Previous Section Index Home Page

25 Mar 2009 : Column 79WH—continued

One might think that those words could easily have come from some of the dictators who created such havoc in the 20th century. One might think that they could not possibly have been uttered in the new century. The truth is that they were uttered only a few weeks ago by Dr. al-Rubaie, the national security adviser to the Iraqi Government. Many would argue that we face a real problem in dealing with the Iraqi Government in that respect. It is often said by others—I have no evidence myself—that that gentleman is on the payroll of the mullahs. I cannot give a guarantee that that is the case, but those chilling words suggest that it may well be, and we need to take great heed of people who speak in that way.

We also need to recognise what Camp Ashraf is. The hon. Gentleman explained that it is made up of about 4,000 people. Incidentally, that is 1,500 more than we rescued in the Falklands from the grip of Argentinian dictatorship. There are about 2,500 indigenous people in the Falklands and 4,000 in Ashraf. As my good friend rightly said, those in Ashraf were members of the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran. They would argue that they were freedom fighters in that troubled country—a country that has been troubled for the past 50 years or so. You, Mr. Benton, will no doubt remember Mr. Mossadeq and the problems in the early 1950s. We are talking about a country that has faced troubles and tribulations for a long time, but they are nothing like the tribulations that it faces now: the treatment that is being meted out to women in Iran; the treatment that is being meted out to homosexuals in Iran; and the treatment that is being meted out to members of the Baha’i faith in Iran now. The same also applies to members of trade unions and students.

Iran’s record on human rights stands exposed. In a world where the concept of human rights has been much maligned in many nations, that nation stands out, and we need to take note of that when considering the problem of the plight of the people in Ashraf. My good friend reminded us that they are protected under the Geneva convention; they were granted protected persons status in 2004. They are also protected under international humanitarian law and the principle of non-refoulement. I am not being clever when I use that phrase; indeed, I did not know what it was, so I looked it up and found that it is the internationally recognised principle under which no refugee should be forcibly removed from a secure and safe haven. That, equally, needs to be taken into account.

On the basis of that protected person status, American forces have been protecting Ashraf since 2004, and we need to pay tribute to them for that. The Americans are a freedom-loving nation and they have shown that in practical terms as the protectors of the protected persons in Camp Ashraf.

25 Mar 2009 : Column 80WH

Responsibility for that protection was handed over to the Iraqi regime at the end of December 2008. Initially, we were encouraged because we heard fine words from the Iraqis about understanding their responsibilities. Since then, however, the situation has deteriorated rather frighteningly. Lorries carrying supplies to the camp have been prevented from entering. As we have heard, a building, which mostly comprised a women’s dormitory, has been cordoned off. People have been threatened, and there are even reports of beatings.

Mr. Evans: Is my hon. Friend as mystified as I am that although this country has contributed billions to an operation to release the people of Iraq from a hideous regime, we have no influence over the new democratic regime in seeking to bring about proper, humane living conditions for one group of people? Why do we have no influence when we have spent all this money releasing the people of Iraq?

Mr. Binley: I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but we would not be here today if we did not think that the Government were prepared to bring some influence to bear. That is the very reason why we are debating the issue. I have every faith that the Minister, who we all know to be a good and fine man, will give us some words of hope in that respect when he speaks.

Members of the civilian population have been beaten. Those are not my words or the words of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, but the words of an Iraqi official, who made that admission in a statement to Reuters. The truth is that we cannot remain silent. We have a responsibility to protect the people of Ashraf under the principle adopted by the 2005 UN world summit. We should urge President Talabani and Prime Minister al-Maliki to respect the rights of Ashraf residents. They properly said that they would do that, but they have failed to do so in real terms since they became responsible for that protected group. They should vow to uphold that judicial protection, and I seek an assurance from the Minister that we will push as hard as we can to ensure that such a vow is given by the Iraqi Government, whom we spent so much money freeing from a dictator of some repugnance, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said. I also ask the Minister to pressure the Iraqi Government to give a firm guarantee that they will take such actions, given that they accepted responsibility in the first place.

We should demand that the order that Mr. al-Rubaie issued in respect of Ashraf, which prevents basic commodities from reaching the camp’s residents, is revoked immediately for humanitarian reasons. I would also suggest that a man who makes the kind of chilling statement that I quoted in my opening remarks should never be in the position of advising Iraqis on national security if the west has any influence at all on the many millions of pounds that it has spent in their country.

We should ask the Iraqi Government to ensure that foreign journalists and international parliamentary delegations are allowed into Ashraf, because they are being hampered and stopped. If ever we need to be fearful, it is when a nation prevents journalists from entering an area and parliamentary delegations from truly understanding what is happening there. That must tell us all that frightening things are happening to a group of people to whom we have guaranteed protected person status.

25 Mar 2009 : Column 81WH

We should urge the US Government to resume protection, on the finer premise that they are the only force in the area that is not susceptible to Iranian pressure, because there is no doubt that the Iranians are pressurising the Iraqis. The victims in the first instance could be the 4,000 people who have been granted protected person status, but whom we have failed to protect. If that happens—if the fear that I have comes to fruition—I would begin to fear for the well-being of my children and grandchildren, because such a development will impact on all our freedoms. It is in that sense that I ask the Minister to reply.

10.7 am

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): It gives me great pleasure to make a small contribution to this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) on successfully bringing the issue to our notice.

I am a member of the Council of Europe, and if we stand for anything in what we do, it is human rights. The more I learn about what is going on in Iran and about the conditions in which people are living in Ashraf, the more it makes my blood boil. We all have a duty to ensure that changes are made.

Let me pay tribute to Lord Russell-Johnston, who, sadly, died last year. He played an important role in promoting the rights of all those who believe in democracy throughout the world, but particularly in Iran. He would have been delighted to know that his campaign has been so successful, albeit, sadly, after his death. It has been a long battle to get the PMOI removed from the terrorist list, and I am delighted that that has eventually happened. I also pay tribute to my predecessor in Ribble Valley, David—now Lord—Waddington, who was instrumental in the campaign to bring that about. More than anything, however, I congratulate the ordinary democracy-loving people of Iran, who have waged a longer campaign to bring peaceful democracy to Iran, and we wish them well in their battle.

Much has been said about the rights under the Geneva convention and other treaties that we have signed of those who live in Ashraf. Irrespective of what we have signed up to, however, it is human decency more than anything else that should make us ensure that we do right by those people. One has only to look at the current regime in Iran to know what is likely to happen should the 3,500 people who live in Ashraf be moved there. The hon. Gentleman said that they could go to a third country, but there is no list of third countries waiting to take 3,500 people. Furthermore, if they were to go to another country—let us say that we opened the doors to 3,500 people—that would be to remove them from the region they love and where their relatives live. We would not do that to prisoners. When we put people in prison we ascertain where their relatives live so that they do not have far to travel. Putting those people into a third country would bring another huge problem. The best thing, surely, is to give the people who have lived in that place for many years—no doubt children have been born there, and all they know will be Ashraf—the support that we have given to the rest of Iraq and its people, so that they can live a decent life in the present period.

I refer to the present period because I have great hopes that the democratic desire of the vast majority of decent Iranian people will eventually win through, and
25 Mar 2009 : Column 82WH
that there will be a new, democratic Government in Iran, totally different from the current Government, who seem to enjoy executing people. I mentioned the figure of 120,000—I know that the Minister knows all this—but it is not just that so many people have been executed; it is that the manner in which it has been done, and the reasons for it, are appalling. One has only to do a Google search to see the most graphic pictures of people who have been publicly executed in Iran, some of them for the hideous crime of being gay. Yesterday in the House of Commons we pushed through legislation to ensure that people cannot even make jokes about people being gay, but in Iran people will be executed and tortured for it.

I was on a delegation at an Inter-Parliamentary Union conference and we spoke with some Iranian MPs. They were not a nice group of people; they were not my favourites among the groups I met that week. When I raised the subject of the execution of two young lads accused of being gay, one of whom I understand was under 18, the response was, “If they do those sorts of things in private no one will really know about it, but if it becomes public they will be tortured.” I intervened and said, “Tortured! Yes, you may torture them first; then you execute them.” The photographs are there for anyone to see. The issue first came to my notice when I read about it in a Sunday magazine. The piece said that the two young lads looked as if they were going off for a walk in the park, because they were dressed in casual clothes, but they were not—they were going to their execution.

The regime is one in which women are second-class citizens and stoning is still allowed; stoning takes place!

Mark Williams: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree about the public fa├žade adopted by the Iranian regime; the Iranian Parliament last year passed a penal code outlawing stonings, but the Government are incapable of enforcing their own rules. Does he agree that when we think of Ashraf City we think of a fully fledged community? He talked about children there who have never known anything different. It is a community of 4,000 sq km, and the prospect of juveniles going back to Iran to face such punishments as he has described for daring to challenge the regime is frightening.

Mr. Evans: Part of the problem, of course, is getting our minds around the idea of how society in Iran functions. We know that women who are inappropriately dressed in the street will be beaten, and put into cars and driven off. We have seen footage of that on the BBC. When we tried to show the Iranian MPs that they dismissed it and were not interested. Camp Ashraf is a community. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) mentioned the Falkland Islands. We are talking about a population in excess of that of the islands, and we should recognise that community, which has lived there for some time.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman’s intriguing tale of meeting Iranian MPs and his remarks highlighting the mistreatment of women, and wonder whether there were any women MPs in the delegation he met.

Mr. Evans: There was a token one; I use the word “token” because the IPU encourages delegations to bring women to conferences, because we want more
25 Mar 2009 : Column 83WH
women to be elected and to take positions of responsibility. I am afraid that there was just one, token, woman in the Iranian delegation. Our delegation was led by a woman, and I was very pleased by that difference.

If people going to visit friends and relatives in Ashraf are persecuted in Tehran, as has happened, my great fear is about what the consequences will be if the 3,500 people in question are taken to Iran. There are all sorts of reasons for wanting good relationships with Iran—for example, Iraq is its neighbour in the region—and we can understand that. I suspect we can even understand the possibility of secret negotiations involving our Government, the American Government and Iran; all sorts of deals are done behind closed doors. Indeed, Obama has already made a number of public proclamations about wanting a friendlier relationship with Iran. We want that; we would prefer dialogue to a stand-off and Iran’s continued progress towards making nuclear weapons. What a fearful prospect it would be if Iran could make and deliver them; we know that it has the capability to do that.

I want the Minister to acknowledge that he recognises the current situation and knows that the regime is, to use an understatement, unpleasant, and that if the people of Camp Ashraf are taken from there to Iran the likely consequences will be torture and execution. We cannot allow that to happen.

I finish as I started, by paying tribute to the many democracy-loving Iranians throughout the world who pray for the day when the regime that currently occupies their country will be removed and a proper full democracy will be implemented there, to everyone’s benefit. I pay tribute to them because we, as politicians, sometimes take a stand on difficult issues, but in the main we do not fear for our lives from a regime in our own country. When they speak out publicly about wanting change in their country they risk their lives. Many have paid the ultimate price, and those who live abroad who want democratic change still risk their lives and cannot return to the country of their birth or their parents’ birth, which they love. Some day, we hope, they will be able to do so, and be greeted by a truly democratic peace-loving Government.

10.18 am

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) on securing the debate; as ever, he put his case forcefully and with passion and gave an excellent introduction. Various hon. Members have outlined the problems of residents of Camp Ashraf, who numbered nearly 4,000 in 2003 and, after several hundred voluntary repatriations, number in the region of 3,500 individuals now. Last year in May and July, the danger of living in Camp Ashraf was seen when there were missile attacks, which were thought to come from the Iranian side. There were disruptions to the water supply, again, which made living conditions in the camp difficult. We have heard from hon. Members today that people living in Iran trying to visit Ashraf to see relatives—something that we would take for granted in this country—have been arrested and held and are suffering goodness knows what treatment in Tehran.

25 Mar 2009 : Column 84WH

The hon. Gentleman gave a long list of the threats and dangers of persecution that the individuals from the camp will face if they are sent back to Iran. It is almost two months since 23 January, when the Iraqi Government said that Camp Ashraf should be closed within two months. It is clearly an urgent and pressing matter, which is why today’s debate is timely.

There has been some debate in the House; indeed, I read with interest the Hansard report of a debate on Iran a few weeks ago about the de-proscription of the PMOI. It seemed that there were heated views on both sides about the matter. However, the Court of Appeal has ruled that there is neither classified nor unclassified evidence showing the PMOI to have had any terrorist activity or intent, at least since 2001. The matter has been discussed also in the High Court, so whatever some Members may think about the rights and wrongs of the issue, we must accept the court ruling that it is not a terrorist organisation.

I think that the view is shared across the House that we want to see a pluralist Iran, with no persecution of the opposition and a thriving democracy. We are some way from that, but I caution against the automatic assumption that because the PMOI is not a terrorist organisation it is therefore the ideal champion of democracy. It is possible to believe that the PMOI is not a terrorist organisation, yet to retain our concerns about it.

Some who have left Camp Ashraf have voluntarily reported

Some have challenged that, saying that claims of brainwashing were spin by the Iranian authorities, but that quote comes from a House of Commons Library briefing note. Like other hon. Members, I have huge respect for the integrity of the Library staff; I would not expect them to succumb to Iranian spin. That note identifies the fact that there are genuine concerns about some of the procedures in Ashraf. We should not necessarily view the PMOI with rose-tinted spectacles.

That said, today’s debate is about human rights. Regardless of their political views or beliefs, all human beings deserve their basic human rights. The individuals in Camp Ashraf are protected under the Geneva convention. They were not participants in the Iraq war; in many ways, there were caught in the crossfire. In July 2004, they were declared by the United States as being protected persons, which means that they should not be transferred to a country where they would face persecution for their political opinions.

The Geneva convention applies for one year after military operations have closed, and they have not yet closed; there are still trips within Iraq, so the military are still there in force. As a result, the US is legally responsible for the protection of those individuals, but after seeking assurances they passed that responsibility to Iraq. However, any country that has been involved in the sorry state of affairs that we have seen in Iraq must be concerned about, and bear a level of responsibility for, the protection of those individuals.

There is obvious concern that the Iraqi Government are facing pressure from Iran to return the individuals being held at Camp Ashraf. Although co-operation between the new Iraqi Government and the Iranian state might be thought to be positive for regional stability,
25 Mar 2009 : Column 85WH
it should not come at the expense of human rights. Recent US moves to improve relationships with Iran—particularly and sensibly starting with the question of Afghanistan, where there is a clear area of mutual interest between the two countries—is most welcome. However, it should not drown legitimate concerns about the upholding of international law regarding the rights of those in Camp Ashraf.

Amnesty International has said that there is a grave risk of torture if those people are forced to return to Iran. Indeed, in August 2008 the Iraqi Justice Minister said:

That does not bode well for the safety of those people in Iraq. That is why I am surprised that, so far, the Government have accepted US and Iraqi assurances on the safety of those people if they were expelled to Iran. I struggle to see how their safety can be guaranteed. As I said, the missile attacks on Ashraf in May and July 2008 are believed to have come from Iran. If Iran is prepared to launch attacks on another country, why should it not be expected to persecute those people, were they to be in Iran?

The hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) told us about the wide range of groups already suffering a great degree of persecution in Iran, including the Baha’i, the Christians and other religious minorities—and, indeed, other groups such as students. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) outlined perfectly the plight of young gay men in Iran, and the horror of the torture and executions that go on there. Perhaps even worse was the relaxed attitude that the hon. Gentleman found among Iranian MPs to those shocking facts.

In that context, how can the Government be confident that if Camp Ashraf is closed and the individuals are returned to Iran, they will ever be safe? Both here and in the other place, the Government have insisted that it is not the UK’s responsibility but the responsibility of the US. We have often been a mediator between the US and Iran, and we have also waxed lyrical about our special relationship with the US. I therefore suggest that it is worth using that special relationship to influence the US to take the matter seriously.

When the US decided to invade Iraq, we did not say that it was the responsibility of the US and stand back. In fact, we were shoulder to shoulder with America. If we did so then, why should we not stand shoulder to shoulder when dealing with the present problem? It is undoubtedly a thorny issue with no easy answer, but that does not mean that we can get rid of our responsibility for the outcome. A potential humanitarian catastrophe is waiting to happen, and that should concern us all, both as UK citizens and as citizens of the world.

Next Section Index Home Page