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8 July 2009 : Column 267WH—continued

The upshot of recent events, however, is that the Government in Tehran will not go. Despite assertions that the turnout was high—I suspect that it was higher than in the previous election—it was a lot lower than people have suggested, and sufficient evidence is coming out of Iran to assert that there was vote rigging and the like. Those of who have had some interest in such matters in the past few years have battled against the media to bring to people’s attention what is going on in Iran and the extent of abuses. The events of the past few weeks have made the case, and there is no doubt about the human rights record. I reaffirm my belief in dialogue, and the Government should continue, through the EU and the UN, to declare the unacceptability of the state of human rights in Iran. However, we must be in no doubt about the regime. Even if there are reformist elements with the will to change things, there has not been an ability in Iran to abide by its own strictures. For example, there was a decree from the judiciary in October 2008 against the execution of juveniles, but there were reports of the execution of minors on 29 October and
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30 December. There continue to be stonings, floggings, mutilation and arrest on the basis of political opposition, religious faith, sexuality or any criticism of the leadership.

Human Rights Watch noted:

That is the hallmark of the regime, and it is why international pressure and dialogue must continue. I hesitate to go down the line pursued by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). I agree with much of what he said. We are involved in the same group campaigning for human rights and change in Iran. I would hesitate to go down the route of economic sanctions, for the reasons outlined by the hon. Member for Islington, North. Given the history of the west in Iran we must tread carefully. However, at the very least I should like the United Nations Security Council to commit to an international tribunal the crimes against humanity that are happening in Iran. All of us, whatever our background, observing a country we love, whose sovereignty we respect, should none the less make our voices clear about what is happening in Iran, and its unacceptability.

10.22 am

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I am grateful for an opportunity to speak in this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on obtaining it. It could not be more timely. Frankly, we could have a daily debate on Iran, given the abuses of human rights and the violations that go on there. However, although talking among ourselves is okay up to a point, we want action.

I have been involved in Iranian issues for several years now. A frustrating thing was that although I thought the diaspora had very effective knowledge of the deficiencies in Iran—which was probably a reason for not living there—I wondered why the people who lived there did not do more to help themselves. Then I started to look at the repressive nature of the regime and began to understand why people who lived there were scared, and were afraid to do anything. If people can be detained in prison for something like turning up at an opposition rally, and can then be beaten and raped daily, it takes a brave person to stand up to the regime. That hideous repression is at so many levels in society that I suspect many people do not know who to trust or turn to.

With the enormous reaction to the stolen election in June, I began to feel that there was a spark of hope in Iran, and that we could have real change and perhaps bring down the regime and bring freedom to a people who deserve it. The hon. Gentleman said what a great people the Iranian people are. Yes, they are; it is the regime that is rotten and that needs changing, not the people. That is why I believe we must support the resistance movement that operates outside and within Iran.

On 1 July The Guardian gave an example of an 18-year-old, still in school, who turned up at an opposition rally. He was not really interested in politics, and his dad even supported the current President. The evidence was:

I find reading that incredibly moving; to think that that is going on in another part of this world is appalling.

Executions have been mentioned. I have voted in favour of the death penalty in the past, but have now said that I would trade that in for the cessation of executions throughout the world, in places such as China and Iran. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) mentioned sexuality. When I looked at the evidence about two young boys being hanged in public, accused of being gay, I could not get over the depravity that is possible. The authorities wanted that made public as a warning to everyone else. Clearly, the public execution of teenagers has an enormous impact. There is stoning of women, and the treatment of women generally is appalling. When I and other hon. Members met Iranian politicians at an Inter-Parliamentary Union conference, thank goodness the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) was the leader of our delegation, and she put a forthright case about the maltreatment of women in Iran. Clearly the Iranian politicians did not like that, and they hid behind the mullahs on many an occasion. They have no hiding place, as far as I am concerned. If they are politicians they should stand up for the rights and freedoms of the people they represent.

The repression that has followed the elections has been mentioned in the debate, together with the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan. That 26-year-old lady is an icon at this moment for all people fighting for freedom, throughout the world where there are repression and hostilities. The latest instance to hit the headlines is in Urumqi in China. The shooting dead in cold blood of a young lady, full of hope, the way her family were told they could not have the funeral in a mosque, and that they should shut up about what had happened and must rip down the black flags indicating bereavement, outside their homes, shows the hideousness and the depths to which the regime will go to try to suppress the spirit within Iran. The spirit that we have seen in the past few weeks in Iran cannot be extinguished. The regime can suppress the people, but only in the short term. Their spirit can never be broken.

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I believe that it is the duty of politicians in the free world—we who enjoy freedoms every day, and take them for granted—to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Iran in the struggle that they face. We must ensure that our Government and the Governments of all free countries do whatever they can, whether through dialogue or other sorts of action.

Fundamentally, we must see change. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of a country who want the freedoms that we have. That is one reason why we were elected as Members, and I hope that the Government will be able today to give us some hope—hope that I am sure will be passed back to the people of Iran, through the technologies that have been mentioned, so that they can continue their struggle for freedom.

Mr. Christopher Chope (in the Chair): We now come to the wind-ups, for which we have half an hour. May I say to the Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople that it is not necessary for them each to take the full 10 minutes if they do not wish to do so? If they take less than 10 minutes, it will give the Minister more time to respond to this important debate.

10.30 am

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on securing this debate. He has a strong record of fighting for justice in Iran, particularly for the Baha’i, which was the focus of much of his remarks. Indeed, he chairs the all-party group Friends of the Baha’i. None the less, the debate was wide-ranging and dealt with various aspects of human rights in Iran.

All too often when discussing Iran, our thoughts turn to the important question of nuclear proliferation; it is particularly helpful that we find time to think also of human rights. I was moved by the contribution of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) because, even in the language of human rights, it is sometimes easy to forget that we are talking about not only philosophical concepts but the horrific and unthinkable experiences of individuals in Iran and other countries, who do not have even the basic rights, which, getting up in the morning and going about our daily business, we too often take for granted. It is important to reflect upon that.

The debate is timely, given the protests over the Iranian election and the harsh repression of those protests. It is difficult to know the exact figures, but reports suggest that dozens of people have been killed and that possibly hundreds of protesters are still in prison, their families not necessarily knowing their fate. Those being held in prison do not even have good access to lawyers. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) and the hon. Member for Ribble Valley mentioned the case of Neda Soltan; those who have seen her image will find it for ever seared on their minds and consciousness as a symbol of repression. It is deeply concerning that someone should have suffered that fate.

There is a danger that when we in Parliament discuss human rights in Iran, or in any other country, it could be seen as meddling. However, in this case we are absolutely not meddling in Iran’s internal affairs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire pointed out, Iran has signed the universal declaration of human
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rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights. It therefore has an international obligation to uphold those conventions.

I call on our Government to uphold human rights when, in my view, they sometimes fail to do so—for example, their promotion of detention without charge and some of the murkier allegations made recently about torture and possible complicity in torture. We must be as rigorous in calling on our Government to uphold those international standards as we are with other Governments. By taking that equal and fair approach it is possible for us to call on other Governments to uphold their international obligations. That is what we hope to do.

I wholeheartedly endorse what was said by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). If we are to ask other countries to accept international election observers we should be open enough to accept them here. Indeed, when we had difficulties with ballot papers in the Scottish elections in 2007, it might have helped if they had been here.

Mr. Evans: I know for certain that the Council of Europe would be delighted to receive an invitation from the Government to observe our next general election.

Jo Swinson: We can only hope that that suggestion is greeted positively by the Government.

We should remember that Britain’s influence in Iran is limited, especially as relations have deteriorated since the election, the worrying expulsion of British diplomats from Teheran and the arrest of the Iranian British officials. We need a degree of realism about what our Government can achieve. None the less, we still have bilateral relations, and we have relations through the European Union and the United Nations. We should use whatever influence we have to uphold human rights.

I have only a short time left, so I shall touch briefly on a number of matters. The lack of freedom of expression is one of the most concerning aspects of the denial of human rights. As has been pointed out, the lack of freedom of expression gets in the way of the upholding of many other rights, and the democratic system can fall apart.

I have to declare an interest, given that the debate is on human rights. I am a member of Amnesty International, which is fairly damning about Iran’s record on freedom of expression. In its 2009 report “State of the World’s Human Rights”, it says:

That has come to fruition, as we saw recently on our television screens.

I hope that the Iranian media will one day be freer to report views and news that are different from those of the state media. Following the election, there has been an interesting development in the use of social media, which have been taken up in huge numbers by Iranians through blogging, Facebook and Twitter. That is handing power to ordinary people, enabling them to report what is happening and effectively giving all citizens the power
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to act as journalists. Crackdowns on the social media have been reported, so it is still a concern, but it is difficult to crack down on everyone, especially given the internet—as even the Chinese are finding. I believe that the internet will become an increasingly powerful tool for freedom, particularly in countries where there is repression. Those countries may employ thousands and thousands of people to crack down on its use, but ultimately they will be unsuccessful.

Jeremy Corbyn: I agree with the hon. Lady, but would she put strictures on Google and other operators that go along with regime interference and connive at censorship and repression of free speech?

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil”, but there are certainly questions over whether collaborating in the repression of peoples’ freedom of expression would be living up to that motto.

I shall not rehearse all the arguments on freedom of religion. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire expertly described the situation with the Baha’i community, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious group. I have a small Baha’i community in Bearsden in my constituency, and I know that it shares our concerns for their detained leaders, particularly with the timing of the expected trial. I have written to the Foreign Secretary and the Iranian ambassador, asking them to apply pressure to get them a fair trial—and, indeed, their release. I have yet to receive a response, but our thoughts are with them. We must hope that true justice will prevail, but I am not overly optimistic about the outcome.

It is not only the Baha’i community that is discriminated against in Iran. Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians are recognised minorities under Iran’s constitution and are apparently protected by law, but they still experience discrimination. The case of the two Christian women being held in prison has been mentioned. Iranian Jews experience official discrimination. President Ahmadinejad is well-known for his anti-Semitic views and for holocaust denial. Religion is another worry.

Iran is one of only seven countries not to have signed up to or ratified the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. The others are Sudan, Somalia, Qatar, and the Polynesian islands of Tonga, Palau and Nauru. Family law imposes many restrictions on women; marital rape is not a crime; killings are regular; and the women’s rights groups that have tried to fight for equality have experienced a huge cracking down and imprisonment. That is a huge concern. I say that as the only woman speaking in this debate, but I am sure that hon. Gentlemen share my worries about the position of women in Iranian society. Furthermore, homosexuals regularly experience dreadful discrimination, and execution, in Iran, where more than 4,000 people have been executed for homosexuality since 1979. Worryingly, the UK Government still deport gay Iranians, despite the possible risk of imprisonment or execution in their home country. Although I do not have time to go into greater detail, I would welcome the Minister’s comments on these matters.

The horrendous execution of minors has already been mentioned. I am against the death penalty in all its forms, but the execution of minors is explicitly against international law. Even the Americans have stopped doing it since 2005. It is clearly unacceptable, and yet
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just this year three minors have been executed in Iran. So there is great concern on a range of human rights issues in Iran. I appreciate that the Government can bring limited influence to bear, but surely, given the importance of these humanitarian issues, we must continue to pursue all possible avenues to improve the human rights situation there.

10. 41 am

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on securing this important debate. Hon. Members might not know this, but last century, he and I were at Bristol university together: he was the chairman of the student union and I was the chairman of the Conservative association, and we had many lively debates. Since then, his has been a meteoric career, and I am delighted to see him in his place this morning.

Lembit Öpik: I have waited 23 years to say this, but after all those disputes, and given that the hon. Gentleman has been so supportive and complimentary, I can finally forgive him.

Mr. Francois: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those kind words; I shall mull them over and decide whether to forgive him.

I also welcome the Minister to his place. We were sparring partners when he was in the Treasury and I was a shadow Treasury spokesman, and I look forward to sparring with him now. I hope that he will enjoy some security of tenure, at least for a few months, in the Foreign Office. I say that in particular because we have just had news that Lord Malloch-Brown, a Foreign Office Minister, has announced his resignation from the Government. Perhaps this Minister will last a little longer.

Iran is an ancient civilisation that cannot easily be caricatured. It is a little-known fact that it can claim to have produced the earliest-known charter of human rights on earth, back in 539 BC. In this remarkable document, a copy of which hangs in the UN Security Council, the Persian King Cyrus states:

The country is blessed with abundant natural resources, but suffers several daily power cuts. It has the world’s fifth-largest global oil reserve, but outside petrol stations, queues of cars continue often for half a mile. Its people have a thirst for change so telling that hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets to call for recounts after the recent elections, only to be ruthlessly crushed by the Government authorities. We witnessed masked paramilitaries roaming the streets on motorbikes chasing peaceful protesters, intimidating, hounding and beating them. We are still unaware of exactly how many protesters died.

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