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Detention of Anoosheh Ashoori in Iran

Volume 688: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Duguid.)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to present the case of my constituent Anoosheh Ashoori today. Anoosheh is the 66-year-old father of Elika and Aryan, and a devoted husband to Sherry. As we speak, Anoosheh is lying in a prison cell in Evin, Tehran. The Minister will know some, if not all, of the details I am about to say, but I am saying them again because, in spite of the Minister and the Foreign Secretary being in full awareness of the facts of Anoosheh’s case, they have not improved their approach in the three and a half years he has been imprisoned.

I am grateful to Anoosheh’s wife, Sherry, for telling me about his life before his capture. Anoosheh’s dream when he was a teenager was to become an astronaut—not so different from some of our children’s dreams perhaps. He had big ambitions and worked hard to make them happen. When he was 18, he moved to the UK from Iran to study, and he finally gained his masters in aeronautical engineering in 1977. When his father passed away in the 1980s, Anoosheh situated himself in Iran to take over the family civil engineering business, for which he won national awards. Anoosheh, Sherry and their young family moved back to the UK in 2004. Anoosheh spent the next decade working tirelessly to make his business successful in the UK. In 2015, they moved into their dream home, in my constituency of Lewisham East, and planned their retirement.

It is obvious from Sherry that Anoosheh is absolutely besotted with his family. He uses his creativity to serve those he loves—from building baking machines to support his daughter to making a hobbit house in the family garden. Sherry has spoken of the pride that she and Anoosheh feel for their children: for Elika, who runs her own patisserie business, and for Aryan, who is an academic researcher with his own music label. It is clear that Anoosheh is a selfless, compassionate and caring family man. His devotion to his family is what led him back to visit his elderly mother in Tehran.

On that horrid day in 2017, just minutes after speaking to his wife on the phone, Anoosheh Ashoori was kidnapped off the street, with a bag over his head, and bundled into a van. He has been detained in Evin prison ever since. He was charged with spying by the Iranian authorities, and given a 10-year prison sentence. There has never been a scrap of evidence presented, and Anoosheh was denied legal support for a trial that should never have happened.

The conditions Anoosheh has had to endure in the past three and a half years are too painful for his family to recount, and I am confident that he spares them the details. Evin prison is known for the psychological and physical torture of its prisoners. There have been reports of mock executions, beatings, brutal interrogations and solitary confinement—not once or twice, but over and over again—of prisoners. Anoosheh has tried to end his life. He has attempted suicide three times, feeling unable to cope and to survive any longer.

But what exactly did Anoosheh do to deserve this horrific ordeal? His only crime is his dual British-Iranian nationality. The Minister will know well of the trauma Anoosheh and other British prisoners in Iran go through. We have had several urgent questions—particular thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq)—and we have heard many Government statements expressing their regret at the situation. However, our Government are simply not doing enough. Indeed, they are sitting on their hands when it comes to releasing innocent British citizens being held as hostages.

In November, the happy news was reported that Australian national Kylie Moore-Gilbert was released from prison in Tehran. This was a bittersweet experience, as Anoosheh’s family wondered when their loved one would return home. We are left to wonder: why can the Australians, and the Americans, make it work for their citizens, but not us?

The Foreign Office’s current strategy for dealing with consular disputes is not effective enough. It is imperative that the Government call out the hostage status of Anoosheh and those other dual British nationals being held by Iran for political leverage. To quote the international convention against the taking of hostages, international law dictates that:

“Any person who seizes or detains and threatens to kill, to injure or to continue to detain another person…in order to compel a third party, namely, a State…to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the hostage commits the offence of taking of hostages”.

Although this specifies individuals who take hostages, this is the precisely the mentality behind Iran’s strategy of hostage diplomacy.

Related to the imprisonment of Anoosheh and other British citizens is the £400 million debt owed to Iran by the United Kingdom. Iranian officials have told Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe that she is being detained because of the IMS debt. Our Foreign Office has repeatedly insisted that there is no link between Iran’s demand for payment and the taking of British prisoners. That is utter nonsense. For the rest of us, it is plain to see.

Anoosheh, Nazanin, and other British people in Iranian prisons are not mere “consular cases”. They are not just numbers, but people with families and futures. They are people being brutally mistreated over an international financial dispute. They are hostages. When will the Foreign Office accept that and acknowledge them as such?

Furthermore, court hearings were due to take place in the autumn to discuss managing the IMS debt, but they were postponed. Will the Minister give an update on the progress that his Department has made in resolving this sticking point? Iran is holding these prisoners in an attempt to hold Britain’s feet to the fire. The Government’s refusal to admit that and to act on that is only keeping the hostages in bondage for longer. To add insult to injury, last month the Foreign Secretary asserted that British citizens being held hostage abroad are not entitled to protection from the British Government. Surely I do not need to explain how absurd and inhumane that is. Will the Foreign Office issue a retraction of this damaging comment and assure the families of those randomly held that their loved ones will, of course, be given consular assistance?

Ultimately, we need detailed assurances that the UK Government will do all they can to support Anoosheh’s release from prison and to step up their efforts to bring him home. Anoosheh needs hope that his brutal treatment will come to an end; and his family need to know that he will soon be home where he can begin to heal. I implore the Minister to give a commitment today that his Department will not just express “concerns” for Anoosheh’s welfare, but detail a clear plan of action that will explain how they will bring Anoosheh and Nazanin back to London where they belong.

I also urge the Minister to confirm that the UK Government will not abandon my constituent and his family, but will in fact stand by British citizens who are being unlawfully detained abroad and that my constituent is as entitled to protection from the Foreign Office as the Foreign Secretary himself would be.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) for securing this debate and I pay tribute to her for her unwavering efforts on behalf of her constituent.

Let me start by offering my deepest sympathies to the family of Mr Ashoori. They have endured this terrible ordeal for many years, as the hon. Lady has said. In August 2017, when Mr Ashoori was visiting family, he was detained by the Iranian authorities and sentenced to 10 years in prison under what the Iranian authorities called national security charges. Despite his appeal, Mr Ashoori’s sentence was upheld in July 2019. His family first made contact with officials from what at the time was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 19 June 2018, requesting consular assistance for Mr Ashoori. Since then, the UK Government have been in regular contact with the family. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has met the family on four occasions, most recently on 27 October. In these meetings he has reiterated the Government’s continued commitment to reuniting Mr Ashoori with his family here in the UK. We continue to work flat out to secure Mr Ashoori’s full and permanent release, as we do with all detained dual British nationals, regardless of how extensively each case has been covered in this House or in the media.

The House will be all too aware that the Iranian Government do not recognise dual nationality and therefore refuse to identify Mr Ashoori as being British. In practice, that means that they will not permit consular officials from the British embassy to visit Mr Ashoori or other dual British national detainees. That creates severe challenges for the UK Government in providing consular support to the detained dual British nationals. Consular officials are unable to visit Mr Ashoori in prison without the express permission of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which to date it has never granted.

Despite those challenges, officials in our embassy in Tehran consistently press for access to Mr Ashoori and call on Iran to allow him to receive urgent medical furlough. The Government continue to raise Mr Ashoori’s case at the most senior levels, and we discuss his situation at every opportunity with our Iranian counterparts. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary engages with Foreign Minister Zarif regularly and always raises Mr Ashoori and our other dual British national detainees. Our ambassador in Tehran continually raises the cases of all dual British national detainees, including Mr Ashoori, with the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs. He last did so on 6 January this year with the deputy Foreign Minister.

Our intention is always to act in a way that we judge most likely to be in the best interests of dual British nationals who are detainees in Iran. We remain committed to doing all we can to ensure that they are released and allow them to return home to be reunited with their families. In the meantime, we have repeatedly pressed, and will continue to press, for consular access and appropriate medical care, including furlough, in advance of their full release.

On our consular support to the family of Mr Ashoori, the Government have relentlessly lobbied for Mr Ashoori’s full and permanent release. Since the family requested assistance from my Department, officials have provided consular support to the Ashoori family and are available to be contacted 24 hours a day. Officials provide regular updates on our lobbying efforts to the family and meet them to discuss their ongoing concerns. The most recent meeting of our officials with the family was on 20 January.

Mr Ashoori’s pressing health and welfare concerns are raised by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and our ambassador in Tehran at every opportunity with their Iranian counterparts, along with the UK’s serious concerns about Iran’s practice of detaining foreign and dual British nationals. The UK Government continue to make robust diplomatic representations on behalf of the dual British nationals detained in Iran who have requested our assistance, including Mr Ashoori, and we have repeatedly expressed our concern about Mr Ashoori’s appalling treatment. Our consular services are the FCDO’s most important public service. Ministers and officials work tirelessly and tenaciously to support individuals and their families. We always act in a way we believe to be in their best interests. But we are not complacent. We will continue to keep under review what actions we might take that are most likely to ensure that Mr Ashoori is allowed to return home to the UK.

The Government have been consistently clear that we want to put the relationship between the UK and Iran on a better footing. We believe that maintaining diplomatic relationships will help achieve our vision of a non-nuclear-armed Iran, an Iran that acts as a responsible regional power, and an Iran that does not pose a threat to the UK and UK interests. We continue to assess that it is also the best way of securing the release of dual British nationals currently in detention. The Government will work with all international partners, including the new US Administration, to deliver those shared goals. The UK will keep a diplomatic door open for discussions across a full range of UK interests. We will also continue to hold Iran to account for its human rights records.

From the Prime Minister down, the Government are clear that we do not accept dual British nationals being used as diplomatic leverage, and that it is essential that they are released. I will not make excuses for those in the Iranian Government responsible for the ongoing detention of British dual nationals. It is unacceptable and it must end. But it is the Iranian Government’s actions that we should be focused on. It is their choice to detain such people, and it is totally in their gift to release them. We should all be relentlessly focused on their behaviour and the decisions that they have made. This Government have consistently made clear to the Iranians our concerns at their persistent violations of human rights. We will keep up the pressure, along with the co-operation of our international friends and allies.

In the past six months, we have summoned the Iranian ambassador to hand over a letter from the UK, French and German Foreign Ministers and co-signed, a joint statement at the Human Rights Council expressing serious concerns over Iran’s behaviour. We have also reiterated calls for all states to uphold their human rights obligations. We will continue to call out those violations for as long as Iran commits them.

Let me end by once again expressing my deepest sympathies for Mr Ashoori and his family whilst he remains detained, as well as for all the others that remain detained at the hands of the Iranian Government. I can assure the House that this Government remain committed to doing whatever we can to secure the release of all of them, and will continue to make representations at every level, at every opportunity, on their behalf.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.