBC Persian, in terms of the important work that it does on the ground in providing communication. Although the service is operationally and editorially independent, the support that we give it is important. We are providing both that support and the information that is needed.

Of course, as the noble Baroness pointed out, the threat goes much wider than Iran itself. We have an unprecedented situation—it is certainly unprecedented in my time in Parliament—where Members of both Houses have had to be directly advised about the nature of a threat from a foreign state actor, in this case Iran. That puts into context the gravity of the situation and the actions that the regime may resort to in order to cause further disruption, challenge and misery not just to its own citizens but elsewhere. We are clear in our stance on this, which is why it is important that we work closely with all departments across government and equally important that we work closely with our international partners as well.

My Lords, the violent repression of protests and the callous execution of Alireza Akbari expose further the barbarism of a regime that has no regard for human rights or the international rules-based order. Given this, what are the prospects of getting the JCPOA back on track? If the FCDO believes the JCPOA to be irretrievable, what alternative steps will the Government and our allies take to ensure that Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon, which would only give the worst elements of this regime even greater latitude in this and many other regards?

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with incredible experience of and insight into the work going on in defence and the JCPOA. Frankly, Iran’s escalation of its nuclear activities threatens not just stability in the region. Even putting the JCPOA aside, we have seen the steps that it is increasingly taking—for example, the explicit and direct support that it has extended to Russia in supporting UAVs, which have then been used in Ukraine—which demonstrate Iran’s intention not just to cause the suppression of its own citizens and cause instability in the region but to cause and fuel division and conflict further afield. The actions that it has taken recently put any kind of diplomatic solution highly at risk. We supported the JCPOA at a time when the previous US Administration pulled back because, even with all its faults, there was no other deal on the table. Last year, on two occasions, there was a big opportunity for Iran to sign the deal, but it did not do so. Recent actions make this much more difficult, but we are clear, which is why I stress the importance of working with our international partners, that we must do all that we can to prevent Iran from ever attaining a nuclear weapon.

My Lords, I acknowledge the leadership of my noble friend the Minister on this issue. Through him, since he just mentioned them, I thank the security services for the advice that they have given me. Failure to deliver IRGC proscription will weaken Britain’s standing and signal a lack of political resolve. Can we really afford to be left out of the growing consensus among western capitals that the IRGC be held accountable for its appalling behaviour? Can my noble friend help me and describe what else the Iranian regime needs to do for us to take the right action and proscribe the IRGC?

My Lords, my noble friend’s security and that of every Member of your Lordships’ House and the other place remains extremely important. I cannot stress enough the importance of immediately letting the authorities know if any Member of either place or further afield feels threatened. As a Minister, I sometimes receive emails that—how can I put it?—are not most favourably disposed to the work that I am doing or what I have said. Nevertheless, there is a tendency to say that this is the normal course of business. I cannot stress enough the importance of ensuring that those threats are communicated. We have an incredible team within Parliament who can advise appropriately.

We have already sanctioned the IRGC and its many officials through our sanctions regime in its entirety. However, the separate list of proscribed terrorist organisations is kept under constant review. I cannot go any further on this now, but I reassure my noble friend that the strength of the sentiments that we have heard in most of the contributions clearly indicates the will of your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, I add to the condolences and sympathy that others, including the Minister, have expressed to the family of Alireza Akbari and thank the Minister for the tone that he has struck in delivering the Statement and answering questions this afternoon.

Given the role of Iran in executing British and many of their own citizens, in torturing and in oppressing its own courageous people, especially women, and in sanctioning United Kingdom parliamentarians, I pursue the point made by the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Polak, as well as many others, and urge the Minister to convey back to his Secretary of State the widespread opinion in your Lordships’ House that the IRGC should be designated as a terrorist organisation. What must happen before that occurs? What must happen before the Iranian ambassador is expelled from this country?

Why have we not stopped the cuts to the BBC Persian service, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins? I repeated many of the sentiments and remarks about this in a debate that we had in your Lordships’ House quite recently on the BBC World Service. As recently as today, I have been told that it will lose at least 2 million of its audience in Iran as a result of the cuts to the radio services to Iran. At this time, that is quite unbelievable. Will the noble Lord not call a meeting with Tim Davie of the BBC, bring people together and ensure that the decision is reversed?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point, as I have already stated, the strength of views on the issue of proscription is very clear and I will take those feelings back to my right honourable friend. I assure all noble Lords that, on every element of the Iranian regime that is acting in this very oppressive manner to its own people and against dual nationals, the trajectory is clear to us. While the protests continue, we have seen ever-increasing suppression and, worse still, executions taking place. On the issue of the BBC, I commend the noble Lord for his persistence and, while we remain fully supportive, I am aware of the challenges that the BBC has faced and the operational decisions that it has made. Sometimes, circumstances mean that it is good to review things and I will discuss the suggestion made by the noble Lord with officials.

My Lords, is not the most sinister element of this matter that Mr Akbari was encouraged to return by a so-called friend? We also remember that Mrs Ratcliffe was on holiday. That makes it clear that any person with joint citizenship is at risk from elements in Iran who are prepared to do anything that they believe to be either in their narrow interests as part of the Government or on behalf of the Government as a whole. Do we know or are our Government aware of how many people have joint citizenship with Iran? If these people have not already realised the risk that they run, would it be possible to provide them with additional information to encourage them to ensure that they do not innocently put themselves at risk, as happened in both the case that we are discussing and that of Mrs Ratcliffe?

My Lords, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, it is not normal practice when nationals go to a particular country to make their dual nationality known, and certain dual nationals who are currently resident in Iran may not have made that known. The risks to any dual national are now abundantly clear. The noble Lord talked of Alireza Akbari’s return and, as I said, many who have a particular heritage, who were born in a particular country or who have an association with a particular nation, may feel that there is perhaps a positive role that they can play in changing the trajectory of travel of that country. I am sure there are many noble-intentioned British people with Iranian heritage who think exactly that.

Yet it is very clear that the regime—forget respecting or valuing that—has no intention whatever of leveraging that opportunity to bring itself back to a form of respect from the international community. I can tell the noble Lord that all matters were discussed with our ambassador, including welfare, because the first important duty of any Government or embassy is the welfare of its citizens. Anyone who is a dual national, as Mr Akbari was, is regarded as a British national.

My Lords, I endorse everything that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and many others said. I welcome the tone of my noble friend’s replies and we are all very much in debt for the responsible way in which he approaches his very onerous duties. But this is an evil regime, presiding over good people in a beautiful country. We must surely be able to do something beyond what we have already done, which has had very little effect, to show that this is a pariah state that has no place within the United Nations. Should we not begin by severing diplomatic relations ourselves?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind remarks but, on the actions we have taken, even in the last three months an additional 40 individuals or organisations have been directly sanctioned by the United Kingdom Government. As I alluded to earlier, in reply to the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Purvis, we do this in conjunction with our key partners and allies, including the European Union, the United States, Canada and others.

My noble friend also raised the issue of what more can be done. While we have been acting decisively—about 300 individuals and organisations have now been sanctioned—we have also acted at the United Nations. I thank my noble friend Lord Polak for his comments on the UN Commission on the Status of Women; talk about a total and utter contradiction of representation to have Iran sitting on the CSW. We acted with our American partners and this demonstrated to me—here I commend your Lordships’ House—that, although it is sometimes not recognised—that issues raised here have a direct consequence on British policy and, more importantly, on the actions we take. That is one such example of recent action we have taken to send a very strong message to Iran that its actions will not be tolerated and, equally and importantly, working in conjunction with the international community.

My Lords, on the issue of what practically can be done, is there no way of having further sanctions on Iran to constrain its capacity to build these kamikaze drones, which have been supplied to Russia and which Russia has been using to kill thousands of civilians? Might the British Government take the initiative in that area and bring the international community together to constrain this traffic in terror?

My Lords, the noble Lord has great insight on these matters and I agree with him. We are looking at how we can further constrain Iran’s ability to provide such ammunition to countries such as Russia, including through stopping of some of the supply chains. But the noble Lord will know from his own experience that the destabilising effect of Iran—particularly on situations of conflict such as Yemen, where the supply of weapons continues—continues to this day, although through direct co-operation we have had many interventions.

My Lords, we all appreciate the very robust response that my noble friend has given, and the measured way in which he has approached this problem. I think we understand the importance of the safety of our staff in Tehran, and also the importance of keeping some kind of message open. Nevertheless, given that they are murdering girls for inappropriately wearing or not wearing a scarf, are judicially murdering protesters who in any other country might face a fine at worst, are supplying drones, as we have just heard, to Russia to affect Ukraine, and now have just hanged a British citizen, what more do they need to do for us to proscribe the Iranian Revolutionary Guard cadre? Surely, given that they have not adhered to the nuclear deal, there must now be a strong case for us to initiate snapback sanctions?

My Lords, I again hear what my noble friend says very clearly. He mentioned snapback sanctions: of course, in the light of the long co-operation we have seen with the JCPOA, I cannot go into further details, but, as my right honourable friend said—and I stand by this— we are in no way saying that the actions that we have taken will be the last that we will take in the current situation against Iran.

I congratulate the Minister on the tone and content of his remarks. I think that he has encapsulated very well the feelings of the whole House: the revulsion of the House at this action in Tehran. I would, however, counsel him against the advice given by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack: it is important to retain diplomatic relations with one’s foes, perhaps even more important than retaining them with one’s friends. Such influence as we have may be limited, but if we withdraw our embassy, we bring such influence to an end and we betray our friends in the country in question.

I have, however, one question for the Minister. If an Iranian citizen, not a dual national, feeling under threat from the regime and having connections to this country, were to ask me how he could seek asylum and sanctuary here, what advice should I give? What legal and safe route is available to him? I know of none.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has great insight and, of course, anyone who has been involved with diplomacy will know that quite often there are occasions when you are sitting across the table from people whose views, policies and perhaps their own regime or Government you find pretty unpalatable. There are many occasions when I have sat and faced the irony of the Human Rights Council, where we have countries who clamour for membership and election to the council, but where one quick reflection on their human rights record would put it in total contradiction. The noble Lord, again, offers wise advice.

On the issue of safe routes et cetera, while it is very much the remit of the Home Office, the important thing is that the United Kingdom—certainly, this is something that I have always felt passionate about—has, throughout Governments of whatever political colour over many years, been a sanctuary for those seeking asylum and escaping the brutality of regimes around the world, and has provided support. That has to be at the core of who and what we are. In terms of the specifics of the situation that has arisen with Iran, I am sure that the noble Lord will respect that I cannot given chapter and verse here, but I note very carefully what he has suggested and, if there is more detail I can provide to him, I will certainly seek to do so.