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Detention of Kamal Foroughi in Iran

Volume 611: debated on Thursday 19 May 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Shailesh Vara.)

I am very grateful that this debate has been selected. It deals with an important subject, which has gained even greater relevance in recent weeks.

Kamal Foroughi is a 76-year-old dual UK-Iranian citizen. In 2001, he was working in Iran as a consultant for the Malaysian oil and gas company Petronas. He had never previously been in trouble with the law. He spent his life socialising with friends, playing and watching tennis, and working for Petronas. He had no involvement whatever in politics—in fact, he was glad to be both British and Iranian. However, on 5 May 200l he was arrested by plain-clothes police who refused to show any identification or to explain what was happening. He was given no choice but to get into their car, in which he was driven to the notorious Evin prison. He was held there in solitary confinement for the following 18 months without charge.

Mr Foroughi was finally told the charges when his trial commenced in early 2013. The trial was conducted by branch 15 of the revolutionary court. It was lacking in even the rudiments of natural justice. He was granted access to a lawyer only the day before the hearing, he was forced to attend the trial without his lawyer, and no record or transcript of the trial has even been produced. Indeed, the Iranian authorities have never publicly mentioned Mr Foroughi’s name, let alone explained why they are holding him. We know that he was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment: seven years for espionage and one for possessing alcoholic beverages, both of which, of course, he denies. As hon. Members know, the United Kingdom, as part of the P5+1, recently secured agreement with Iran on the joint comprehensive plan of action to deal with its nuclear programme.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing the matter to the House for consideration. He will be aware of the UN resolution on human rights in Iran, where there is quite clear and blatant discrimination against ethnic minorities and persecution of Christian groups. Is he aware of any steps that the Home Office has taken to secure Mr Foroughi’s release, or of any discussions that have been held to establish what evidence, if any, exists against Mr Foroughi?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. On his second point, it is hard to determine whether there is any evidence to substantiate the charges against Mr Foroughi, because the Iranian regime is so lacking in transparency. Even his own family do not know the details of what he has been charged with or the evidence for it. I understand that representations by Her Majesty’s Government have been undertaken by the Foreign Office, and I will come on to those in a minute. The matter has been raised at every level, including by the Prime Minister.

As I was saying, Members are aware that the United Kingdom has recently secured a deal with Iran on the join comprehensive plan of action. Many of us had reservations about the seriousness of Iran’s intent in concluding that deal. Its underlying purpose is to secure a path for Iran to normalise its international relations. In regard to that, the complete lack of transparency shown by the regime in relation to Mr Foroughi’s case is a worrying indication. It demonstrates a disregard for basic international norms against arbitrary detention and for the right to a fair, public, independent and impartial trial.

This May marks the fifth anniversary of Mr Foroughi’s detention. His son, my constituent Mr Kamran Foroughi, is up in the Gallery today, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to him for his tireless efforts to secure his father’s release. He has been joined by many other Members of this House in that campaign, and I pay tribute to them for the work that they have undertaken.

In today’s debate, I seek to draw attention to Mr Foroughi’s case, to make the case for his release on humanitarian grounds and to show the world—and, most importantly, the Iranian regime—that his case has not been forgotten. That is well represented by the fact that more than 130,000 people have signed a petition calling for his release on compassionate grounds. That really demonstrates how many people care about his plight. Since my constituent chose to go public last year, I have raised this case on two occasions in the House, and I have met my hon. Friend the Foreign Office Minister with Mr Kamran Foroughi to discuss ways of securing his father’s release. I know how seriously my hon. Friend the Minister takes this case. I am pleased that the Prime Minister has personally raised it with President Rouhani. I know that the Foreign Secretary has raised it with his opposite number in Iran, and that representations have been made by my hon. Friend the Minister.

One of the challenges faced by Ministers is the fact that Iran does not recognise that the United Kingdom Government have any locus in relation to dual UK-Iranian citizens. That puts them at particular risk when they travel to Iran. We have seen that in relation to both UK-Iranian citizens and US-Iranian citizens, and it appears that the Iranian regime views them with particularly intense suspicion. Their rights are often trampled on by the Iranian judicial system, and, given the stance taken by the Iranian regime in relation to dual citizens, it is very hard for them to be represented properly by their home Government.

Previously, the Foreign Office has warned of the risks faced by British travellers to Iran from

“high levels of suspicion about the UK”,

arbitrary detention, and

“the UK Government’s limited ability to assist in any difficulty”.

The Foreign Office used to make reference to a case in 2011, which we presume was the case of Mr Foroughi. That guidance has recently been removed, and I would be grateful if the Minister could address the risks faced by British citizens travelling to Iran, and the reasons for the change in that advice, when he responds to the debate. This risk has been very vividly illustrated in recent days by the case of Mrs Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, another dual UK-Iranian citizen. Nazanin was visiting family in Iran in early April when she was detained by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard at Iman Khomeini airport in Tehran. She was transported 600 miles south to Kerman province, where she has been kept in solitary confinement. Her 22-month-old daughter, a—sole—British citizen, was stripped of her passport and taken away from her mother at the airport.

I know that all our hearts will go out to Nazanin, her husband Richard and her family for the suffering that they have endured. My constituent Mr Kamran Foroughi has been in touch with Mr Ratcliffe, and they have been a source of comfort for each other during this extremely difficult time.

This case illustrates the fact that the Iranian regime is alert to international coverage and representations. Since Nazanin’s case secured a lot of coverage in the media, she has in fact been released from solitary confinement and has been given very limited access to her daughter. Although that is clearly well short of the full and immediate release that her case demands, it is a welcome signal.

Similarly, in Mr Foroughi’s case, there are urgent humanitarian grounds for his release. Not only is Mr Foroughi an elderly man, but in 2011, before he was detained, his London-based doctor informed him that he was at risk of developing cancer and required regular check-ups. Since his detention, Mr Foroughi has received only one medical check-up, which took place last November. Again, that happened only after international attention had been drawn to Mr Foroughi’s case. Sadly, his family still do not know the outcome of that check-up, which is a source of considerable concern for them.

Given that Mr Foroughi has three years left to serve, my constituent and his two girls—Kamal Foroughi’s grandchildren—are very concerned that he will die in prison, isolated and alone. Iranian law allows somebody to be released early if they have served a third of their sentence. As Mr Foroughi has served over half of his sentence, I really urge the Iranian authorities to show some humanity and urgently release this elderly man purely on compassionate grounds so that he can finally be reunited with his children and grandchildren.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate about his constituent Mr Foroughi. He mentions that the right thing to do—purely on compassionate grounds, without any reference to the Iranian justice system—would be to release Mr Foroughi. Does he agree that, since Islam is a religion of compassion, releasing Mr Foroughi would also be the Islamic thing to do?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That approach has been taken by Mr Foroughi’s family. To put aside my earlier criticisms of the manner in which his trial was conducted, however the Iranian regime may dispute such criticisms, it really cannot dispute the compassionate and, as my hon. Friend says, the Islamic grounds for his release, which are that he is a very elderly man suffering from cancer.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on putting forward this case so articulately. May I suggest that, as well as its being compassionate, humanitarian and Islamic, it would also be very diplomatic for the Iranian authorities to do this? They seem to be showing some sort of compassion towards Mrs Ratcliffe, about whom one of my constituents has written to me. It is important that the Iranians realise the extent of the coverage and awareness of these cases, and the positive signal this would send to this country and to many people here who are worried about such cases. If Iran really wishes to improve her relations with the United Kingdom, this would be a wonderful way of making an appropriate gesture.

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. I was coming on to the point that UK-Iranian relations are in general improving, and it would be a very good signal of the warmth of those relations if the release took place. I understand that the Iranian Government have made the legitimate point about the separation between the judiciary and Ministers, but I feel that Ministers should bring to bear every kind of pressure they can to secure that release.

Sadly for Mr Foroughi’s family, they have suffered considerable ups and downs in relation to his case. They were initially advised that if they kept quiet about it, his release could be secured. That did not happen, so they eventually took the very difficult decision to go public. There were indications from the Iranian regime that he might be released on both the fourth and fifth anniversaries of his imprisonment. Again, that did not happen. The family’s fear now is that he may face the fate of other prisoners who, at the end of their original sentence, are then charged with further crimes, leading to longer and possibly indefinite spells in prison.

I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House on his understanding of the current status of Mr Foroughi’s case and what further steps the Government plan to take over the coming months to facilitate the release of both Mr Foroughi and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he has been very gracious. The issue I want to bring to his attention is the gentleman’s medical condition. We all know that cancer can be exacerbated by stress and poor conditions. The hon. Gentleman has asked the Minister what contact he has had with the Iranian authorities, but could he also ask whether regular medical checks can be made, because those are very necessary at a time of critical medical and health needs?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I was slightly loose with my wording earlier: the fear is that Mr Foroughi has cancer. Because he has had only one check-up, the family do not know whether cancer has developed, which adds to the worry. Again, it is a solid humanitarian basis for him to have regular check-ups and, frankly, for his release. Releasing him would be compliant with Iranian law because he has already served a significant proportion of his term.

Releases have taken place in the past. I was pleased to see that in January four American-Iranian dual citizens were released, including the journalist Jason Rezaian who had been detained for two years. Again, I would be grateful if the Minister could explain to the House what lessons might be learned from those cases. I know that they are not directly comparable, but it would be helpful to understand the distinctions.

As I said earlier, UK-Iranian relations continue to improve overall, but many hon. Members would take it as an indication of the seriousness of the Iranian Government’s commitment to improving Anglo-Iranian relations if they were to use every means at their disposal to secure the release of both those citizens and others in similar situations. I will conclude my remarks by conveying a message from Mr Foroughi’s son and grandchildren. It is simple—“Please let Grandpa come home.”

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) on securing the debate and thank him and the Minister for allowing me to make a short contribution. I welcome the recent improvements in relations between the UK and Iran, and I hope that this will provide some space and an opportunity for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to raise human rights issues with the Iranian authorities and have a constructive dialogue with them.

Mr Foroughi’s case, which I have raised previously with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is distressing and perplexing. It is unclear what the charges against him are. Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case is very similar. Some 150,000 people have signed the petition in support of her release. Both she and Mr Foroughi appear to have been subject to arbitrary detention. In the absence of any justification from the Iranian authorities, we have to come to that conclusion.

I am aware from a parliamentary answer that I have received that the Foreign Secretary has discussed Mr Foroughi’s case with the Foreign Minister, Dr Zarif. Can the Minister give any indication of whether the Iranians are considering changing their position in relation to dual citizenship? Are they willing to consider doing that? Can the Minister confirm when the Foreign Secretary will next raise the cases of Mr Foroughi and Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe with the Foreign Minister? If the UK authorities are not allowed access, could the FCO request access by another organisation, such as the Red Crescent or local humanitarian organisations, or does the Minister think that that would not, regrettably, deliver any results? I hope he would agree that as Iran opens up and more businesses from the UK go out to develop relationships there—I suspect that these will often be initiatives driven by British-Iranian citizens—they need to have certainty that if they do go to Iran, whether on business or to visit family, they will be able to return. Otherwise, those business and family links will not be established or will not be able to be re-established as Iran opens up to UK citizens and UK trade.

I wish to raise one final issue. Many Members will know that the fate of the Baha’is in Iran is difficult, and the Minister will be aware of the case involving 24 Baha’is who were sentenced to 193 years in prison by a Gorgan court. Although probably not a matter for this debate, is it one he is pursuing? Perhaps he would write to me about it with an update on the situation there.

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) for securing this important debate and for the measured tone he has adopted in raising this delicate matter. As he implied in his speech, he has not just brought this to the Floor of the House today, but has been pursuing it and supporting the family for a long period. We have met on a number of occasions and I have been grateful for the support and communication he has provided to me in being able to place light on this, and improve the communication with the family and make the case to the Iranians. I am very grateful to him for the approach he has adopted.

My hon. Friend pointed out that we are dealing with dual nationality here, which is critical to this case in comparison with others. It is important to make it clear to the House that Foreign Office support for those who carry two passports, who have two nationalities, is different from that provided to those who have a single British passport. Ownership of that second passport obligates the citizen to that second state, and the laws and processes it has in place. From my Foreign Office consular policy perspective—this is consistent through not just our Government, but previous Governments—I can say that we do not normally provide the same level of assistance to dual nationals in the country of their second nationality, unless there are extreme, exceptional circumstances, for example, humanitarian grounds, health conditions and so on. It is important to make it clear that there is a distinction between the two.

Today, we are considering a case in Iran, which does not recognise a dual nationality, regardless of what that country is, be it Britain or otherwise. Iran formally does not recognise another country in terms of intervening in any way whatsoever. Although we disagree with that position on dual nationality when we speak to the Iranians, we need to understand it and place it into context. I have also explained in my meetings with the Iranians that the reason why Britain, the Foreign Office and Parliament take an interest in these things is that these individuals do hold a British passport, hence there is an interest and we therefore request that dialogue in certain specific cases.

Let me step back from consular matters per se, as my hon. Friend did touch on this point. Following the nuclear deal, we are seeing Iran enter a new chapter of opportunity for transition—I choose my words carefully, because there is an awful lot to move forward in order for this opportunity to come to fruition. Our embassy has reopened in Tehran, visits are now taking place in both directions and trade opportunities are also being explored.

My constituent Councillor Jill Houlbrook, a former lord mayor of Chester and the auntie of Richard Ratcliffe, whose wife Nazanin has been detained, will be most relieved and gratified to have heard the contribution by the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden), and the delicate but persuasive way in which he put it. The Minister talks about Iran opening up, and the Chairman of the Defence Committee mentioned that Iran might be opening up and also opening out. The Minister will be very cautious about his dealings with Iran, but does he detect an improvement in the tone of Iran that might assist us in resolving the cases that the hon. Member for Hertsmere spoke about so eloquently?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The atmosphere developing between our two countries is providing greater opportunities to raise delicate matters. I will, if I may, come on to that point later, and I will also, time permitting, touch on the Mrs Ratcliffe case in a second.

With that embassy opening, there are more opportunities for bilateral meetings to take place. A series of meetings have already taken place at a number of levels. Most recently, the Foreign Secretary raised Mr Foroughi’s case with Foreign Minister Zarif in the margins of the International Syria Support Group. The meeting took place on Monday of this week. Yesterday afternoon, in preparation for this debate, I met Iran’s chargé d’affaires, Mr Habibollahzadeh, to discuss Mr Foroughi’s case.

The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary raised Mr Foroughi’s case with Foreign Minister Zarif in London in February, and the Prime Minister wrote to President Rouhani last year, and also discussed Mr Foroughi’s case with him in January of this year. The Foreign Secretary raised Mr Foroughi’s case during his visit to Tehran in August 2015 when our embassy was reopened. We have also been utilising our partnership relationships with Germany, France and Italy to get them to lobby the Iranian Government on our behalf.

There has been a huge amount of effort at the very highest of levels to raise these matters. On a consular level, the team in the Foreign Office is working to support the family and to make sure that we are providing the consular assistance that is expected.

In answer to the questions of the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), the reopening of the British embassy on 23 August last year has enabled us to have face-to-face discussions about a series of consular cases—not just the two that have been mentioned here today. He asked specifically about the direction of travel. We have seen the results of the Majlis elections and the panel of experts. Clearly, that is an indication that Iran wants to move in a new and welcome direction, but there is a long way to go. Part of that includes showing that discussions on sensitive matters such as this can also take place at the same time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere asked a couple of questions, to which I will now turn. First, our travel advice explains that the security services in Iran remain suspicious of individuals with links to the UK, and we advise travellers to keep in close contact with friends and family. British nationals, including dual nationals—British-Iranian nationals—face greater risks at present than nationals from other countries.

My hon. Friend asked about the medical checks for Mr Foroughi. Again, we have asked the Iranians to ensure that he receives regular medical check-ups. The Iranians have confirmed that he now has access to a doctor.

Specifically on that point, it is important to know not just whether the check-ups are taking place, but what the outcomes are. Can diplomatic efforts be made to secure the outcome of those medical checks, particularly to comfort Mr Foroughi’s family?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will make sure that that is passed on to the Iranians. The family should be kept more readily informed of the medical condition of Mr Foroughi. May I also pay tribute to Kamran Foroughi, whom I have had the honour to meet? He has been working on this extremely diligently, and he is doing his best, in a measured and constructive way, to shine a light on this matter in a way that will lead to results.

Going to the media is a double-edged sword. Sharing the story and having it on front pages can have an adverse effect. Without reference to this case, I can say that the reaction to discussion of other consular cases in the media has delayed matters, caused frustrations and affected sensitivities. In other cases, media attention has highlighted matters and could be perceived to have moved things on. It is the family’s call in all cases. I simply make the humble point that it always makes sense to work with the Foreign Office and consular staff so that our strategy to leverage change and ensure that an individual is able to leave or whatever they are requesting to do is as efficient and expeditious as possible.

I was asked when would be the next opportunity to raise this matter. I will seek to meet Dr Zarif, the Foreign Minister, in Helsinki next week at a conference. It will be another opportunity to keep the matter to the fore.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is another dual nationality case. She was arrested on 3 April and has not been charged. She has a very young daughter in Iran. We have provided consular support to Mrs Ratcliffe’s family since we were first made aware of the arrest. I met Richard Ratcliffe yesterday to discuss the matter and I raised it at my meeting with the Iranian chargé d’affaires when I met him in the afternoon. I understand that the daughter is now with her grandparents, which is good news, and I welcome the fact that Mrs Ratcliffe has been released from solitary confinement.

We are concerned about Mr Foroughi’s continued detention. I understand that it is both worrying and distressing for his family, and we are doing all we can to support them.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Foreign Office’s travel advice, which has changed. It is certainly not for me to question it. When I went to Iran a year or so ago, I found it very safe. It is probably fair to say that it is now one of the safest places in the middle east.

To return to my hon. Friend’s point about dual nationality, of course, even if we differ from the position of the Government of Iran, we can respect their position. When I met the chargé d’affaires, Mr Habibollahzadeh, two weeks ago, he lobbied me about the fact that OCR had withdrawn the Persian GCSE. I spoke to the Education Secretary about it and she told me yesterday that Pearson had agreed to take it on. That is one more indication of the efforts that are being made to strengthen relations. The Iranian embassy legitimately takes an interest in the welfare of the 350,000 people of Iranian heritage who live in this country, many of whom are dual nationals, and in their desire to protect, cherish and enhance their links, including with the language. Does he agree that it would be a powerful symbol of the Iranian Government’s seriousness about improving relations with the United Kingdom if they could apply all possible pressure within their own system in the case of Mr Foroughi?

I pay tribute to the interest, knowledge and expertise that my hon. Friend provides in relation to Iran. He is right, and he touches on a number of avenues for leveraging and advancing the bond. I fully agree that this is an opportunity to show that this is what countries that develop stronger relationships are able to do—we can engage behind the scenes and through consular matters to get the best outcomes, engaging at the same time in other areas, including education. I fully concur with what my hon. Friend says.

The reopening of the British embassy in Tehran last year and the successful implementation of the nuclear deal earlier this year are positive steps in our relationship with Iran. Our renewed diplomatic presence gives us the opportunity for face-to-face discussions on issues such as Mr Foroughi’s case. The Government will continue to do whatever we can to support Mr Foroughi’s family and to raise our concerns with the Iranians at every opportunity. I sincerely hope that he will be reunited with his family soon, and I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere and believe that there are strong humanitarian grounds for consideration of the release of both Mr Foroughi and Mrs Ratcliffe.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.