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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I beg to move that further consideration on Report be now adjourned. In moving this Motion, perhaps I may suggest that the Report stage begin again not before 8.45 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

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Iran: Human Rights

7.39 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their policy in relation to human rights in Iran.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, frequently Unstarred Questions are questions only in form. This is a genuine question. I am inviting my noble friend the Minister to share with us the Government's thinking on recent events in Iran.

Some two years ago, when Mr Khatami assumed the presidency, there were widespread hopes for a relaxation in the repression. It was thought that he was, comparatively at least, on the liberal wing. I believe that there were many in Iran who cherished that hope. I remember a conversation with the charge d'affaires of Iran in London, Mr Ansari, who was quietly reassuring. I fully accept his sincerity. The future seemed hopeful.

Alas, the high hopes have not been realised. Whatever Mr Khatami's good intentions, he has not been able to break the stranglehold of the mullahs and the past two years have told a dismal story. The reports come not only from enemies of the regime. On 29th April, according to the Jame'eh Daily, Mr Safari, commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, told a meeting in Qom:

    "We are seeking to uproot the counter-revolutionaries wherever they are ... We must cut off some heads, and cut the tongues of some others".

During President Khatami's term of office, there appear to have been 310 public hangings acknowledged by the authorities, in addition to those who were executed secretly or who have simply disappeared, and there have been nine deaths by stoning. Against that murderous background, to mention attacks on freedom of speech comes almost as an anti-climax, but it is a useful barometer as to the good intentions of the authorities.

It is still sometimes said that a number of independent newspapers are circulating in Iran. If that means that the authorities do not necessarily dictate every word they print, that may well be true, but it does not follow that they are free to be critical of the authorities. On 15th September of last year Ayatollah Khamenei was reported by Reuters as making himself quite clear on the point. He said,

    "I am giving final notice to officials to act and see which newspapers violate the limits of freedom". He went on,

    "There are limits to freedom which are set by Islam. If these limits did not exist some people would try to push the nation towards not believing in religion". The ayatollah made it clear that our disapproval would not lead him to consider it possible he may be wrong. He said,

    "We have never taken into consideration what the world would say, nor what international newspapers and organisations would say, and we shouldn't start now".

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No doubt much of the violence against writers which we saw recently arose from pressure on the secular authorities by the more extreme clerical groups. On 17th October last year on state television President Khatami said that the supreme leader,

    "is a superior will with unlimited authority approved by God and linked to divine revelation". It might be a matter of concern even if the consequences of that doctrine were confined within the borders of Iran, but it appears to carry an extra-territorial jurisdiction. In September last year the British Foreign Office reported its understanding that the fatwa decreeing death for Salman Rushdie would be revoked. That followed a meeting between the respective Foreign Ministers. However that impression arose, the Iranian authorities, secular and sacred, hastened to proclaim that nothing had changed. The Foreign Ministry made clear that the fatwa cannot be rescinded. Mr Kharrazi, the Foreign Minister, denied that he had ever intended to suggest otherwise. On 4th October a statement was read on state radio from 160 deputies--a parliamentary majority--which stated,

    "We offer our assurance to Muslims around the world that in this respect in Iran nothing is credible other than God's decree and the fatwa of his Eminence the Imam. No one has the power to take any other road".

So it is not only within the borders of Iran that the mullahs have power of life and death. If the human rights of individuals against their own government were not the business of the international community, assassinations in the territory of other countries certainly are the business of those countries.

But in this very month the activities of the Iranian Government have become very much the business of the whole world. It seems that on 11th June three Scud missiles were fired from Iranian territory into Iraq. They appear to have been aimed at a base of the mujahedin, but whatever the reasons for the action the incident requires some answers. Perhaps my noble friend can tell us whether it is the view of Her Majesty's Government that the Iranian Government attacked its dissidents in the territory of another state. Are these not weapons of mass destruction? As I understand it, Iran is not a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, but, again, I hope that my noble friend can tell us what view is taken of the incident by Her Majesty's Government. Has it been discussed in any international forum, and what was the outcome?

We know that violence leads to violence. It is not surprising that the violence committed by the authorities in Iran gives rise to passionate resentment. The mujahedin are quite open in their belief that a repressive government which cannot be changed by democratic means should be opposed, and, if possible, overturned, by whatever means are to hand, including violence. I do not seek to endorse that view and I do not invite my noble friend to endorse it, but I do understand it. I believe that the mujahedin disapprove of indiscriminate violence. I think that they commit acts of violence against what they consider to be military targets and against individuals whom they consider guilty of crimes against humanity. If I had an

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opportunity, I would seek to persuade them to a different course. One argument I would use is that what they are doing enables their opponents to present them as terrorists. The difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is often one of perception.

On 23rd August last year Assadollah Latevardi was shot dead. As a revolutionary prosecutor, not only did he prosecute thousands of political prisoners who were jailed and tortured, he led armed mobs as a method of bypassing the legal process. Later he became governor of Evin Prison and personally tortured, raped and executed scores of prisoners. There are stories of prisoners being tortured with their parents, spouses and children being compelled to look on. That was Latevardi. The man who shot him was Ali Akbar Akbari, aged 20. He was arrested and tortured. Three days later he died under torture. But that was not the end of the matter. His father, a 61 year-old farm worker, had no obvious connection with what had taken place but in April of this year he was returning from his work when a group of revolutionary guards waylaid him, beat him up and then crushed him under a tractor. I have met Mrs Maryam Rajavi, president elect of the National Council of Resistance. I believe that her aim is to establish a genuine electoral choice. That may also be the ambition of President Khatami. It cannot be realised in an atmosphere of threats and violence.

The view which I have sought to express is not an eccentric one. I am fortified by being for once with the substantial majority. On 26th February of this year the United States State Department's report on human rights practices for 1998 listed a sickening list of violations by the Iranian Government. There was a time when the State Department included the mujahedin on its list of terrorist groups, but it has now removed it. In Geneva in April of this year the United Nations Human Rights Commission passed a motion of censure--the 44th censure motion against Iran in the United Nations. In February of this year 330 members of the British House of Commons signed a statement calling on the Government to make clear their disapproval.

Of course Iran would like to improve relations with the international community, for many reasons. Of course there is an argument for responding, an argument frequently heard in debates such as this. Governments who are accepted as members of the international community are more likely to respect the rules. If we talk to the Iranian authorities we may influence them. I should say in fairness that the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, who was anxious to participate in this debate but who is unable to be here, asked me to make clear his view that there is an improvement in the situation and that we should recognise it.

That may have been an experiment worth conducting two years ago but there has to be a reciprocal relationship and the advantages have to be balanced against the risk of legitimising a regime which has not earned legitimisation, particularly if this country is virtually isolating itself on the issue, and the victims are our business too. My Unstarred Question remains a question. I invite the comments of your Lordships and of my noble friend.

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7.49 p.m.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, for his timely and helpful Unstarred Question. It enables a number of us to participate in the debate. I shall speak briefly about a group of women who, I believe, are among the most misunderstood, maligned and misrepresented women in the world; namely, the women of Iran.

Women in Islam have traditionally and historically had more rights than women in Christianity. I refer particularly to the rights of widows in Islam. But women in Iran had rights before and after the revolution of 1979. By their very nature, revolutions upset established society and tend to favour women because, traditionally and historically, so many of society's norms are patriarchal in concept and execution in most countries of the world.

The French Revolution perhaps gave the lead. Women had equal rights with men from the revolution onwards, but for six months only. After six months, French men became unhappy about women having equal rights and disbarred them; and women returned to a subservient position. Speaking for women, one has to reflect on autres temps autres moeurs, look at different cultures and perceive how they treat women.

In the short time available, I cannot do more than perhaps factually straighten the record about the way in which women in Iran are perceived and identified by the outside world. I may be able to offer a more balanced view perhaps than current articles attempt. Recently, the magazine Marie Claire, which is published and widely read in the United Kingdom, was hardly challenged on the statements it made. It referred, for example, to women being effectively under martial law in Iran; and to harsh religious laws that limit their education, restrict them from most professions, and allow them to travel only in the company of a male relative or husband. It is an article on the MKO--the female-dominated terrorist organisation that opposes the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran--and its efforts against what is said to be the harsh regime in Iran.

I am, of course, a foreigner; I can only report what I perceive. But I have visited Iran a number of times in the past seven or eight years for humanitarian purposes concerned largely with the Iraqi refugees who shelter inside Iran. I have made many friends among women in Iran and I seek to challenge the perception that we have in the West. I want to challenge the view that women there are declared to be limited by education and restricted from most professions. As far as I have seen, that simply is not true. Again, I can only perceive what I have witnessed. I have seen that women in Iran have equal rights and access to education, right up to post-university level; and that they have access to most, if not all, of the professions. I have not counted, but I perceive women working in the Foreign Ministry and the professions: working in the medical profession, teaching and the law. I perceive that they must travel without their husbands or another male relative; otherwise I doubt that they would get to their offices in time. I have seen women in a variety of situations

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throughout Iran as I have travelled to different refugee camps, going in and out of the various cities, towns and villages in very poverty-stricken as well as particularly beautiful areas.

Two successive presidents have done a great deal to strengthen the position of women in Iran. I understand that the current president had a very widespread vote from women, as did the previous president, whose daughter heads the women's organisation in Iran. She has been a friend of mine for a little while and has assisted me in finding women to set up a women's group of Europeans and women from a number of Islamic nations.

The Iranian women who worry me most strongly both inside and outside Iran are members of the Mojahedin Khalq Organisation, the anti-government terrorist group. It consists of 10,000 women who train in camps inside Iraq. I think it is controlled, financed and housed by Saddam Hussein. If I am correct, its most recent action was the attack on the Iranian civil defence headquarters in March this year when the Iranian deputy chief of staff of the armed forces was assassinated. As a terrorist organisation, it is notorious enough for the United States Congress to have carried out a full and heavyweight report into its activities and for the Federal Republic of Germany and other democratic governments to bar its members from speaking freely inside their countries. I have a notion that the British registered charity, Iran Aid, may in some way be connected with that organisation.

At the moment, we enjoy a considerably improved relationship between the United Kingdom and the Islamic Republic of Iran. I pay tribute to our ambassador in Iran, Nick Browne, for the strenuous efforts he and his colleagues at the Foreign Office have made to ensure that improvement in the relationship, as well as en passant to Iran's ambassador to the United Kingdom who has also worked most strenuously to this end. I pay tribute also to the Ministers who have worked for so long to make this happen.

Looking at human rights and the position of women in Iran, I would suggest to the Government that we have a better picture from the Islamic Republic than from many, if not all, of her neighbouring states.

7.56 p.m.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell for providing the House with the opportunity to ask Her Majesty's Government about their policy in relation to human rights in Iran. I share the noble and learned Lord's disappointment that the present regime in Iran has not progressed very far in its stated objective of improving human rights through policies of liberalisation.

When in May 1997 Mohammad Khatami was elected as Iran's president, some in the West believed that the government in Iran would eventually moderate and he would set in motion a reformist trend which would allow Iran to forget its recent past as a rogue state and rejoin the family of nations. After two years of Khatami as president, the flagrant violations of human rights

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persist, and the Iranian regime remains as the world's leading sponsor of terrorism and the primary obstacle to the Middle East peace process. Last April, the United Nations Human Rights Commission condemned human rights violations in Iran. That was the 44th resolution by a UN body censuring human rights abuses by the mullahs' regime. It appears that the president has failed to live up to some people's expectations.

Nowhere is that failure more evident than in the regime's continued persecution of women. I take issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, who seems to base her ideas on government statements as opposed to those of the many organisations trying to expose how women are still suffering violent abuses of human rights.

My noble and learned friend referred to a US State Department report on human rights practices for 1998 which again drew attention to the fact that stoning and flogging are expressly prescribed by the Islamic penal code as appropriate punishment for adultery and that such punishments are carried out. The report pointed out that Iranian women had to obtain the permission of their husband, father or other living male relative in order to travel abroad. Women are subject to harassment by the authorities if their dress or behaviour is considered inappropriate and may be sentenced to flogging or imprisonment for such violations.

The same report, published in February this year, listed a number of human rights abuses, including the accusation that Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian and Baha'i minorities suffer varying degrees of officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in the areas of employment, education and public service. The United Nations Special Representative reported an estimated 199 executions in 1997. So it is very difficult to understand why the British Government feel that progress is being made by the Iranian government towards an end of human rights violations.

Last week, the Iranian authorities confirmed that 13 Jews from the southern cities of Shiraz and Isfahan had been arrested on suspicion of spying for Israel. The 13 had been arrested between two and three months earlier. The Iranian head of judiciary announced on Friday 11th June that they would be tried in Islamic courts where they face the death penalty if convicted. According to the Associated Press, Israel's chief rabbi has announced that the number of Jews arrested in Iran is actually higher than the 13 announced by the Tehran government.

Last Wednesday, I and my noble friend Lord Ahmed met Mr Ansari, the Iranian ambassador. During the meeting we pressed for information regarding the 13 Jews who had been arrested on suspicion of being engaged in acts of espionage. In particular, we asked that access to the 13 be allowed in order to confirm that they were being treated properly and to verify that they had the services of independent and proper legal representatives. In fact, my noble friend Lord Ahmed himself a Moslem, offered to go to Iran to visit the people imprisoned.

Such a simple, basic request was dismissed out of hand. We were told quite firmly that the Iranian government would not tolerate any outside interference.

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Mr Ansari said that any charges that might be brought against the 13 Jews would be subject to a transparent trial. He also said that the 13 were arrested along with a number of other people, including Christians and Moslems.

Noble Lords will be aware of the long and detailed interest in matters of human rights of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. With the noble Lord's permission, I repeated the requests that he and others had made on a previous occasion to Mr Ansari on a number of issues. I repeated in particular the request that the noble Lord made for information about Mr Abbas Amir Entezam, described by many as the last hostage. Mr Amir Entezam is considered by most outside observers to be a political prisoner. The Iranian ambassador described him as a criminal.

I also took the opportunity of handing a list of imprisoned Baha'i people about whom the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, had previously asked for information. It is my fervent hope that the noble Lord will soon receive a detailed reply to the questions that he raised with Mr Ansari earlier this year on that and a number of other matters.

I respectfully ask my noble friend the Minister to use whatever powers she and her colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have to press the Iranian authorities for specific information regarding the 13, or whatever is the real number, and to seek assurances that they are being properly treated, and, further, to seek permission for some independent person to be allowed to visit them. Perhaps the generous offer of my noble friend Lord Ahmed to make such a visit will be taken up.

I am aware of the need for the Government to be seen not to be interfering in the affairs of another country. I firmly believe that on that and other human rights issues they have a duty to seek fair and proper treatment for those who may be suffering persecution and discrimination.

Time does not allow for further comment. That is a pity; I have a whole catalogue of matters that I should like to raise. Finally, I want to place on record my admiration for those brave people, both inside and outside Iran, who are fighting for basic human rights. We should do all that we can to give them our support.

8.3 p.m.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, I intend to go down a different road from that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell. The organisation about which I understood him to speak as seeking refuge in Iraq is deemed a terrorist organisation by the US State Department. We must be careful that we do not overly criticise a foreign state's approach to terrorism.

I am also extremely concerned about the list of MPs who signed the protocol prepared in greater part, or at least supported by, Robin Corbett, MP. Through the mechanism of this debate, I issue a challenge that that list should be made available to Ministers and officials.

Perhaps I may make one further point before beginning my principal remarks. Notwithstanding the refusal of the good offices of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, in offering to visit Iran in relation to the recent

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arrests, it would serve everyone well to go to Iran and to see what I have found in my experience of visiting that country; namely, that the perception that is given of Iran does not stand up as some would have us believe.

Iran has variously been described as a pivotal Middle Eastern country, a partner, a threat, and even a pariah, shunned by the international community. Happily, as the millennium ends, a new era is indeed being ushered in, and in recognition of that Britain has re-established diplomatic relations and is represented at the highest level in Iran. How do we account for that sea-change?

Much credit must be given to President Khatami's courage, leadership and vision. Since his overwhelming popular victory in the 1997 presidential election, greater focus has been directed to strengthening the role of civic society, individual freedoms and public liberties within a dynamic, democratic constitutional framework.

The first municipal council elections were held earlier this year to give effect to Articles 7 and 100 to 106 of the constitution. They seek to guarantee the people's right to direct participation in decision-making processes in social and political life. Tehran has a mayor for the first time in its history--newly elected by the council, which is itself directly elected by Iranians and not government-appointed.

Much more significant has been the empowerment at local and municipal level of ordinary Iranians, including minorities, and particularly women. There are presently two women Cabinet Ministers and 14 women MPs. Indeed, there has been a 125 per cent increase in women's participation in government. Four women have been appointed to the sensitive post of judges within the judiciary, while 7 per cent of all municipal council seats went to women. Almost half of all primary and secondary students are now female, and parity has been reached at university level.

We are all aware of the recent furore over the arrest of some Iranian citizens, including Jews and Moslems, on espionage charges. We must await the due process of law and private consultations to determine whether the initial reaction is justified or calculated to undermine Iran's policy of peaceful domestic co-existence with all groups within its borders.

Certainly, there have been steady gains and the policies of incorporation, facilitation and mutual respect seem to be working. I am confident that a principal policy of the Iranian government regarding the upholding of the rule of law should defuse western anxieties. It seems to me that the release of some of the Jews originally charged sends positive indicators.

There has also been, for example, a noticeable improvement in freedom of expression as measured by the increase in activity by the print media and the relaxation of film licensing regulations. In its external relations, too, Iran is tentatively re-visiting old friends and re-discovering co-operation and detente. President Khatami's rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, his US initiatives and relaxation of tensions with Arab neighbours are commendable and should be supported. There is considerable scope for wider and deeper relations with Britain, particularly UK plc and with the

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EU. Certainly the British-Iranian Chamber of Commerce, of which I am chairman, is working with opposite numbers in Teheran to that end.

I am tempted to respond to the smile of the noble Lord, but I shall move on.

Iran has a crucial role to play in preventing the flow of heroin from the region, while its attitude to disarmament is pivotal to the success of regional security arrangements and international disarmament treaties. Altogether, they are impressive first steps on the road to recovery and rehabilitation. More must be done before a clean bill of health can be posted, but we must, I believe, all applaud and encourage determined progress. No longer can Iran be forgotten or ignored.

8.11 p.m.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, for initiating the debate and enabling a fairly wide variety of opinions to be expressed in the course of the few speeches we have heard. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, suggests that because elections have been successfully held and the candidates who support President Khatami have secured large majorities, it is an indication of a growth in democracy. But all the parties which stand in Iranian elections have to support the principle underlying the Islamic revolution. Those not espousing that necessary tenet are not allowed to have candidates. You could not stand there as a Liberal, Socialist or Conservative who believed in a secular administration because it would be contrary to the Islamic revolution.

The Government's attitude also is that there has been a growth in democracy. As the noble Viscount said, there is greater freedom of expression under Khatami. He has reined in some of the elements who were engaged in terrorism. We can trust the regime when it says that it will not murder Salman Rushdie. People think that by helping Mr Khatami in a measured and cautious way--for example, through the restoration of full diplomatic relations--while at the same time reminding him of our own commitment to human rights, it is possible that we can change or help to change Iran towards something resembling a liberal democracy.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, produced evidence to show that nothing has changed. The changes that have been cited are superficial. The agreement between the Foreign Secretary and Mr Kharrazi that the Iranian government will not murder Mr Rushdie is somewhat undermined by the fact that the 15 Khordad Foundation, which is a government-organised, non-governmental organisation, has recently increased the bounty which it is prepared to pay to anyone who assassinates Mr Rushdie. If I were him, I would not do without my police protection for the time being.

My noble friend Lady Nicholson referred to the situation of women. I wish to say a word about it. I refer her to a conference held recently in Stockholm on the situation of women in Iran which was attended by a number of distinguished women, including Mrs Azar Majedi, the editor of Medusa, a newspaper with which my noble friend is perhaps familiar. Mrs Majedi said that for almost 20 years Iranian women have lived under

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a sexual apartheid with almost no rights. At the same time a strong struggle led by the women and opposition forces fighting for freedom and equality is under way. We can see that in the great activities of some very brave women in Iran at the moment.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, said, we cannot measure freedom of expression by the number of publications that are licensed. It is a matter of those who speak out of turn. The noble Lord, Lord Clarke, cited the case of Amir Entezam, who is still held in prison at Evin for criticising the late Mr Lajevardi, the brutal former governor of Evin prison. There was a hearing of the case of Amir Entezam at the end of April, but he was not allowed to attend the court and no one knows what charges have been preferred against him.

Over the last month there has been a major offensive by the regime against anyone who is off message. On Thursday last week, the leader of the Islamic union of students, who is also editor of the journal One's Identity, was detained. That was two days after the arrest of the owner of the publication. Earlier this month a new press bill was presented in the Majlis which would kill the independent press and silence journalists described by Ayatollah Khamane'i as,

    "mercenaries, defending the position of the enemies of Islam and the Islamic revolution". Reference has also been made to the arrest of the Jews; not 13 but probably as many as 30. How on earth a Jew would have access to confidential information defies the imagination, yet it was asserted as a matter of fact by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, secretary of the Council of Guardians, to whom perhaps the noble Viscount should address his remarks about awaiting due process. He said, in his Friday sermon, that the suspects had been busy for some time collecting information and sending it to Israel via Turkey. That was a matter of fact; it was not a suggestion that these were the allegations made against the defendants when they come to court. No wonder Hubert Vedrine, the French Foreign Minister, summoned the Iranian ambassador to protest against those baseless charges. Why do not we and the French join together and promote an EU demarche on the subject?

While we are on the topic of religious minorities, as the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, mentioned, I went to see the Iranian ambassador, Mr Ansari, recently about the persecution of the Baha'is. Whatever we said, he kept trying to divert the conversation to the situation in Northern Ireland and the Diplock courts. We received not one answer from him, to the extent that I had to put everything we wanted to say in writing, which I did immediately after the meeting on 27th April. Needless to say, he has not yet replied.

These are the considerations which seem to make it expedient for us to have friendly relations with Iran, such as the need to isolate Saddam, the instability of neighbouring Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and the reduction of any potential threat by Iran to the Gulf states. The human rights case for supporting President Khatami is not yet proven.

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8.18 p.m.

Lord Moynihan: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, for securing this debate on the Government's policy towards human rights in Iran. It has provided a useful opportunity to discuss a subject of serious concern to your Lordships at a highly pertinent time when a warmer bilateral relationship is developing between our two countries against the backdrop of the gradual unfreezing of European Union-Iranian relations. Those changes have taken place in Iran in the past two years and include the free and fair presidential elections in 1997 and the success of the recent municipal elections. An increased level of public debate and a public shift away from a foreign policy of confrontation towards one more of dialogue and co-operation have led to the improvement in our relations with Iran. As noble Lords have reminded us, this improvement was only last month symbolised by the upgrading of our diplomatic relations to ambassadorial level.

However, from these Benches we take the view that our relations with Iran can never fully be normalised while the Iranian government of the day continue to support policies and activities, both tacitly and overtly, which are an affront to the universal values of human rights, the rule of law and democracy.

First, I should like to make the point that from these Benches we believe that there is much reason for hope in Iran. Two years after his election victory, President Khatami indicated that tolerance and political liberalisation are the bedrock in what he has described as a transition to an "Islamic democracy". With a number of encouraging statements made by the Iranian leadership on the need to promote respect for the rule of law and to reform the legal and penitentiary system to bring it into line with the international human rights standards, there has come something of a corresponding practical improvement in the human rights situation in Iran.

It is true that rapid progress has not been made towards President Khatami's goal of a tolerant, diverse and law-abiding society in which human rights are respected. This is not least because Iran stands at a critical crossroads between the demands of conservative elements who would isolate Iran and take her backwards, and reformists who would modernise and take her forwards. President Khatami has faced, and will continue to face, strident opposition in the days ahead in both parliament and the judiciary.

Nevertheless, both the presidential election in 1997 and the recent municipal elections, which were notable for their increased openness and transparency, and for the level of participation of the Iranian people, stand as a testament to the distance that has been travelled on the road to reform and the development of a democratic and pluralistic society in Iran. For those reasons, I believe that the comments made by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, were important in the context of this debate.

However, Iran's record on human rights is still very poor indeed. The extent to which that subject, I believe rightly, dominated debate this evening has been

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interesting and notable. Both the US State Department and Iran currently report on human rights practices, and Amnesty International's 1999 annual report makes this all too clear. I believe that it is right and proper to place on record the highly disturbing reading in the summary of Amnesty's report, which states:

    "Hundreds of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, were held [in Iran]. Some were detained without charge or trial; others continued to serve long prison sentences imposed after unfair trials. Reports of torture and ill-treatment continued to be received and judicial punishments of flogging and stoning continued to be imposed. Reports suggested that possible 'disappearances' and extrajudicial executions had occurred. Scores of people were reportedly executed, including at least one prisoner of conscience; however, the true number may have been considerably higher. An unknown number of people remained under sentence of death, some after unfair trials. Armed opposition groups committed human rights abuses". There have also been restrictions on citizens' rights to change their government; systematic abuses including extra-judicial killings; summary executions; disappearances; the widespread use of torture; harsh prison conditions (particularly at the infamous Evin prison); arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of due process; unfair trials; infringement of citizens' privacy; restrictions on the work of human rights groups; and legal and social discrimination against women--highlighted so eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson--as well as against religious and ethnic minorities. Incidents such as those catalogued are all still part of daily life in Iran. While that continues to be the case and such abuses continue to be perpetrated, they will pose an insurmountable hurdle on Iran's road to reform.

So, in the light of the ethical dimension to the Government's foreign policy, I would ask the Minister this evening simply this: to what extent does she believe and expect that efforts to improve our bilateral relations, both trade and diplomatic, would be hampered by Iran's human rights record, notwithstanding the progress that has been made under President Khatami towards his goal of a civil society based on the rule of law? In particular, in pursuance of the comments of noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on the subject of Salman Rushdie: what action has the Government requested that Iranian authorities take in relation to the 15 Khordad Foundation which continues to threaten Mr Rushdie's life and which has raised the bounty it requires and is necessary for his murder?

In a welcome step, the Government of Iran have invited the UNHCR working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances to visit Iran. Does the Minister have any information on when this important visit might take place, and is it the intention of the Government to push that point?

In conclusion--this is a very short contribution to your Lordships' debate--I believe that nations living according to democratic and pluralistic values will abide more fully and more naturally with internationally expected norms of behaviour in both their foreign and domestic policies, and that the international community's policies must be directed towards realising that goal in the case of countries such as Iran. We look forward to hearing from the Minister the ways in which

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the Government intend to respond to the important points, particularly those of human rights abuses, which have been so eloquently and clearly stated by your Lordships this evening, and how she intends to encourage the Government to influence and assist Iran in the beneficial process, the optimistic process, which we believe is absolutely essential and which has been laid out before your Lordships this evening.

8.25 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Archer for raising this important issue. My noble and learned friend said that he was raising some genuine questions, although I am bound to say he did paint an almost unremittingly gloomy picture of what is happening in Iran at the moment. I say to him very clearly that of course the Government have concerns. The Government have very strong concerns, but the Government's position is, I think, rather more as the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, described the position of the Official Opposition. We are prepared to work with Iran to improve the position on the ground.

Our relationship has come a very long way in the short period since my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary met his Iranian counterpart Dr. Kharrazi at the United Nations in New York last September. The upgrading of our relations to ambassadorial status earlier this month, which was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, was agreed in principle at that meeting. It was the latest step in what promises to be a very long journey. We are clear that it is right to pursue a better relationship, but we are also clear that there are obstacles to be overcome. One such obstacle, of course, is the longstanding concern over Iranian human rights policies. It is important to note that some important changes have already taken place under the reformist government of President Khatami. That government remain committed to building a civil society based on respect for the rule of law. Progress with that commitment is most evident in the unprecedented freedom of expression which the press now enjoys, exemplified by a profusion of new publications addressing a whole range of previously sensitive subjects.

I am aware that some journals were closed under pressure from other elements in the Iranian system--we must not forget those elements--but many have subsequently re-opened. The trend towards open press discussion now seems irreversible. The Iranian government remain committed to promoting greater public debate and have repeatedly stressed the importance of allowing legitimate opposition views to be expressed. That can only help to create a better environment for the direction of human rights. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and others referred to the local elections this year in which a large majority of the Iranian population, both men and women, participated, offering further tangible evidence of the lively political debate taking place in Iran today despite some restrictions on who could stand, as rightly pointed out

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by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The elections were vigorously contested, in some cases for the very first time by members of legally formed political parties. A lively debate on next year's parliamentary elections has already began.

The arrest of a number of officials in the Ministry of Intelligence in connection with the murder of some intellectuals last year and the subsequent dismissal of the intelligence Minister and the on-going trial concerning torture allegations of a senior police officer are important evidence that the Iranian government are moving against extra-judicial murder or activity outside the framework of the law. I stress to my noble and learned friend Lord Archer the symbolic importance of these events. In recent weeks the government have stressed again the importance of building solid political and civil institutions to underpin their domestic reform agenda. But of course there is still a great deal to do. The United Kingdom Government and our EU partners will continue to encourage Iran to resume co-operation with the UN human rights mechanisms and particularly to restore the visits by the UN special rapporteur Maurice Copithorne. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has raised the matter in your Lordships' House on a number of occasions. We shall be maintaining pressure on Iran through UN resolutions which record progress but also point out continued abuses.

The noble Lord, Lord Clarke, raised the issue of the Jewish detainees. We and our EU partners also take up with the Iranians directly significant individual cases when we believe that appropriate. One example is the recent detention of the members of the Iranian Jewish community. That was raised on 15th June in response to a Question from my noble friend Lord Janner. I said then that we first heard some weeks ago that a number of Jews had been detained without charge in Iran but that it was not initially easy to establish the truth amid the conflicting rumours. We have been in regular contact with the Israeli organisation, both in the UK and in the United States through our mission in New York. We have also been in touch through other bodies and other organisations concerned.

Before the news broke on 7th June the German EU presidency, on a visit to Tehran on 20th May, had already expressed the concern of EU member states about the detentions. That was followed up by a formal EU demarche in Tehran today. I remind my noble friend that Mr Hoon made a statement on 10th June expressing the Government's concern for those detained. We also expressed our concern directly to the Iranian ambassador in London and pressed for the detainees to be fairly treated. Similar action has been taken by many of our European partners. We welcome the Iranian government's recent statements following the arrests that they are responsible for individuals of every religious persuasion in Iran, including specifically the Jewish community, which is officially recognised under the Iranian constitution.

I know that there have been further press reports in the past few days that perhaps as many as 22 rather than 13 have been detained. Other noble Lords have said that the figure may be higher than that. It remains uncertain

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whether that reflects further arrests of Iranian Jews or refers to the total number detained, including a number of Iranian Moslems, previously referred to by the Iranian authorities. I give the House an assurance that we and our EU partners continue to press the Iranian authorities for further clarification, that we will go on demanding fair treatment and that we will monitor the situation very closely.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, raised, not for the first time--he has rightly raised the point on a number of occasions--the question of the Baha'i. I know that he raised it directly with the Iranian ambassador in London. The plight of the Baha'i community in Iran has been of particular concern for some time and--the noble Lord is quite right--it remains so. We and our EU partners have raised these concerns with the Iranian authorities on many occasions. Persecution of individuals on religious grounds is totally unacceptable.

As the noble Lord knows, the European Union-sponsored United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution on Iran adopted on 23rd April once again reaffirmed the international community's concern about the situation. As the noble Lord will know, we also raise individual cases of concern as they affect the Baha'i. We most recently raised the cases of Mr Najafabadi and Mr Dhabihi-Muqaddam, both of whom face the death sentence. We were told on 4th October that their cases were subject to review by the Supreme Court. To date the sentences have not been carried out and we have been led to believe that they will not be carried out. We have also raised our concerns about the arrests at the end of last year of members of the Baha'i Institute of Higher Education. I know that the noble Lord is concerned about that too.

In the past, noble Lords have raised questions about the fate of the Christian communities in Iran. The Christians are a recognised religious community under the Iranian constitution and have a reserved seat in the parliament. I recognise, however, that the Christians also face persecution. We welcome President Khatami's recent statement that he represents all religions in Iran. I hope that that gives some comfort and that such issues can be pursued on that basis.

My noble and learned friend Lord Archer raised the question of torture and other punishments. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, has also expressed enormous concern. Her Majesty's Government share all noble Lords' concerns about Sharia punishments such as torture, amputations and stonings. We and our EU partners sponsored a resolution on 23rd April, and we frequently raise these and other human rights issues in our bilateral contacts with the Iranians. We hope that the implementation of President Khatami's declared objective of fully enforcing the constitution and the proper rule of law will begin to have an effect in this area soon. I assure your Lordships that these are raised as matters of principle and as individual cases with the Iranian authorities when possible.

A number of noble Lords raised the whole question of the National Council for the Resistance of Iran. We have discussed this issue on previous occasions. We do

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not recognise the National Council for the Resistance of Iran, of which the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq organisation is the dominant group, as the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, said. Nor did the Opposition when they were in power. The British Government remain firmly opposed to the violence practised by the MKO and to terrorism from any other quarter. Its latest terrorist action was to kill Lieutenant-General Shirazi in Tehran on 10th April, which this Government condemned. The attacks to which my noble and learned friend Lord Archer referred followed the assassination. I do not know whether they were a direct reaction to the assassination but I make the point that that was the sequence of events.

We have also discussed the statement signed by MPs calling for a change to UK policy towards Iran. We and our EU partners--we are not isolated--have continuing concerns over human rights violations in Iran, which we regularly draw to the attention of the Iranian Government. We are also worried about the role of the MKO in the NCRI. The points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, on this issue were extremely perceptive. Your Lordships may care to read what she said. This organisation is despised by many Iranians-- the noble Baroness has been to Iran and speaks from first-hand knowledge--as a result of its support for Saddam Hussain during the Iran-Iraq war. Its headquarters is in Baghdad. I understand that the organisation is still among Saddam's most trusted supporters. We shall continue to follow a balanced policy on the issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked for the Government's view on all these issues. It is one of informed concern, but it is one of taking into account an enormous number of different threads, both official and unofficial, in the state of Iran. We notice the positive developments: the press and the local elections. We also know that the Iranian Government are steadily improving relations with their neighbours, particularly in the Persian Gulf. That is a welcome development, as is their latest reaction on the issue of terrorism in the Gulf. So too is their reaction to the status of women, of which the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, also spoke and to which a number of other noble Lords, notably the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, made reference. In the past few years we have seen the appointment of the first four women judges and the first woman vice-president in Iran. Female candidates were particularly successful in the local elections. A further example is in education where more than 50 per cent of this year's intake at the University of Tehran are women.

I hope that I have been able to cover at least some of the important issues touched on by your Lordships today. To sum up, Her Majesty's Government remain committed to the development of our relations with Iran. We find encouragement in the reformist policies of the government of President Khatami and we will continue to encourage those reforms while we press for improvements in those Iranian policies which cause us particular concern. Engaging the Iranian authorities on

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these issues is more likely to be effective than isolating Iran. We continue to develop our relationship for what we believe is the benefit of both our nations.

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