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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 8 July 2009

[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Human Rights (Iran)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Kerry McCarthy.)

9.30 am

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I thank right hon. and hon. Members for attending this debate. I am particularly grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting my request for this debate on human rights in Iran. That we should be holding it now will come as no surprise. Regrettably, the authorities in Iran have not chosen to build bridges, despite the olive branches that have been offered by me and so many others. In the past few weeks, we have clearly seen demonstrated both the internal tensions within Iran and the readiness of elements in the Iranian state to use violence and oppression.

I come from the perspective of the problems faced by Iran’s Baha’i community, but I note also the plight of many other Iranian minority communities and the treatment of Iranian women. And who can ignore the Iranian state’s use of capital punishment? Few nations on earth execute people as often or for as many different reasons.

Nevertheless, I want to make it clear to this House and to the Iranian authorities that my objective is not to pillory that great nation. I do not conduct politics through confrontation or simplistic condemnation of individuals or Governments. Rather, my two goals are to resolve the pressing human rights issues facing the Baha’is in Iran and to prevent a dreadful miscarriage of justice in the days ahead.

The Baha’i faith has 5 million adherents worldwide, and there are 6,000 in Britain. However, the historical roots of the community lie in Iran. Despite persecution since the inception of the religion in the 19th century, the Baha’is remain the largest single religious minority community in that country, numbering around 300,000 members.

Baha’is have historically been treated as scapegoats during times of social tension, but conditions sharply deteriorated after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Sadly, that situation continues to this day. Since 1979, more than 200 Baha’is have been killed and 15 others have disappeared—we must presume that they are dead. Repression of their community has included executions and imprisonment, as well as denial of the right to educate their youth. There have been regular and persistent attacks on their social, economic and cultural rights.

The Baha’is seek no special privileges. All they seek are conditions that accord with the International Bill of Human Rights, of which Iran is a signatory. The right to life, the right to profess and practise their religion, the right to liberty and security of person, and the right to education and work: those are not heady demands.

The Baha’i faith requires Baha’is to be obedient to their Government and to avoid partisan political involvement. Indeed, I am the chairman of the all-party Friends of the Baha’is group only because I am not a
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Baha’i myself. Were I to sign up to the faith, technically, I would have to leave party politics—something which I am glad to say I have not yet been persuaded to do. [Hon. Members: “Go on.”] Until this moment.

It is important to note that subversive activity and all forms of violence are not permitted by the Baha’i faith. It follows that the Baha’i community in Iran, and, in fact, in the United Kingdom, is not aligned with any Government, ideology or opposition movement. Furthermore, showing good will to the followers of all religions is a basic, fundamental tenet of the Baha’i faith. The Baha’is are not enemies of Islam nor, indeed, of Iran. One could not find a more benign and humanistic religion anywhere on earth. The faith is of a pure, gentle and spiritual giving nature. It threatens no one but holds out a hand of friendship to one and all.

Given the character of the Baha’i faith, it is all the more tragic that, in the past few years, there has been a resurgence of extreme forms of persecution directed at the Baha’i community of Iran. The upsurge has alarmed human rights monitors who fear not only for those Baha’is affected by the Government’s renewed campaign but also that such attacks portend something far worse.

International experts on ethnic, racial and religious cleansing have identified a number of warning signs that often foreshadow widespread purges. Several recent developments add to those concerns, and I shall cite them now. First, seven members of the Baha’i leadership group have been arbitrarily detained for more than eight months and still have no access to legal counsel. They form the core concern that has led to this debate. There are worrying precedents to the situation. After the revolution in Iran, the nine members of the National Assembly were abducted and disappeared. Nothing has been heard of them since then, and they are presumed dead. A new National Assembly was elected, and in 1981 eight of the nine members of that body were executed.

Secondly, arbitrary arrests and detentions are being made, chiefly by the Intelligence Ministry. Currently, 31 Baha’is are in prison, and, as of June 2009, 78 Baha’is who had been detained and then released on bail are awaiting trial. Thirdly, there has been a general upsurge in vigilante attacks against Baha’is and their properties, such as the bulldozing of Baha’i cemeteries and the torching of Baha’i homes. Fourthly, there appears to be an increase in incitement and propaganda in state-run news media to vilify and defame Baha’is as individuals and the faith as a whole. The fifth example is the deliberate policy of denying Baha’is their right to a livelihood by banning them from employment options, confiscating their means of business, and blocking their access to higher education.

Much of that is part of the Iranian Government’s strategy to suppress the Baha’i community without attracting undue international attention, as outlined in a secret memorandum from 1991 that aimed at establishing a policy regarding “the Baha’i question”. So we know that there has been a strategy behind all this in the past, and it is reasonable to assume that there is a similar strategy at present.

Little wonder, then, that the Baha’is of Iran are denied the right to practise their faith freely, which is a right guaranteed under international human rights instruments such as the International Bill of Human Rights, to which, I stress again, Iran is a state party.
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Baha’is recognise that there are many other oppressed groups in Iran, including academics, women’s rights activists, students and journalists. The situation of Iranian Baha’is, however, offers a special case, inasmuch as they are persecuted solely because of their religious belief, despite remaining committed to non-violence and non-partisanship and seeking only to contribute to the development of their homeland.

Our experience indicates that bilateral and multilateral scrutiny of Iran’s human rights record is the best method of engaging the Iranian authorities and preventing further deterioration of human rights for the many citizens of that country who face repression. The seven members of the Yaran—the Friends—constitute an ad hoc leadership body that co-ordinates the activities of the 300,000 strong Baha’i community in Iran. The elected administrative bodies of the Baha’i faith are banned, so these people, detained and on trial as they are, represent the focus of the matter in hand. This, despite the fact that the Iranian authorities have had regular, if informal, contact with the Yaran for many years.

The secretary of the Yaran, Mrs. Mahvash Sabet, was arrested on 5 March 2008 while attending a Baha’i funeral. The remaining six members, Mrs. Fariba Kamalabadi, Mr. Jamaloddin Khanjani, Mr. Afif Naeimi, Mr. Saeid Rezaie, Mr. Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Mr. Vahid Tizfahm, were arrested on 14 May 2008. I expect the Minister to read out all those names as well when he responds. All seven have been detained for more than a year in Evin prison, Tehran. They have been held in section 209, which is under the direct control of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. The five male members have been incarcerated in a cell with no bedding.

In June, the Centre for Human Rights Defenders in Iran learned that the seven will face revolutionary trial, and our best guess is that that will happen on 11 July—this Saturday. The lawyers have indicated that they have had the opportunity to review the related case files but have not been able to complete the process as the files are unusually extensive.

Further to the decision of Ms Shirin Ebadi of the Centre for Human Rights Defenders in Iran to serve as legal counsel for the seven Baha’is, fraudulent claims have appeared in the Iranian media that aim to malign or intimidate her and thereby prevent the Baha’is from having legal representation. Untrue and erroneous stories have also asserted that Ms Ebadi’s daughter has apostastised from Islam and converted to the Baha’i faith. Ms Ebadi has also had death threats pinned to the door of her office, one of which was signed “The Association of Anti-Baha’is”.

It is understood that the trial will be carried out under the jurisdiction of branch 28 of the revolutionary court. That is significant because the recent case of American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi was also tried in branch 28, in camera, in proceedings that lasted a single day, at the end of which she was sentenced to eight years for espionage.

Under Iranian law, the lawyers for the Baha’is are not allowed to reveal information they are privy to from the case file. Amazingly, it remains unclear whether the seven Baha’is have been formally charged with any
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offence to date—just days before the trial. However, reports in February 2009 indicated that they will be charged with



In May of 2009 it was even reported that they will also face accusations of

a pretty gigantic charge.

The Baha’i international community categorically denies the accusations against these individuals, but fears that they may none the less face execution. So-called spying has long been used as a pretext to persecute Baha’is and as an attempt to impede the progress of the Baha’i community. Since the 1930s, Baha’is have successively been cast as tools of Russian imperialism, of British colonialism, of American expansionism and, most recently, of Zionism. The Baha’i faith has never been a part of any of these movements. There is no truth in this allegation and no evidence to support it.

That the international headquarters of the Baha’i faith is located within the borders of modern-day Israel is purely the result of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the faith, being banished from his native Tehran and sent by Persian and Ottoman authorities in the 19th century to perpetual exile in the city of Acre, near Haifa. Baha’u’llah arrived in Acre in 1868, 80 years before the establishment of the state of Israel. The Iranian Government know this but wilfully choose to misrepresent the facts.

What would we like to see? Initially, we ask our British Government to apply whatever pressure they can to encourage the Iranian authorities to release the seven members of the Yaran. They have done nothing wrong and do not deserve the treatment that they have received; they deserve justice and release from their unjustified incarceration. If a trial goes ahead—as I say, it is scheduled for 11 July, which is this Saturday—we ask Ministers to impress upon the Iranian authorities before then that it must be carried out in an open, transparent manner, according to international standards, with proper access to legal representation and with no effort to fix the outcome.

In terms of wider action by the Government, we ask for collective action by British Ministers and our European and international partners for a longer-term easing of the persecution that is being endured by the Baha’is and others, including Christians, in Iran. In this context, I cite the plight of Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh, both held in Evin prison since March 2009, apparently for being Christians. We understand the considerable difficulties in dealing with the Iranian authorities and the limitations of international pressure.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise for missing the first few minutes of the hon. Gentleman’s excellent speech. Does he accept that although Christians are less subjugated in Iran they are often the butt of other forms of criticism? Christian Solidarity Worldwide did a great deal of advocacy, as it does in many parts of the world, to get those two ladies out. I hope that my
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hon. Friend the Minister will take that matter up. The Baha’is are special people, but the Christians also face difficulties.

Lembit Öpik: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I underline the points that he has made to the Minister and to hon. Members. The church that I attend, the Hope community church in Newtown, does a great deal of international work. Alan Hewitt, the chief pastor there, shares the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman. I hope that the Minister will comment on the plight of Christians and other oppressed minorities, not all of them religious minorities, in Iran. There are considerable difficulties for Christians, as the hon. Gentleman has underlined, but especially for Baha’is.

Scrutiny from national and international bodies has in the past helped to discourage a ratcheting-up of abuses and, hopefully, we can do so again now and in future. Our experience indicates that bilateral and multilateral scrutiny of Iran’s human rights record is the best method of engaging the Iranian authorities and preventing a further deterioration of human rights for the many citizens of that country facing repression. A number of Governments, international organisations, and prominent individuals have reacted to the announcement of the trial of the seven members of the Baha’i leadership, including the European Parliament, the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the United States State Department, the European Union, the Government of Australia, a Canadian parliamentary committee and Amnesty International, which has done tireless work in this regard.

Naturally, the Baha’i international community is calling on the international community at large to request that the Iranian authorities ensure that the seven are either released or receive a fair and open public trial that will be held according to international standards.

I have no visceral dislike of Iran, its people or its Government; it has a great and noble history that exceeds that of many other countries. I have even requested permission to visit Tehran to discuss these matters directly with Iranian officials and politicians to see how we can best resolve these matters to the mutual benefit of all concerned. So far, I have not been able to secure permission to go, but I will keep on trying, despite the fact that the Iranian embassy informed me that I was not able to go due to technical difficulties and the technical impossibility of going there. I hope to overcome those technical difficulties and have a meaningful dialogue in Tehran.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Fly yourself!

Lembit Öpik: If push comes to shove, I have a small aircraft of my own and I can see if I can make it in eight short hops. However, it would be safer for me, and easier for the country, if the Minister used his considerable weight and the considerable stature of the British Government to seek once again to extend an olive branch to Iran and make it clear that we do not seek to attack it, but merely want to encourage it to take a more benign, positive view towards the Baha’is and other oppressed minorities, and towards these seven Baha’i leaders in particular.

My requests are simple. I ask that the British Government do all they can to prevent a miscarriage of justice in regard to the seven Baha’i leaders facing trial. I ask the
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Iranian Government for engagement. Ultimately, this is the best pathway to justice. Iran can have many friends in Britain and worldwide, and I would like to be one of them. By lightening the load of oppression on the Baha’is and others, Iran will find for itself the best avenue to lead itself and its citizens into full partnership in the international community. I am sure, with all my heart, that that is something we would all like to see.

9.49 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on securing this timely and welcome debate. I endorse all the points that he made about religious freedoms and tolerance, which are necessary in any modern society. In Iran, which has a plethora of ethnic communities and religious groups, that sort of tolerance is more important than in many other countries. I therefore support what the hon. Gentleman said about the rights of Baha’is, Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, non-Shi’a Muslims, and people of other religious faiths to be able to practise their religion and to operate in freedom. What he said this morning is extremely important and it is important to have that on the record. Iran is a signatory to the United Nations charter—obviously, because it is a member of the UN—and the universal declaration of human rights. All those rights are protected in international law, so it is perfectly right and proper to exert that pressure.

These are stirring and important times in Iran. The demonstrations of the past few weeks following the election have been unprecedented since 1979—phenomenal numbers of people have appeared on the streets. I deplore the way in which many of the demonstrators have been treated—the beatings and killings. That is not acceptable in any society, be it in Iran, China or anywhere else in the world. People have an absolute right to express their views peaceably on the streets.

Coverage of the demonstrations that was received around the world was interesting. Initially, various Iranian channels reported the demonstrations, as did the BBC, CNN and others, and there was an interesting degree of opening in political debate, both inside and outside Iran, immediately after the elections. One should be pleased about that.

I was pleased to sign and support early-day motion 1755, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), which condemns

I do not believe for one moment that Iran will accept outside supervision of elections, but every country in the world, including the UK, should be more than happy to accept international observers and reporting of elections. We should not be so precious about that. We send observers to other countries and we should welcome observers here. Every country’s electoral process should be open to observation, which would create a degree of equality.

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