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Iranian Jews

12.59 pm

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood): I am delighted to be able to lead this debate on the plight of Iranian Jews falsely imprisoned for espionage. I have a constituency interest and an interest in international affairs. The constituency interest is that I have the pleasure of representing the majority of Scotland's Jewish community. I also have the unconditional honour of representing a small number of holocaust survivors. My interest in trying to prevent the persecution of and discrimination against Jewish people, in this country and internationally, motivated me to apply for this debate.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to consider the plight of the Iranian Jews without considering the context of the domestic power struggle in Iran, between the moderates on the one hand and the conservatives on the other. I am worried that Iran's wider Jewish community, which numbers 25,000 I think, may be caught up in that power struggle. However, the purpose of today's debate is to focus on the 10 Jews who have been imprisoned.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): I am pleased that my hon. Friend mentioned the more general context before moving on to the specific case. Does he not agree that this case is a powerful example of the wider concern about Iran's attitude to Israel and the Jewish community in general? For example, Iran remains one of the leading state sponsors of terrorist organisations such as Hamas which, as we know, wants to disrupt the middle east peace process. Furthermore, Jews in Iran are still forbidden to teach the Hebrew language.

Mr. Murphy : I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), who has raised the matter diligently during Foreign Office questions. Ayatollah Khamenei--a leading conservative who is involved in the power struggle in Iran--chose, on the first day of the new Christian millennium, to celebrate that date by demanding the destruction of the state of Israel. On the other hand, the reformist President Khatami was elected in May 1997--as Britain was electing a new Government, so was Iran--on a 69 per cent. popular vote. His slogan was "Iran for all Iranians". To many friends of the reformists in Iran, that slogan signalled a change in policy and approach.

Unfortunately, persecution continues. The domestic press in Iran is stifled, and, as we know, student demonstrations have been violently put down. The Bahai minority, who number 300,000, have been subject to violent and continued persecution. It is important to recognise where the 10 persecuted Jews fit into that context. Despite my hon. Friend's correct comments, the purpose of the debate is not to consider the wider issue but to focus on those 10 individuals.

Unfortunately, the analysis of the arrests, trial and sentences in The Economist was correct. It stated:

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The trial was flawed and fundamentally violated human rights. There was no physical evidence whatever. There were only confessions, which were not given in court. The solicitor, a respected former Iranian judge, complained that the alleged confessions were obtained after a period of solitary confinement. I have never been in that situation and I do not know how I would react. What would any ordinary human being do when asked to confess after a period of prolonged solitary confinement? The Jews were secure in the knowledge that they were being used as political pawns in a domestic power struggle. They had been denied access to a lawyer for prolonged periods. They knew that 17 Jews had been executed in Iran since the revolution in 1979. Under all those pressures and worries, perhaps the confessions were, in their minds, an attempt to receive leniency.

With all the mitigating circumstances, the lawyers strongly believed that the confessions should have been inadmissible. I find it absolutely astonishing that the solicitor, who had been appointed by the state, was not allowed access to the accused. It is incredible that the Jews were not allowed access to their solicitor, but television time was given for the alleged confessions to be aired publicly. The solicitor complained that he could not have access to the accused; the television journalists had no such complaint. That is no form of justice as I understand it.

I was absolutely amazed to learn that revolutionary court Judge Nourani was not only the prosecution; he also appointed the defence solicitor and handed down the verdicts. That sums up much of what is wrong in this case of trumped-up charges. One of the accused, Shahrohh Paknahad--I apologise if my pronunciation is not perfect--is a 30-year-old Jewish teacher, charged with passing military secrets to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. I have no idea how the Iranian Government reach the understanding that a Jew is passing military secrets to Saddam Hussein's regime. Even if they can make that leap of logic, the fact is that he was eight years of age at the start of that war. The charges do not bear even the most superficial examination, never mind the examination of a fair hearing.

Ultimately, 10 of the accused were found guilty and six were acquitted--three Jews and three Muslims. The sentences ranged from four to 13 years in confinement. The international reaction to the trial and judgment is a matter of considerable public record. The trial process was condemned by the European Union, the United

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States and--I am pleased to say--strongly condemned by Her Majesty's Government. Our Ministers played a leading role in trying to secure a public hearing and a transparent trial. The reaction was in many ways even stronger when the judgments were passed. Some people had speculated that death sentences might have been passed and suggested that we should therefore be relieved that they were not. However, one can take no joy in the fact that these innocent individuals are faced with jail sentences of four to 13 years.

I was given a categorical assurance during Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs questions, when I asked whether the Government would do all in their power to ensure that the trial would be open and transparent, and that the accused would have access to legal advice of their own choosing. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had been told that those things would happen, but that did not occur. I believe that he gave those assurances in good faith. The source of the problem is not our Foreign Secretary, but the Iranian authorities and the Iranian Government, who misled the British Government and gave them false assurances. What do our Government intend to do in response?

Amnesty International condemned the trial process and the sentences as a violation of international human rights law, saying:

What action can be taken by this and other Governments throughout the world to secure a successful appeal process? International pressure helped to ensure that death sentences were not handed down. International pressure can help to ensure that these appeals are successful when they are heard. Britain is in a unique position for two reasons. First, we have now established diplomatic relations at ambassadorial level with Iran. Our ambassador in Tehran and Iran's ambassador here should be in no doubt of the strength of feeling that exists in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the House of Commons about this issue. We should use the channel of diplomatic relations to ensure that maximum pressure is applied.

Secondly, the UK and Iran are strong trading partners. Our economic ties with Iran are close. In 1999, Britain exported the equivalent of $244 million to Iran and we imported the equivalent of $36 million from Iran. The former Conservative Minister, Mr. Jeremy Hanley, recently led a trade delegation to Iran to try to forge new business links.

On 26 June 2000, the Iranian news agency reported that one of the leaders of that delegation, Mr. John Hill, said that the delegates would report back to British companies to tell them about their experiences of the improvement in the political climate. I do not doubt the

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sincerity of his comments and there is no limit to my hope that there will be improvements in the political situation in Iran: that will be the hope of the friends of Iranian reform throughout the world. British business cannot ignore the persecution of these individuals, however, and the wider discrimination that occurs in Iran.

I make an appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister and to all Ministers for joined-up government, so that we can ensure that these innocent Iranian citizens can be reunited with their relatives. I appeal to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who will visit Iran in the near future, publicly to state Britain's view on the matter and our disappointment that our Government were misled earlier this year and to ask for assurances that the appeals process, unlike the trial itself, will be open and transparent.

I understand that our Government's position is that the people involved have been treated as pawns in a domestic power struggle. However, it is not good enough simply for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to apply pressure. In the spirit of joined-up government, the Department of Trade and Industry and other Government Departments should play their part to ensure that it is not only a political matter but an economic one and that Mr. Hill's comments and the efforts of Mr. Hanley in taking British trade to Iran and bringing Iranian trade here are not made in a vacuum that ignores the oppression of Iran's Jews.

We should constantly remind Iran that we shall consider the matter in a wider context. I understand that Iran wants to apply for membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is to be welcomed. If Iran opens up to international economies and liberalises its economy, that too is to be welcomed. We should make the case, through whichever Government Department is involved, that Iran's application for membership of the WTO will bring it under closer international scrutiny, including scrutiny of this case.

I make a statement not so much for our own Foreign Office but for Iranian representatives here in London. The issue will not go away. Members of Parliament from all political parties will continue to press the matter as long as those 10 Iranian Jews remain in prison. Indeed, questions on the matter have already been tabled for the next Foreign Office questions.

At stake is Iran's long-term standing in the international community. If the appeals are unsuccessful, the spirit of tolerance and international hope for a new, more tolerant Iran--an Iran "for all Iranians" as the President said very publicly--will be seen to have been put to the test and to have failed. The matter raises much wider issues than the fate of 10 Iranian Jews. Iranian justice and political reform are on trial. If the appeals fail, the Iranian justice system will be found guilty, not 10 Iranian Jews.

1.17 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Peter Hain ): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) for having raised the issue of the Iranian Jews found guilty of espionage in Shiraz. I pay tribute to his energy in raising this matter and others. He is highly respected in his own constituency, especially among the large Jewish

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community there, as well as for his energetic pursuit of human rights issues in Parliament generally. That is important, because his approach to the issue is part of a wider commitment to human rights across the globe. I agree that the Iranian authorities here in London will have to acknowledge that the issue will not go away.

As my hon. Friend knows and has, indeed, been fair in acknowledging, the Government are deeply worried by the news of the sentences imposed on 1 July on 10 Jewish and two Muslim defendants tried for espionage in Shiraz. I agree that, to use his words, the trial was "deeply flawed". We and our EU partners have consistently expressed our anxieties about the conduct of the trial, and in particular about its closed nature. He is absolutely right that, despite earlier assurances to us from the Iranian authorities--indeed, from Iranian Ministers--that the trial would be open, it was not. That is unacceptable.

Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green): My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said that the trial would be fair because he had been assured that it would be. Is that assurance in writing? If so, should we not go through it line by line and ask the Iranian Government or the Iranian embassy in London what is their reaction to the trial not having been fair?

Mr. Hain : I acknowledge my hon. Friend's close interest and, in particular, that of his constituents in the matter, and I am happy to respond to his question. The problem is that our interlocutors in the Iranian Government are Ministers. The court system is run by the revolutionary court, which is largely opposed to the reform process. So, to be open about it, there is a power struggle in Iran between the reformers in the Government, led by President Khatami, who has the overwhelming support of the people, and the entrenched interests that retain control of the court process. The assurances, which were given, accepted and represented in the House by the Foreign Secretary in good faith, got caught in the middle of that power struggle.

Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary raised the issue with Foreign Minister Kharrazi during the latter's visit in January and I pressed the matter with deputy Foreign Minister Sarmadi when we met in March. More recently, the FCO director for the middle east and north Africa raised it with the Iranian ambassador on 1 June, and the EU presidency in Tehran presented demarches on behalf of all EU partners to the Iranian authorities on 29 April and 23 May. The Secretary of State discussed the matter with members of the Board of Deputies of British Jews when he met them on 14 June. Therefore, we have been fully engaged throughout the process and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood for rightly commending our leading role in the matter.

Immediately after the announcement of the verdicts on 1 July, we issued a statement expressing our deep concern, which we have subsequently reiterated with Iranians in London and Tehran. I welcome the fact that no death sentences were passed; 17 Iranian Jews have been executed since 1979. The sentences are however extremely heavy, particularly given the nature of the charges and the character of the trial. It is important to

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note that provision is made for an appeal to the Shiraz revolutionary court within 20 days of sentencing and, if need be, to the supreme court. We will continue to monitor the proceedings, on which the eyes of the entire world will be directed, closely.

We regularly raise our concerns about the plight not just of a single minority in Iran, but of the Bahais, students, intellectuals and others, many of whom are Muslims, who also face serious threats.

Mr. Lembit Opik (Montgomeryshire): What constructive action does the Minister believe that the Government or hon. Members can take to reverse the death sentences that have been passed on a small number of Bahais in Iran, where the Bahai faith is not formally recognised and they are afforded no state protection?

Mr. Hain : I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's close involvement with the Bahais, in Britain and internationally. We remain concerned at reports of the death sentences passed on three members of the Bahai faith in Mashad on 3 February. We and our EU partners have raised those concerns with the Iranian authorities. We welcome the news that one of the three, Mr. Khulusi, has since been released. We regularly raise with the Iranian authorities our serious concern about the treatment of the Bahais because persecution of individuals on religious grounds is unacceptable.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hain : I have to make progress first.

In line with our policy of constructive engagement, we continue to raise our concerns privately with the Iranian authorities. Some hon. Members have argued that we should have no dialogue with Iran. We believe, however, that the best means of encouraging the forces most likely to promote human rights is through critical engagement--the pursuit of political dialogue wherever it can produce benefits. The reformist Government need to be able to show that progress on human rights can bring benefits to their country, through trade and other means. However, engagement does not mean suspending judgment. To engage with Iran, we have not refrained from raising the difficult issues. A number of positive developments support a broader relationship with Iran--a country with a population of more than 60 million, which is rapidly becoming a key player in the region. Its neighbours are seeking rapprochement, and Iran is playing an increasingly constructive role in regional issues, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

We also benefit from bilateral co-operation on drugs. More than 90 per cent. of the heroin on our streets originates from Afghanistan, and most of it goes through Iran on the way to Europe. Iran has seized more drugs than any other country; last year, the Iranian authorities were responsible for more than 60 per cent. of the world's opiate seizures, but they paid a heavy price for the fight against the drug traffickers. More than 3,000 Iranian drug enforcement officers have been killed in confrontations with smugglers and their gangs in the past 15 years.

Our co-operation with the Iranians in the matter helps them and directly benefits people in Britain. We are developing that co-operation, especially in tackling

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terrorism. I acknowledge the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) in that respect; we raise the matter continuously.

Despite the outcome of the Shiraz trial, which gives grave cause for concern, there has recently been progress on some aspects of the human rights situation in Iran. The latest United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution on Iran, adopted on 17 April, and drafted and sponsored by the European Union, noted positive developments on human rights, including the recent elections, movement towards greater freedom of expression and progress on the status of women, although at the same time expressing its deep concerns on remaining issues. We continue to urge Iran to co-operate with the United Nations on such matters, including allowing a visit by Maurice Copithorne, a United Nations special representative on human rights.

The Iranian people want reform, as shown by the election in May 1997 of President Khatami, who advocates the development of an Islamic civil society based on respect for the rule of law. Since then, in municipal elections in February last year, and in parliamentary elections in February and May this year, the people of Iran have overwhelmingly shown their continued support for President Khatami: 80 per cent. of the electorate support reform, including the vast majority of women and young people. Sixty per cent. of Iranian citizens are under the age of 25 and they all want reform.

However, opposition to reform remains in some quarters. The closure of 18 pro-reform newspapers in the run up to the election is an example. However, the new, largely reformist Parliament, which first sat on 27 May, has already declared its intention to tackle the problem. New legislation is being proposed to safeguard the independence of the press and to curb the powers of intervention of the judiciary. We welcome the comments of the recently elected Speaker of the Parliament, who said that it

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Mr. Clappison : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Earlier, he mentioned the Shiraz revolutionary court. Is there a risk of the court increasing the sentence or can it impose only a less severe sentence?

Mr. Hain : I do not think that it could increase the sentence; that would be unthinkable.

I am aware of the statement signed by hon. Members calling for a change in United Kingdom policy towards Iran. We and our European Union colleagues have continuing anxieties about human rights violations, which we regularly draw to the attention of the authorities. We must base our analysis on unbiased sources, however, such as the reports of Maurice Copithorne and the latest United Nations resolution adopted in April, both of which recognise improvements in Iran, rather than the propaganda of the National Council for the Resistance of Iran mentioned in the statement, which appears largely to have inspired it.

Some of my hon. Friends may not be aware that NCRI is dominated by the terrorist Mujahedin-e-Khalq organisation, the MKO, which claims responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks in Iran. The NCRI and the MKO are on the USA State Department's proscribed list of terrorist organisations. We do not recognise either of them, neither did the Opposition when they were in government. The MKO is despised by most Iranians--it is important that hon. Members understand that--as it supported Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war.

The Government believe that it is right to promote human rights, but we must choose the right way of doing so. That means responding to human rights challenges in a way that is most likely to help the people whose freedoms are being restricted. The way in which the case of the Shiraz defendants is dealt with through the appeals process will be a big test of that strategy and of the future of Iran and its people. The eyes of the world will be on Iran. It is important that the Iranian authorities respect the freedoms of those defendants.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam): Order. Before we start the next debate, it may be convenient to allow the Minister to take his seat reasonably gently. If he wishes to, he may address the Chair from a seated position.

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