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Mahsa Amini

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 11 October 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on what representations he has made to the Iranian authorities about ongoing protests regarding the death of Mahsa Amini.

The death of Mahsa Amini in Iran was a shocking reminder of the repression faced by women in Iran. The protests across the country that have followed show us that the Iranian people are not satisfied with the path that their Government have taken.

I commend the bravery of ordinary Iranians seeking to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression in the face of appalling police violence. We condemn the Iranian authorities’ crackdown on protesters, journalists and internet freedom: the use of violence in response to the expression of fundamental rights by women or any other members of Iranian society is wholly unjustifiable.

Yesterday, on 10 October, we announced sanctions on senior security and political figures in Iran and the so-called morality police. We have sanctioned the morality police in their entirety, as well as their chief, Mohammed Rostami Cheshmeh Gachi, and the head of the Tehran division, Haj Ahmed Mirzaei. For decades, the morality police have used the threat of detention and violence to control what Iranian women wear and how they behave in public.

The UK is also imposing sanctions on five leading political and security officials in Iran for committing serious human rights violations in suppressing fuel protests in Iran in 2019. The UK maintains sanctions designations against a further 78 individuals and one entity under our Iran human rights sanctions regime. In all, there are more than 200 sanctions designations in place against Iran, including in relation to human rights, nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

These protests show that there are thousands of women in Iran who are not prepared to put up with violent human rights abuses. Will the UK Government stand with those brave women as they call for justice, for freedom and for democracy? Will Ministers meet opposition groups? Will they ban the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps? Will they rule out sanctions relief under the joint comprehensive plan of action process?

As the Foreign Secretary has said, the protests send a clear message that Iranian people are not satisfied with the path that their Government have taken; Iranian leaders must now listen. Of course, we stand by those people: the use of violence in response to the expression of fundamental rights by women or any other members of Iranian society is wholly unjustifiable. We continue to keep everything under review, and the UK has called for a full and transparent investigation into the shocking death of Mahsa Amini.

Like many Members of this House, I have been heartened to see the bravery of the protesters in Iran in the past few weeks, and particularly the women and girls who are spearheading these protests. Iran has a young population—a population which is clamouring for change against an oppressive regime that aims to restrict the liberty and vitality of its people

The Opposition stand in solidarity with those protesting for an end to state violence from the morality police, and in solidarity with the friends and family of Mahsa Amini and all those who have been killed or injured in the protests. These protests are about more than compulsory hijab; they are about ordinary Iranian people’s demands for fundamental freedoms to live their lives as they choose.

We are seeing a flourishing of Iranian civil society, and the UK must support it. While I am pleased that the Government have increased the sanctions on Iran following the Labour party’s calls for them to do so, the UK must do more to support Iranian civil society and independent journalism. BBC Persian Radio, despite being illegal, is accessed by millions of Iranians, but the BBC has announced that it will be closed down.

May I ask the Minister what the Government are doing to support access to independent news in Iran?

If the current regime in Iran ends, the UK Government will need to be ready to work with Iranian partners. The UK, today, should be building links with progressive forces within Iran, supporting all those who speak up for human rights. Will the Minister tell us how the UK intends to build relationships with Iranian civil society? There is a sense that change is coming, and we need to be on the right side of history.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and agree very much with his sentiments. BBC Persian is a legitimate journalistic organisation with editorial independence from the UK Government, and we condemn some of the things that have been happening in relation to the persecution of its employees and ex-employees and members of their families. It is very important that those people continue their work, and we are of course continuing to support the BBC and the BBC World Service in that regard.

We are very concerned about Iran’s human rights record. We raise the issue of human rights at all appropriate levels of the Iranian Government and at all appropriate opportunities—at all levels, at all times—and we will continue to take action with the international community to press Iran to improve its poor record, for instance through the Human Rights Council in Geneva and the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Iran’s record has been of serious concern to the UK for a long time, and we will continue to work with the Iranian Government and others at all levels.

While the malignant regime in Iran is terrorising women in that country as they seek basic human rights, it has also been shipping drones to Russia to help it to suppress the human rights of people in Ukraine. Given that Iran Air, an instrument of the Iranian state, was used to take those drones to Russia, and given the activities that we have seen in recent weeks on the streets of Iran, is it not time that the Government banned Iran Air from flying to UK airports? An instrument of the Iranian state should not be operating freely in the United Kingdom, given its behaviour, which insults the norms of international law.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and, indeed, wish him luck with his application to become Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. We cannot comment on future sanctions, including the banning of planes, at this point; I apologise to him for that.

The SNP condemns the Iranian regime’s violent crackdown on protesters, particularly women, in the strongest possible terms. We are deeply concerned by the regime’s vow to crack down further “with no leniency”, which appears to be an ominous indication of further mistreatment.

The bravery of Iranian citizens, especially Iranian women, is inspiring, and we stand in full solidarity with them. We wish to hear the UK Government explicitly recognise the death of Mahsa Amini as femicide. I am also keen to understand how they intend to go forward with international partners, for instance in calling for an independent investigation and raising the mistreatment and killing of protesters at UN level.

We would welcome clarity on how the UK Government are able to support the free flow of information to help to protect protesters—particularly women—and on what plans are in place to support ethnic minorities such as Kurds amid this regime crackdown.

As I mentioned before, the UK has called for a full and transparent investigation of the murder of Mahsa Amini, and we continue to work with our international partners and others to explore all the options for addressing Iran’s human rights violations. As the hon. Lady knows, we never comment on possible future designations or on our future work, but we will continue to work closely with our international partners.

I think that the Government have somehow got themselves into a position of being conflicted over their stance on Iran. This terrible case—the murder of a young woman—calls into question all the actions of Iran, across a wide spectrum. We talk about the morality police, but it is not the morality police but the Iranian Government who have imposed this desperate situation on Iran. Will the Minister assure us that the Government will pursue full criminal actions against the appalling abuses that are taking place, and take this to the United Nations at once?

I understand the request from my right hon. Friend, but at this point we cannot comment on any further actions that we will take. We have clearly condemned the human rights record, we have clearly condemned the murder and we have clearly asked for a full and transparent investigation.

Brave young women are being beaten to death just for wanting to be women and to conserve their human rights. We also have British citizens, Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof, who are still incarcerated in Iran. What are the British Government going to do to release them?

Of course we have ongoing discussions about many different cases, but I am afraid I am not able to comment on those at this point.

The death of Mahsa Amini is a tragedy, and once again Iran has shown a disregard for women’s rights. Women should be able to make their own decisions and not live in fear. Does my hon. Friend agree that every woman and man around the world should act in solidarity and speak out loudly in support of women in Iran and in other countries, such as Afghanistan, where women are oppressed? What more can we do to support them?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The UK has joined the international community in clear condemnation of Iran’s response to the protests. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon released a statement on 21 September. On 28 September, Lord Ahmad also condemned publicly the shocking police violence against protesters. We summoned Iran’s most senior diplomat in the UK to the FCDO on 3 October. In a statement on 3 October, the Foreign Secretary underlined how the UK was working with our partners to hold Iran to account, and on 5 October he underlined in remarks to the media that the Iranian leadership should take note that the people were unhappy with their direction. Then of course we had the follow-up action with sanctions. So there have been a number of parts of the action, but I am afraid that I cannot comment any further at this stage.

I stand in solidarity with the women and girls who are protesting just to be recognised and respected in Iran. Following the deaths of at least 185, including 19 children, what steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to work with the Iranians and with international partners to secure justice, and also to make sure that it is safe for women and girls in Iran?

In his statement announcing the sanctions on 10 October, the Foreign Secretary said:

“The UK stands with the people of Iran”

and underlined to the Government of Iran that

“we will hold you to account for your repression of women and girls and for the shocking violence you have inflicted on your own people.”

And of course we have called for that full and open and transparent investigation.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the UK Government will hold Iran’s Government fully responsible for all their human rights abuses—be they past, present or in the future?

Yes; my hon. Friend makes a good point. Iran’s human rights record has long been of serious concern to the UK, and the FCDO has designated it as one of its human rights priority countries. The continued use of the death penalty, the weak rule of law and the restrictions on freedom of expression, religion and belief are deeply worrying.

I feel sure that the entire House will thank the Minister for her words regarding the brave actions of the indomitable women of Iran, and I was glad to be at the SNP conference at the weekend, where members passed a motion by acclaim condemning the death of Mahsa Amini. Can I ask the Minister whether the Government are therefore planning to make it UK policy to condemn all countries across the middle east that use the pretence of morality to police the bodies of women and compel them to wear certain coverings?

We continue to work with many, including our international partners, on many countries where we see human rights violations, but we do not comment on operational matters or ongoing discussions.

I congratulate the Minister and the Government on the decisive and meaningful action on sanctions. Sanctions often work best when done on a multilateral basis, so what contacts are she and the Government having with other countries, in order that we can concert the actions on sanctions?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and the UK has been robust in its response to Iran’s repression of protesters. We have summoned the most senior Iranian diplomat in the UK to express our concern, we have engaged at senior levels in Iran and, yesterday, we issued new sanctions against a number of individuals responsible for human rights violations. We expect other countries, and the EU, to follow suit in the coming weeks.

I welcome the Government’s sanctions, but the Minister should take a leaf out of the book of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). Instead of treating Ebrahim Raisi as if he is an elected Head of State, we should refer him to the United Nations as a mass murderer. This man is responsible for the death of between 5,000 and 30,000 people he describes as “enemies of God”—his God. Why do we not take appropriate action and make it obvious that we cannot deal with these people? This is not a normal democratically elected regime—they are a bunch of mass murderers—and that is how we should respond to them.

As I outlined to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), we cannot comment on this action or on any future discussions that may take place.

Today is the International Day of the Girl and, of course, everybody in this Chamber stands firm against the violent oppression of women in Iran. We have seen similar brutality in other countries such as Afghanistan, where the Taliban have cracked down on gender-based rights and where 53 Hazara girls were recently killed in a terrorist attack. Many women and girls wish to flee these violent regimes for their own safety. Will the Minister support women in Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere by creating a dedicated UK asylum and resettlement route for women at risk of persecution solely for asserting the rights that we take for granted?

We continue to work closely with like-minded partners to ensure that Iran and other countries are held to account, including via the Human Rights Council in Geneva and the UN General Assembly in New York. Our permanent representative in Geneva, Ambassador Simon Manley, specifically raised the death of Mahsa Amini at the 51st session of the Human Rights Council, and he called on Iran to carry out an independent transparent investigation into her death. We joined 52 other countries in a joint statement to the Human Rights Council urging restraint. Of course, we will continue to work with those partners when we see human rights abuses in other countries.

Last month, at Foreign Office questions, I challenged the then Minister to follow our allies in the United States by proscribing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—the IRGC. In reply, I got the usual Whitehall waffle. The IRGC is crucial to the survival of Iran’s appalling clerical fascist regime. Will the latest outrages now shame the Government into proscribing the IRGC?

We have been clear about our concerns about the IRGC’s continued destabilising activities throughout the region. The UK maintains a range of sanctions that work to constrain the destabilising activities of the IRGC, and the list of proscribed organisations is kept under constant review. We do not routinely comment on whether an organisation is or is not under consideration for proscription.

Many constituents have contacted me, awed by the bravery and determination of the women and girls of Iran and disgusted by the actions of the regime. Indeed, on Saturday there was a large demonstration against the regime in the centre of Newcastle.

Newcastle certainly stands in solidarity with the women of Iran, but the regime seeks to cut off the protestors from each other and from the wider world using their control of communications such as the internet, as well as through fear and intimidation. What steps is the Minister taking with our international allies to shine a light on what is happening in Iran, such as through the International Criminal Court, in the case of the murder of Mahsa Amini, or through an international independent committee of investigation?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I am sure that many people will have been shocked and horrified at the scenes we are witnessing today following the death of Mahsa Amini. As I said, the UK has called for a full and transparent investigation at this point. We condemn the Iranian authorities, not only for the crackdown on protestors, but, as she points out, in respect of internet freedom and journalistic freedom. Iranians must be able to have peaceful assembly and to protest, and restraint must be exercised. We have also called on the authorities to release those who have been unfairly detained during the process.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr reminded us that none of us are free until we are all free, and the scenes in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini should remind us that women across the world are not yet free, which is why I welcome the sanctions laid out by the Minister.

The Minister also acknowledged the work and importance of BBC Persian. One thing that will be particularly significant is its expressing the solidarity we have stated here today to the women of Iran and their getting access to the support from across the world. With that in mind, will the Minister take back to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that point about the importance of BBC Persian and ask it to reconsider the cuts facing the BBC World Service and that service in particular?

I agree with the hon. Lady that BBC Persian and the BBC World Service play a vital role in delivering high-quality, accurate and impartial broadcasting across the globe. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is providing the BBC World Service with more than £94 million annually for the next three years, supporting services in 12 languages and improvements to key services in Arabic, Russian and English—that is in addition to nearly £470 million. Of course the BBC is operationally and editorially independent from the Government, and decisions on how its services are delivered are a matter for the BBC. However, at times such as this all of us see the value of some of these vital services, with the BBC World Service being one of them.

On this International Day of the Girl, I stand in solidarity with every woman and young girl fighting for their freedom—fighting for the freedom to be heard, fighting for the freedom to live, and fighting for the freedom to have an education and achieve their ambition. We stand in solidarity with the women in Iran. The Minister outlined the sanctions that the Government have taken so far against the Iranian authorities, but how are they going to ensure that the burdens of these sanctions do not fall on ordinary Iranians, who are protesting at the killing of their sisters and girls?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. Today is the International Day of the Girl, and many of us have been celebrating at events today, which is why this is a shocking reminder of the repression faced by women in Iran. To many young girls, it is a shock that this goes on in the world. All the measures we have taken are there to apply increasing pressure and to say that the Iranian people are speaking and their leaders must now listen. These protests are very clear and their voices must be heard.

I do not know whether other Members share my concern that Opposition Members’ anger about what is happening in Iran is not reflected in the number of Members on the Government Benches—perhaps the lunches with the Prime Minister are overrunning. These protests reveal a thriving opposition among Iranian people, despite the oppression they face. How is the UK building relationships with civil society in Iran? If the regime falls, these people may go on to lead the country.

I understand that there is a lot of activity on delegated legislation at the moment, so the hon. Lady will be delighted to hear that that is all going through. Of course we continue to build our relationships in Iran at many different levels. We are all very concerned by the human rights abuses, and at all appropriate opportunities we will increase and build those relationships to ensure that we can continue to take action, with the international community and with our partners in Iran.

Mahsa Amini was, of course, a Kurd. Many of those joining protests in Glasgow and Edinburgh are of the Kurdish community, and we should celebrate the contribution that that community makes to life on these islands. What discussions has the Minister had with her Home Office counterparts on cases such as family reunion and expediting asylum interviews, given the current situation in Iran?

I have regular conversations with the Home Office and the consular team on many different cases, but it would not be right to discuss those here.

The sheer bravery of all the women and girls who have taken to the streets of Iran to fight for their freedoms is inspirational to all of us in this House. Does the Minister agree that the oppression that they face has nothing to do with so-called religious observance, and everything to do with that age-old problem of men trying to tell women what they can and cannot do?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point. It is also fair to say that we should congratulate the men who have joined those protests. We have all observed that and very much welcome it. It is a very important part of the change.

Of course, Mahsa Amini is her legal name, but her family name—her Kurdish name—is Jîna. We have to recognise that, because the Kurdish community in Iran are among the most persecuted groups. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) has already asked about expediting asylum cases, but I will ask the Minister again. There are many people in our communities who are from a Kurdish background and, indeed, who are Iranian human rights activists. What are the Government going to do to expedite these asylum claims, given the barbarity of the regime that we are now witnessing?

Of course, Iran must cease its indiscriminate bombardment of Kurdish towns, which has led to the loss of innocent lives and damaged civilian infrastructure. Those wholly unacceptable attacks are a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and they demonstrate a repeated pattern of Iranian destabilising activity in the region. We are acutely aware of that and are working to improve the situation.

May I get the Minister to confirm that there are currently no legal or safe routes for any woman fleeing persecution in Iran to enter this country and claim asylum?

As has been said, it is the UN International Day of the Girl Child, so I think that highlighting the myriad challenges that girls face should have been at the front and centre of the Minister’s response. Those women in Iran are an inspiration to girls across the world. Beyond commenting on sanctions, the Minister has not said much about how the Government are supporting wider civil society. I would be grateful if she could consider what further efforts the UK Government could make to support those incredibly brave girls and women in Iran.

I totally agree with the hon. Lady. There is, of course, much activity and we will continue to work to do all we can and to celebrate the UN International Day of the Girl Child, as I know many of us have done today.

This is an important debate on the International Day of the Girl Child. Many women constituents have written to me, inspired by the protests in Iran and shocked at the murder of Mahsa Amini. I stand in solidarity with those women protesters. I have a 22-year-old daughter. She is able to wear what she chooses and to protest as she chooses. She would not be in fear of being beaten up and murdered in prison. Has the Minister considered expelling the Iranian diplomats—this cannot be business as usual—and what more would have to happen before she did so?

Of course, as the hon. Lady will have heard in my statement, we have not continued with business as usual. As of yesterday, 10 October, we have announced new sanctions on senior security and political figures in Iran and the so-called morality police. We have sanctioned the morality police in their entirety, including their chiefs. We have taken some actions. We know that there will be other discussions with international partners, and obviously we keep things under review.

I welcome the heartfelt contributions from both sides of the House, praising the bravery of the women and girls protesting in Iran, yet, sadly, on International Day of the Girl, we are seeing women’s rights being eroded in Iran and across the world. Will the Minister give a guarantee that any woman or girl fleeing Iran due to these human rights abuses will not be put on a plane to Rwanda if they seek refuge in this country?

We are there to support the rights of women and girls all across the world, and we will continue to do so through our work with the UN and others.

The irony is that this is a regime, which, since 16 September, has killed at least three further young people in an attempt to prove to its population that it did not kill Mahsa Amini. The reduction of sanctions and the unfreezing of Iranian assets would serve only to strengthen the regime and turbocharge its repression of young people such as Mahsa Amini. What assessment have the Government made of the attempt by President Biden to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which would lead to such a reduction in sanctions?

We have also always been clear that Iran’s nuclear escalation is unacceptable. It is threatening peace and security and undermining the global non-proliferation system. We have kept that matter very separate when we consider our actions in both of these cases. We have always been clear about that.

Zahra Sedigi Hamadani and Elham Choubdar are two LGBTQ rights activists who have been sentenced to death in Iran. Amnesty International says that they were targeted because of their real or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity and their social media activities in support of LGBTI communities. Will the Minister commit to raising those cases with the Iranian Government demanding a stay of execution and the immediate release of the activists from detention?

The Iranian regime is guilty not just of routine brutality against its own people, but of exporting terror and supporting despotic regimes and terrorist organisations in a whole raft of countries. The people who are protesting in Iran have provided an inspirational example to all of us, but there will be many others who are considering joining those protests but are frightened to do so. It would send a very powerful message if the Minister could come to the Dispatch Box and tell us in response to the question from the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) what she is doing to build those relationships with potential alternative leaders in Iran. Can she tell us more and offer hope to those potential protesters that the UK Government will support those who can show a better future for the people of Iran?

The British Government have a policy of not officially making a decision on that. Their choice is for Iran’s Government to be a matter for the Iranian people. We make sure that we support opposition groups in Iran, but we do not support any one group in particular.

I thank the Minister for her response. According to a report from the National Council of Resistance of Iran, 400 protesters from largely female groups have been killed and 20,000 arrested during the four weeks of nationwide protests. This House must send the strongest condemnation of those killings and mass arrests. Does the Minister recognise the Iranian people’s right to self-defence and resistance in the face of the deadly crackdown that particularly targets women and their right to establish a democratic republic?

Yes, as I have said many times, we strongly condemn the Iranian authorities’ crackdown on protesters and journalists and on internet freedom as well. They must respect the rights of their people and release those who are unfairly detained, and there must be a free, fair and transparent investigation into the death of Mahsa Amini.

I do not know whether the Minister saw Beth Rigby’s interview this weekend with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but it was a gut-wrenching and emotional interview. In it, Nazanin said that what has happened to Mahsa Amini brings back memories of how helpless people are when they are in custody in Iran. She also said that,

“the world cannot turn a blind eye”,

to what is happening in Iran. The Government must act on human rights abuses. The uprising we see in Iran is supported by civil society organisations not just in Iran, but among the Iranian diaspora around the world. What support are the UK Government giving to the Iranian diaspora here and its civil society organisations, as well as those in Iran?

Of course it would bring back memories, and that interview showed us the plight that Nazanin found herself in for many years. The Foreign Office will continue to work both on those individual cases and within societies to ensure that we keep those relationships alive, in order hopefully to defend the human rights of everybody around the world.

I thank the Minister for taking the urgent question and responding to a number of Members—particularly, as was mentioned, on the International Day of the Girl.