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If we are to remove the causes of the human rights abuses that led to those conflicts, it is important that we put as much effort as possible into post-conflict resolution and building a good society after that. I am pleased that there is a substantial aid programme for Burundi, and I hope that it continues. I also hope that when the large number of refugees living in neighbouring countries, principally Tanzania but to some extent in Congo and Uganda, return—they are returning because Tanzania wants them to return—the international community will provide sufficient support so that they can settle,
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and that they are not seen as an immediate burden on the people with whom they were in conflict before they left. The amounts of money are not vast, but it is important to end human rights abuse through a process of reconciliation with truth and reconciliation commissions, and to ensure sufficient support so that one group is not fairly or unfairly labelled a burden on the others. The rest of the world’s lack of activity during the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi should be a salutary lesson for all of us. The figures are mind-blowing, and I shall quote them again. In Burundi with a population of 6 million, 300,000 died in the recent past, and an even greater number died in Rwanda. The figures are horrendous, and we must be prepared to give whatever support we can.

I have mentioned the issue of discrimination by caste and descent, which applies particularly to India, although other countries are affected as well. I should declare an interest in relation to that issue, because together with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), I am a trustee of the Dalit solidarity network in this country. The network seeks to promote the interests of Dalit people and to end the discrimination against them in India. We have often pressurised the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Trade and Industry—to be fair, we have had quite good responses from them—on the use of the Ambedkar principles in British or overseas investment in India. Those principles relate to non-discriminatory employment practices and are named after the late Dr. Ambedkar, who was the author of the Indian constitution.

Discrimination against people deemed of lower caste takes place on a massive scale and occurs worldwide. Death and infant mortality rates are higher, life expectancy is less, employment chances are lower, and violence against the individual is much higher not because the Indian constitution fails to guarantee the protection of Dalits and their free access to the law. Those matters are guaranteed, and there is nothing wrong with the Indian constitution in that sense. However, the reality on the ground is very different, and the Dalits suffer very badly as a result.

Several of my hon. Friends have rightly mentioned the question of the death penalty in China and around the world, and I agree with what they have said. However, when dealing with countries such as India, with which we have very good relations, we should recognise that they, too, have the death penalty. There is an early-day motion, 130, before the House concerning the plight—that is the only way of describing it—of those who are being held as a result of the attack on the Indian Parliament. The motion relates to Afzal Guru and the potential use of the death penalty, it stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and it has received a substantial number of signatures. I should be grateful if the Minister at least acknowledged that she is aware of it and of the all-party support that it has received, and if she considered whether she can make any comments to the Indian Government on its subject matter.

Finally, let me mention the human rights of people in the middle eastern region, and of people in Iraq in particular. I have raised that issue twice this week—once during the Prime Minister’s statement and once during Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions.
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My specific concern was the number of refugees from Iraq who have had to seek internal exile because of the continuing conflict, or to flee to neighbouring countries. Substantially more than 2 million people have fled, and the burden being placed on society in Syria, Jordan and other countries in the region is huge.

One thinks of the screaming headlines in this country’s media about the relatively small number of asylum seekers who come here, while well over a million people have entered Syria in the recent past. One obviously hopes that there is some kind of long-term peace and settlement in Iraq, so that those affected can return home. The burden on neighbouring societies is enormous, and I hope that we will be prepared to offer the necessary support and help—both in the interests of the human rights of those who have sought a place of safety, and of the security of those societies.

Human rights debates carry a danger of assuming that everything that we do is okay, and that everything that everybody else does around the world is not, or might not be, or may be subject to criticism. We must be quite careful about that, and be prepared when necessary to be self-critical.

I support the UN system and the universal declaration, as do all of us here, I am sure. Likewise, I support the convention on the rights of the child, to which the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) referred, and the convention against torture. I therefore believe it highly inappropriate for the British Government to come to an arrangement with any country that is not a signatory to the convention on torture, or to countenance the removal of people from this country to such a country on the basis of an exchange of letters between Governments. If we believe in international law, international conventions and international justice, we should do our best to encourage all those countries that have not signed the relevant conventions to sign them. Making one-off agreements that undermine the convention on torture undermines not just that convention but all the other conventions.

I hope that there will be a strong response on that and that we shall get involved in no more such agreements, but instead encourage people to join in an international legal system. That system might provide limited protection, but it is important for people who stand up for human rights and justice in their own societies.

4.15 pm

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): My first political memory is from the age of nine, when my family was living in Franco’s Spain in 1971. We lived not far from Carabanchel, of which most British people will never have heard, but which was the main political prison where Franco kept all those who disagreed with him. I remember my parents, myself and my younger brother going past it in the car on a very misty afternoon when Franco was visiting for some reason, so that every 100 m there was a guardia civil officer with one of those tricorn hats and a very long cape. I felt very intensely the sense of repression that can be the first or perhaps the last step of human rights abuses.

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In 1986, I spent three months working in a shanty town in Lima, in Peru, and then six months working for a human rights organisation in Buenos Aires, where I was also studying part-time at the protestant theological college. One night, I went for a drink with one of my friends who I knew had had a difficult time during the dictatorship in Argentina, although I did not know much more about his experiences. There were not many people in the bar, and at one point somebody came over and stood at the bar. My friend sort of froze and went off to the toilet. Some 40 minutes later he had not returned and I was worried, so I went to find him in the toilet, where he was essentially a shivering wreck. He said that all the experiences of his torture had returned, because the person who had tortured him was standing at the bar.

I asked him how he could possibly know that it was the same person, because all the stories that I had heard had suggested that the identity of the torturers was kept from their victims. He said, “I know that my eyes were covered for every torture session. But when you have had electrodes applied to every single part of your body and large currents passed through them, when you have had the backs of your eyes exposed for hours on end, when someone has barked orders at you and poured water into your mouth so that you think you are drowning, and when somebody has pushed you day after day into filthy, freezing-cold water until you nearly drown, you get to know the person who is doing it, even if you do not know what they look like.” It was at that moment, I suppose, that I decided that politics was probably more important than theology.

I believe that our intervention in human rights issues around the world is absolutely vital, because Britain was remarkably quiescent at the time of many of the human rights abuses that happened in Latin America in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. We should be absolutely unambiguous in our support of the human rights of others around the world, however much that may on occasion be inconvenient for us commercially or politically. Contrary to the dichotomy that some see between the western and eastern ideas of human rights, I believe that human rights are a seamless robe, and that there is continuity also between the collective good and the individual freedoms of religious expression, personal expression, the right to peaceful assembly and so on.

Of course, in any one country all of that depends on solid institutions such as the rule of law, trustworthy police and security services, open and free media and trade unions and other parts of civil society such as free political parties. It depends also on respect for life and on the right to life. Many hon. Members have referred to China’s use of the death penalty—more people have been executed by China than all other countries put together, but probably the most intense use of the death penalty is in one particular state of the United States of America, namely Texas.

We should be equally critical of the death penalty when it is used by an ally of ours. When somebody tries to tell me that, as MP for the Rhondda, I should somehow be interested in more parochial issues than the human rights of others around the world, the words of John Donne always spring to mind:

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I shall refer to two specific countries: the Russian Federation and Iran. Hon. Members will know some of the issues to which I refer and perhaps they will have heard me speak about them before, but these comments bear repetition. I am glad to say that the Foreign Office, in its annual reports, keeps on referring to those two countries and, I suspect, brings more effectively to the attention of the world than any other country chooses to do through its equivalent body some of these human rights issues.

The repression of non-governmental organisations in the Russian Federation is quite intense now. Ever since January 2006, when the Russian Government insisted on a new law saying that every single NGO should be re-registered and go through a very complex system of registration, there has been systematic harassment of nearly every NGO that has not been initiated or prompted by the Government themselves.

Despite President Putin saying in November 2005 that media freedom is a basic condition for advancing democracy and defeating corruption, the Russian Federation does not have free media. There is not a single national television channel that is not owned or ordered by the national Government. Several TV channels have been closed down: their licences have been removed or their journalists personally harassed.

There has also been the murder of a large number of journalists in the Russian Federation. The most notable or perhaps the most publicised murder was that of Anna Politkovskaya just a year and a few days ago. People have now been charged with her murder, but a countless number of journalists—I say “countless” with deliberate intent because it is uncounted—have been murdered in the Russian Federation since President Putin came to power. If a single journalist were murdered in this country, the whole of British society would be up in arms and every other country in Europe and in the Council of Europe would condemn us if charges were not brought against somebody. In every single case other than that last one, there has been complete impunity for the murderer, because no charges have been brought.

It is all too easy, perhaps, to believe that there is a conspiracy whereby the Government want to ensure that those who oppose the Government through the media are disappeared—are murdered—and their murderers are not pursued in the courts. That creates an air of self-censorship in the Russian media. Vladimir Pozner, a news presenter on the state TV station Channel One, said in a radio interview in April 2006—I am quoting from the Foreign Office’s annual report for 2006—

In other words, the level of self-censorship in the Russian media is so intense that there is virtually no criticism of the Russian Government.

It is also true that in the armed forces there is a large amount of bullying, not just the kind of bullying that perhaps every country has at some point in its armed
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forces—we have had our own cases in the UK—but quite extreme cases of human rights abuses. The same Foreign Office report states:

although the rest of the world was not, because this was hardly reported—

The systematic use of torture in the Russian Federation has been attested by many organisations, most notably Amnesty International, but Amnesty has made the point that it is not just in the northern Caucasus, in Chechnya, where torture is being used; it is in every single part of the Russian Federation. All the safeguards against torture—such as the right of independent organisations to visit police cells and the opportunity for examination by legal counsel and for medical examination by doctors or nurses—are forbidden in the Russian system. It is very common for people to assert that the Russian police are far more interested in securing a confession than in the pursuit of justice. It is attested by the vast majority of people in Russia that they have no confidence in the police force or the judicial system.

Against that background, when the Russian Federation says to Britain that it demands the extradition of various people because it believes that they should face trial in the Russian Federation, the courts in this country are right to point out that, all too often, the cases are being brought not for reasons of justice, but for reasons of politics and political interference. I merely note that in one of the cases in which the Russian Federation was seeking the extradition of a Russian national back to Russia from the UK, the person concerned was accused of having murdered an Orthodox priest, but that Orthodox priest gave evidence in the case, thereby proving, obviously, that he had not been murdered by the person concerned.

The quality of the extradition requests that the Russian Federation often presents should make us all think twice about the quality of criminal justice in Russia. I also suggest that the UK Government are right to query whether people such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev have really had a fair trial. Those cases are still going through the process in the European Court of Justice, so we should not interfere too much, but I think that the Government are right at least to question that.

I shall raise a few issues about Iran. The first is the use of stoning. In December 2002, Ayatollah Shahroudi said that there should be a moratorium on stoning, which was welcomed by many around the world, but from May 2006 the use of stoning as a means of execution began again. Two people, Abbas and Mahboubeh, were executed in a cemetery in Mashhad, having been convicted of murder and adultery. One hundred Revolutionary Guards and Bassij forces took part. I do not know whether hon. Members have ever had an opportunity to see photographs or images of the process of stoning, but a pit is dug first. It is of a different depth, depending on whether it is for a man or a woman. The person is installed in the pit and then some of the earth is put back in so that they are unable to move their arms.
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Then, large numbers of people literally stone the person to death. It is a slow and extremely painful way of dying.

Another couple were convicted of adultery more than 10 years ago. Mokarrameh Ebrahimi was imprisoned with her two children in Choubin prison in Qazvin province in the north-west of Iran more than 10 years ago. Many people thought that, although she and her partner would potentially be subject to execution, that would not come to pass. In fact, only in July this year, her partner, Jafar Kiani, was executed. A pit was dug for Mokarrameh and, so far as we know, is still waiting for her. Amnesty knows of at least eight other people in Iran who have been given sentences of execution by stoning and is very concerned that those might go forward.

It is also true that Iran still executes minors. So far as we know, apart from the United States of America, which stopped in 2004, Iran is the only country that still executes minors. Since 1990, 24 child offenders have been executed. Eleven were still under 18 when they were executed. With some of them, although they were convicted when they were under 18, the courts waited until they were 18 for them to be executed. I hope that everybody in this Chamber would be opposed to the death penalty, but even if some people in the House support the death penalty, I hope that the idea of using the death penalty for minors, in complete contravention of every treaty to which Iran itself has signed up, would shame people.

Some 71 other people under the age of 18 are under sentence of death in Iran. Two were executed earlier this year, one in April and one in May. Two people were hanged in Khorramabad in Lorestan province on 13 May 2006, one aged 17 and one aged 20. One must question what kind of justice can be secured by executing two people less than a month after the crime that they allegedly committed. How due process can possibly have occurred in such a short period beggars belief.

One of the other problems in Iran, as the Government point out in the Foreign Office report, is the rapid deterioration during the past year of freedom of expression:

Such issues were raised in regard to China—for instance, the closing of the internet so that people cannot have proper access to information. Exactly the same is true in Iran. The BBC has had enormous difficulties in reporting in or about Iran. I believe strongly that the BBC’s work is important not only in Iran but historically and today in China.

The Foreign Office recognised in its report the situation for many minorities—particularly Baha’is, whose property has been confiscated and who have been systematically harassed and prevented from holding office. That must end, but the one issue on which the Foreign Office report is silent is that of the Ahwazi Arabs. I hope that the Minister will look into it; I have raised the issue several times on the Floor of the House. Many Ahwazi Arabs have been executed after very uncertain legal process, and I hope that the Foreign Office will concentrate on that aspect of the repression of minorities as well.

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A year ago, two young men were executed in Mashhad. They were both under 18 at the time of their alleged crime; one of them was 18 when he was executed. It is uncertain precisely what they were executed for. Some people say that they were executed purely for consensual sex together; others believe, and the Iranian state says, that other crimes were involved as well. I refer again to the Foreign Office report. The Government say:

I think that the Government are wrong, and I hope that the Foreign Office will look again. It has said the same thing on three separate occasions, but in a number of reports, Amnesty International and other organisations watching the situation in Iran state that they believe that some cases are trumped up merely as a means for the Iranian regime to hide the fact that it is executing people because of their sexuality, just as it executes people for committing adultery. The Government should examine the issue again.

I also believe that it is wrong for the Government to refuse asylum to people from Iran, Iraq or other countries where they face repression, and violent repression at that, because of their sexuality. We should say to such people that if they face repression or violence, they have the opportunity to seek asylum in this country.

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