Lord Alton of Liverpool rose to call attention to the violations of human rights in Iran and to the policy of Her Majesty’s Government towards Iran; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, on 27th March, in a debate in your Lordships’ House, considerable dismay was expressed by noble Lords about the decision to place the Iranian resistance movement on the list of proscribed organisations. In moving the Motion on the Order Paper today, it is not my purpose to revisit those arguments, to which we shall doubtless return via the appeals procedure and the courts in due course.
Some months ago, and prior to the Home Secretary’s order, I first sought to raise the abuse of human rights in Iran and Her Majesty’s Government’s policy towards that country. I am glad to have secured a place in the ballot, enabling me to do so today.
This is a timely debate, especially in the light of the decision last Friday by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to keep Iran under annual review for human rights violations and also in the light of the assessment by the Special Envoy, Professor Maurice Copthorne, that there are,
- “continued executions . . . in particular public and especially cruel executions”,
- “torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment”.
In his report to the 57th session of the commission, Professor Copthorne said:
- “breaches of human rights are in large part as egregious today as they were five years ago”.
- “In some key areas, it seems hard to accept that there has been any substantive and quantifiable improvement since Khatami took office”.
- “Torture in Iran is practised in its most primitive form”.
Today’s debate takes place just days after Iran fired 77 scud missiles at camps occupied by members of the Iranian resistance, some of which missed their target, killing civilians nearby. I place my remarks in the context of a statement made by the Foreign Secretary, Mr Robin Cook, published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Wednesday 28th March, when he took as his theme human rights in foreign policy. He said:
- “When I made our commitment to human rights”–four years ago–“I was criticised in some quarters for sacrificing the national interest for principle. There is something odd with a national interest that is in conflict with principle. I would robustly argue that the British national interest is promoted, not hindered, by a commitment to human rights”.
Taken at its face value, I wholeheartedly endorse those sentiments, but measured against Her Majesty’s Government’s policy towards Iran–a country that intriguingly and perhaps oddly, to use the Foreign Secretary’s word, is not referred to at all in Mr Cook’s statement–I argue that we have been too concerned with normalising relations. Concern for commercial gain appears to be greater than concern for continuing violations of human rights.Nor is it the case that we are impotent in the face of such abuses. Mr Cook rightly observed that the reality is that we cannot do everything, but that does not free us from our duty to do what we can. Even if we were to set aside questions of duty and principle, I do not believe that it would be in the long-term interest of the United Kingdom to hitch ourselves to the present religious dictatorship that, as in the time of the Shah, will ultimately be the losing side.
Contrary to what is frequently said, dialogue with the Iranian regime has not improved the human rights situation–quite the reverse. A few weeks ago Abbs-Ali Alizahdeh, a senior judicial official, was received at Geneva. On his return to Iran he was even more emboldened in defending the so-called retribution law, which involves punishments such as amputation and eye gouging.
- “talk of changing the constitution amounts to changing the state. This is treachery”.
- “Let me remind you that I did not come in the name of reform”.
I want to place before your Lordships’ House examples of past and present atrocities which throw considerable doubt on the claim that this is a regime that we should encourage or one with which we should conduct business. That there may be reformist elements within the Marjlis, the Iranian parliament, I do not dispute, but to confuse those elements with the regime itself and its declared policies and practices is self-deceiving.
Perhaps I can illustrate my argument with examples of persecution against political dissidents, religious minorities and women. I am indebted to the BBC World Service which states in a briefing note that,
- “since the general elections of February 2000, hard line conservatives have reasserted their grip on all the levers of real power which they command”.
- “It appears that his opponents have all but wiped out reforms introduced by him”–
- “in the past three years, especially freedom of speech. For example, pressure on liberal clerics has increased and a special court to prosecute members of the clergy has been very active. The vice police have suddenly become active in the past few weeks by arresting women for improper clothing or raiding parties attended by young people”.
- “An Iranian court has delivered harsh sentences against a newspaper editor and 6 other defendants, ranging from 4 to 10 years, for taking part in a controversial conference in Germany. For western policy-makers, this sends two negative signals. First, it shows the further erosion of human rights and basic freedoms in Iran. Secondly and even more worrying, is that ahead of a crucial general election in June, President Muhammad Khatami and the reformist camp are under attack by the conservatives, who have blocked reformist legislation, closed down dozens of reformist newspapers and magazines, and imprisoned reformist journalists and intellectuals”.
The BBC’s Iranian affairs analyst, Sadeq Saba, also recently reported on what was described as “horrifying stories” of political dissidents jailed in the notorious Evin prison, north of Tehran. One such account concerned the feminist lawyer, Mehrangiz Kar, who spent 53 days in Evin prison for taking part in the German conference, to which I have referred. Mrs Kar describes how filthy her solitary cell was:
- “The floor of the cell was covered like a carpet by dirty pieces that carried the sign of the dried vomiting of the previous prisoners. The metallic toilet with its large opening and small base and a movable lid was infectious and dried dirt was stuck to its inner walls”.
In Mrs Kar’s experience, the most intolerable torture was sleep deprivation.Another feminist campaigner and publisher, Shahla Lahiji, who spent about two months in Evin prison gives a macabre account of life inside the prison:
- “The door is closed with a dry sound and I am standing in the middle of the cell. There is a feeble gray light illuminating the space. My feet are swollen. I lean against the wall . . . The water is warm and smells of white spirit . . . I force myself to drink the water . . . A black large cockroach is moving down the wall of the toilet bowl. I don’t even bother to kill it. I follow it with my eyes as it crawls beneath the blanket and disappears. I can’t think. I don’t feel the passage of time. While still standing I lean against the wall and close my eyes”.
The investigative journalist, Emaddin Baqi, who is serving a five-and-a-half year prison sentence on charges of endangering national security, describes Evin prison as a graveyard for the living. He says that prisoners are deprived of some of their basic human rights and complains about widespread corruption among the prison staff.
The dissident cleric, Mohsen Kadivar, has recently served an 18-month prison sentence for criticising the Iranian supreme leader. He says that prisoners are subjected to the cruellest types of treatment. He believes that the worst psychological torture for a political prisoner is when he is put in a cell with common criminals. But he is optimistic about the future. He says:
- “Evin should not be feared. It should be welcomed. It seems that there is no other way for freedom and democracy in Iran than going through Evin. But we should hope that one day Evin will be turned into a recreational park or a playground for children. And that day is not very far away”.
The suppression of free speech by alleged reformers has led to the closure of 23 publications and to the jamming of the satellite television programme “Simayeh Azadi”. That censorship is totally contrary to international agreements, but it has occurred with barely a murmur of protest. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House whether we have made a demarche or raised these violations in any international forum? I hope in reply that she will spell out the specifics of any remonstration or protest that we have made.Perhaps the journalists condemned to prison may in one respect be regarded as fortunate. Last month, on the eve of the Iranian new year, the Mullahs’ regime publicly hanged five people, bringing to 75 the number of people executed or sentenced to death since January 2001. At least 13 of those victims were publicly stoned to death. That is double the number for the same period last year, so any argument that the situation is improving is clearly erroneous.
As many Peers know, in one year alone, in 1988, 30,000 political prisoners were butchered, an atrocity that has never once been condemned by Khatami. Indeed, as the Sunday Telegraph reported on 4th February, it is alleged that he was complicit in the massacre. It also begs a question, which I put to the Minister, as to whether we are pressing for those responsible to be tried for crimes against humanity. Amnesty International points out that under President Khatami, the reformer, there have been 800 executions. The question for us is whether such a regime is one in which we should be investing morally and politically.
Last week, I received a beautiful and moving card from Laila Jazayeri, the director of the Association of Iranian Women in the UK. The card was designed and painted by a political prisoner who spent 12 years in Iranian goals. He had been a talented university student studying physics. His time in prison has left him paralysed, able to use only his hands and parts of his upper body. The tragic personal story of Behrooz is the story of continued suffering and pain of countless numbers of Iranian people.
I said that I would refer also to the persecution of religious minorities. Since the Khomeni revolution seven Christian leaders have been martyred; churches have been closed down; bible printing and Christian bookshops are banned; evangelising is illegal; and the human rights group, the Jubilee Campaign, reports that Christians are watched and are often called in for questioning. In one case of apostasy, the convert was executed. I shall happily make available evidence from the Jubilee Campaign to any Member of your Lordships’ House who would like to see it.
During the past decade, the execution of Mehdi Dibaj, the murder of the Reverend Tateos Michaelian who was the President of the Council of Protestant Churches in Iran, and the assassination of Bishop Haik Hovespision-Mehr have traumatised this very vulnerable minority. Human Rights Watch reported that
- “churches have been shut down, scores of young Christians have been imprisoned and tortured”.
Others who have been killed include the Reverend Hossein Soodmand, who was hung, and Mohammed Bagher Yusefi. The Anglican priest in Shiraz, the Reverend Sayyah, had his throat cut and Bahram Deghani-Tafti, the son of the Anglican bishop, was shot dead.Christians are not the only ones who have suffered. There have been reports of the persecution of Bahais, of Suni Muslims and of Zoroastrians. Yesterday I received a letter from the Board of Deputies of British Jews. It has drawn attention to the plight of Iranian Jews. A letter from Simon Plosker, Public Affairs Officer, concerns 10 Iranian Jews now in goal. Thirteen were originally held on charges of espionage on behalf of Israel and the United States; charges which both those countries have consistently refuted. However, the fact is that under Iranian law any contact whatever with Israel is defined as “espionage” and the maximum penalty is the death penalty.
The spurious nature of these charges and their possible anti-Semitic basis are borne out by the professions of the accused; Hebrew teachers, Jewish community leaders, circumcisers, ritual slaughterers, a Jewish cemetery attendant and a 16 year-old boy. Concern regarding the fate of these Jews was acute in the light of pervious experience. After all, two Jews were executed in 1997 on espionage charges and in 1998 a 60 year-old man was executed on vague charges of being a Zionist agent.
On 21st September 2000, Jewish prisoners who had been imprisoned were taken to the Shiraz Court of Appeal and the verdict was given. The outcome was that they are to remain in prison for terms ranging from two to nine years. The Board of Deputies comments that despite claims by Iranian officials that Iran’s judicial branch was “independent”, in early September the judiciary announced a delay, reportedly to provide a reprieve to President Khatami during the trip to the United Nations where he was attempting to portray Iran’s regime as one that respects the rights of its citizens.
The verdicts raise many questions as to the appropriate Western response. Western governments must surely give thought as to whether they can rightly carry on with business as usual, given the clear violations of the human rights of these Iranian Jews.
The Board of Deputies wants to know whether it is to be “business as usual” with the regime. That is the question at the heart of this debate. It is about Mr Cook’s pledge that national interest and principle are two sides of the same coin.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs Mary Robinson, who has done so much to keep human rights to the fore, who recently voiced her frustrations about the international funding and commitment of national governments to human rights, has, because of her frustrations, alas, decided not to seek a second term. That decision should enliven and stimulate our determination to become a standard bearer in promoting and upholding the principle of human rights. In the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, we have a diligent, competent and articulate advocate and I would like to see her given greater authority and a wider ranging mandate to concentrate exclusively on highlighting these issues. Their importance is central to the pursuit of our foreign policy.
- “today’s human rights abuses are the cause of tomorrow’s conflicts”.
That is most certainly the case in Iran. The Mullahs are facing a collapsing economy and have responded with intensified oppression. Focused aid as a quid pro quo for a national minorities policy and for fundamental democratic and judicial reform would at least be a more logical policy for Her Majesty’s Government than the one we are pursuing today. Collaborating with a regime which last month publicly executed five people, one of them a woman, by hanging them from a crane in east Tehran, which has already hung or sentenced to death some 75 people, and which stones people to death, gouges out eyes, amputates limbs and publicly flogs is neither ethical nor principled. It will be, as Mrs Robinson observed, merely sowing the seeds of tomorrow’s conflict.To answer the Board of Deputies, we should have no business collaborating with such a regime, and no business interests can justify such involvement. I hope that today’s debate will bring these issues to a wider audience and encourage the Government to reassess this policy. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
Almost every day information becomes available that confirms that the regime in Tehran continues to rule by what can only be described as a policy of fear and terror. There is no scarcity of information about the human rights situation in Iran. The information comes from members of the Iranian community here in Britain and Iranian communities in other countries. The information comes from our own media, from human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and, as recently as last week, from the UN Human Rights Commission following its meeting in Geneva just a few days ago, already mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
The meeting of that commission voted in favour of a resolution to continue its annual review of the human rights situation in Iran. At the meeting, the Iranian Ambassador, Ali Khorram, had requested that the mandate of the UN special envoy on Iran, Maurice Copthorne, should be ended. The reason the Ambassador gave to the commission was that he considered,
- “that the 18-year long process had proved to be ineffective and fruitless”.
- “to continue its efforts to consolidate respect for human rights and the rule of law”.
- “some improvements in its record, particularly concerning women and children”.
Such crumbs of comfort do little to relieve the fear of those both inside and outside Iran whose lives are affected by the brutal system. That brutal system is also recognised by the UN resolution. I refer specifically to the part of the resolution which,
- “deplores the continued executions, in particular public and especially cruel executions”,
- “take all necessary steps to end the use of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, particularly amputations”.
During the debate in your Lordships’ House on the 2001 order relating to the Terrorism Act 2000 on 27th March, I drew attention to the report of the United Nations special envoy in Iran earlier this year (col. 162). The quotation from Professor Copthorne has already been mentioned but it is worth repeating. He said:
- “Breaches of human rights are in large part as common today as they were five years ago”.
Again, where is the progress towards a better system of justice in Iran?Professor Copthorne reported that 200 people had been executed so far this year and that a further 75 people have been sentenced to death, including eight women. Some of the sentences included death by stoning.
No resolution, however diplomatically it is drafted, can deny the fact that the people of Iran live in fear. Recent punishments in Iran, some of which have been mentioned, serve only to underline and confirm the brutality of the regime. On 11th January of this year the French press agency reported that the official Iranian news agency had said that Iran’s Chief Justice, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Sharrudi, had confirmed,
- “that 800 drug traffickers were on death row and called for further harsh punishment. Eight hundred cases imposing the death penalty on drug traffickers have been looked at by the remission panel, but no sentences were commuted”.
- “important to take firm action against drug traffickers. Harsh punishments must be considered and applied in public to strike fear amidst the groups of traffickers”.
This is the same head of the judiciary who last November underscored the need to carry out “retribution verdicts in public”, such as hangings, the amputation of limbs and the gouging out of eyes. We have heard about that.It is also worth looking at the footnote to that report by the French news agency, which comes from a Marjlis Deputy, Ali Mir-Khalili–someone from inside the Iranian Parliament–who said:
- “The State Security Forces are putting pressure on the people on various pretexts. They murder people and then justify the killings by just saying that the victim was a drug trafficker”.
The rest of the world can draw its conclusions as to what is going on from that comment.A further example of the brutal regime is the public lashings of three young men, all in their 20s, who had been accused of drinking alcohol and having illicit sexual relationships. In February this year the three young men, two brothers and their cousin–Ismail, Majid and Mahammad Rahimi–staggered away between their police escort, each having received 180 severe lashes. In the wonderful civilisation that we enjoy in this country it is difficult to understand how any civilised government can have dealings with a regime that publicly executes, lashes and stones its own people.
The list of acts of brutality since the beginning of this year includes 24 youngsters accused of dancing in a disturbing manner, whatever that may mean. The 17 boys who were arrested received 58 lashes and each of the girls was sentenced to 28 lashes. All of the youngsters were sent to Adelabad prison in Shiraz. In another case reported in the Kayhan Daily on 15th January, men received lashing sentences in Qom, the verdicts to be carried out in stages over three days. Six were given between 50 and 74 lashes in six districts. In February of this year a man charged with theft had four fingers amputated, plus two years in prison and 74 lashes.
These illustrations of justice in Iran indicate how right Amnesty International is to draw attention in its July report, under the heading “More Failures of Iranian Justice”–I obtained that document as recently as Monday of this week–to the failure of the regime in Iran to deliver the promised reform to its judiciary. It is worth mentioning that the promise was made in 1999 by the same head of the judiciary who in January of this year had advocated the carrying out of “retribution verdicts in public”, such as hangings, the amputation of limbs and gouging out of eyes. The same man who made that promise said exactly the opposite two years later.
Last Wednesday the world recoiled at the news that Iran had fired scud missiles at camps inside Iraq belonging to an Iranian rebel group. The report said that the Iraqi Government were furious and reserved the right to respond with suitable means to the attack on their country. When I heard Channel 4 News I thought that somebody had gone completely mad, given the present situation in the Middle East. The Mojahedin said that one of its members was killed as a result of the attacks on its camps closest to the cities of Kut and Khalis in Iraq. Channel 4 News also said that, according to reports, some of the missiles missed their targets and landed on residential areas. Other reports put the number of surface-to-surface scud missiles launched at 77.
The missile attack lasted 10 hours. The Mojahedin camp at Habib to the north of Basra was hit in two series of attacks with 27 missiles. Twenty-four missiles hit the city of Jalawla, killing a 33 year-old mother and her daughter aged six and wounding dozens of other people. Two missiles landed near Jalawla’s mosque and the rest landed on residential areas. Thirteen missiles hit Khalis about 100 kilometres north of Baghdad, while five hit Meqdadiah. In Kut, some of the craters left by the impact of these missiles measured up to 12 metres in diameter and up to 5 metres in depth. At about seven o’clock in the morning three more scud missiles landed near Kut, one of which hit the city’s technical college.
As would be expected, there was a reaction. A Reuters report last Wednesday referred to a statement issued by Massoud Rajavi, the Iranian resistance leader, following the scud missile attacks. In his statement he urged the UN Security Council to condemn the attack and take a stance immediately against the Mullah’s outlaw action in breach of international law. I ask my noble friend whether Her Majesty’s Government will give support to that call by Massoud Rajavi.
The damage inflicted by the unprovoked attack on innocent civilians has been seen by reporters from western news agencies and television networks. Those reporters have visited the scenes of destruction in Jalawla, Kut and Khalis.
On the day following the attack, not unexpectedly, Iranian exiles, refugees and supporters of the resistance took part in rallies in 18 cities across the world, including Oslo, Melbourne, Washington, Ottawa, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Berlin and in at least six other cities in Germany.
The dangers and the threat to stability in the region by the scud missile attacks that have caused civilian casualties and damage to property are obvious. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris summed up the reaction of many who can see where such unwarranted attacks could lead. In a statement it said:
- “Whatever action which could jeopardise the region’s stability must be avoided”.
- “In this spirit, we deplore the missile attack by the Iranian regime”.
I should like to return to the question of the brutality of a regime that includes death by stoning. I quote an appeal by Amnesty International in January of this year. The appeal was for interested people and organisations to protest at that time against the imminent execution of a number of young people. I shall not quote all of the appeal, but by way of illustrating the brutality of the Mullah’s regime I simply quote Amnesty’s description of how the sentence on a 3l year-old woman (Maryam Ayoubi) was to be carried out:
- “Maryam Ayoubi had reportedly been facing 15 years’ imprisonment followed by stoning to death . . . However, new reports indicate that she will simply be stoned to death”.
- “Stoning to death is prescribed for certain offences under the Iranian Penal Code. According to the Penal Code, men should be buried in a pit in the ground up to their waists, and women buried up to their chests. Individuals who manage to dig themselves out and escape from the pit while the stoning is being carried out have their lives spared. Article 104 of the Penal Code states that ‘the stones should not be too large so that the person dies on being hit by one or two of them’, so is designed to cause grievous pain leading to eventual death”.
Amnesty International commented at the time that in the unlikely event that this poor, unfortunate woman was able to dig herself free before she was killed, she would then start her 15-year sentence.The time for making excuses for dealing with these people is long passed. Constructive dialogue is acceptable if it has any promise of bringing about change. In the words of the head of the Iranian judiciary, who only last week sought to end the UN monitoring of human rights abuses,
- “the 18-year long process had proved to be ineffective and fruitless”.
Perhaps the time has come when we should recognise that constructive dialogue with the regime is not bearing fruit. It is not crumbs of comfort from diplomatic resolutions that the people of Iran need and deserve; they want the free world to speak out loudly and firmly against the barbaric methods of justice that the regime routinely uses in its endeavours to cling to power.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Clarke, have both referred to the resolution passed last week in the Human Rights Commission and to the report of the special rapporteur, Dr Maurice Copithorne, who, among other things, regrets that the Government of Iran have ceased to co-operate by allowing him to visit the country. Fortunately, as the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, told us, there is enough evidence available to build up a detailed assessment, something which I suggest the thematic rapporteurs of the Human Rights Commission should bear in mind when they are refused invitations. Dr Copithorne says that freedom of expression is a matter of despair and many people feel that the president has lost his struggle to create a more tolerant society operating under the rule of law.
The rapporteur says that the legal system, particularly the judiciary, is in desperate need of repair. The status of minorities remains a neglected area of human rights. The murder and disappearance of intellectuals and political dissidents is a stain on Iran and will remain so until all the outstanding questions are answered and the perpetrators brought to justice. The trials of those who attended a conference in Berlin–mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton–have the strong appearance of farce, he says, except of course for those who are going through this unreal experience.
The rapporteur’s report was completed in December. Since then, as Dr Copithorne told the commission, there has been no improvement in the state of freedom of expression and of the press. He said that the revolutionary courts and the special court for the clergy make frequent use of pre-trial detention, particularly of journalists, students, intellectuals and political dissidents. The detainees are often held incommunicado in secret places of detention, a practice which is conducive to torture, and, as might be expected, many cases of torture have indeed been reported to the rapporteur on torture, Sir Nigel Rodley, of which I give two examples.
First, Mr Abbas Amir-Entezam, deputy prime minister and spokesman of the 1979 interim government of Mehdi Bazargan, was arrested in 1998 at his home in Tehran. He is one of the unfortunates held in Evin prison. He is said to be in urgent need of appropriate medical attention for kidney failure and a ruptured eardrum and loss of hearing in one ear, allegedly as the result of his long detention and repeated subjection to torture. He is an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience.
Secondly, Mr Akbar Ganji, an investigative journalist, was hung upside down in a cell while four guards kicked him in the head and stomach. He was punished with 80 days of solitary confinement when he started a hunger strike to protest against his treatment. Ganji had written a series of articles implicating former President Rafsanjani in the murders of dissidents and intellectuals carried out by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence.
At the end of 1999, as your Lordships may recall, four well-known opponents of the regime were savagely murdered and a number of people were arrested for those crimes. They all turned out to be agents of the Ministry of Intelligence. The principal accused, Sa’eed Emami, was a deputy Minister of the Ministry of Intelligence. He died later on in Evin prison after he was said to have drunk a bottle of hair- remover containing arsenic while he was in his bath and was momentarily not observed by the guards. Most people believe that he was eliminated by the regime because he knew too much and would have fingered several top people if he had appeared in court. Emami’s boss was Ali Fallahian, the former Minister indicted in a German court for the murder of the Kurdish leader Dr Sadegh Sharafkandi and his three companions in a Berlin restaurant in 1992. But there were certainly other high-ups in the regime who knew and approved of the assassination of political opponents, some of whom are still there. Mr Fallahian is standing as a presidential candidate in the elections. But others named as part of the conspiracy have included–I have mentioned former President Rafsanjani–Fallahian’s successor at the Ministry of Intelligence, Mr Qorhanali Dorri-Najafabadi, and Ayatollah Ahmas Jannati, the head of the Council of Guardians, and many others.
Emami was said to have made a confession on videotape. But it was never made public in spite of assurances that it would be shown on television. The trial of the other 18 defendants linked to these four murder charges was finally held in camera at the end of last year. No attempt was then made to link these particular murders to earlier killings by Ministry of Intelligence agents, some of which I described in my book Iran: State of Terror published in 1996. I also analysed the available evidence on the more recent killings, which were known as the “chain murders”, and the way that they fitted into the pattern of state-sponsored murder in my book Fatal Writ, published a year ago. In his current report, the rapporteur says that he reiterates his deep concern over this tragic abuse of the human rights of the victims, and his dissatisfaction with the way the government have handled the investigation over the prolonged period of two years.
Why should not the rapporteur undertake an inquiry into the regime’s use of murder to silence its opponents? If he announced that he was going to collect and analyse evidence on the phenomenon, including assassinations committed abroad and attempts to kill the author Salman Rushdie and many other people associated with his book, a great deal of fresh material might become available. It would serve to underline the international community’s abhorrence of the gang which master-minded the killings of the Christian priests mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and of a former prime minister, Kurdish leaders, political opponents, intellectuals, and all the people associated with the publication of The Satanic Verses.
The recent wave of arrests of members of the nationalist Iran Freedom Movement and others has been described as a “creeping coup” by Joe Stork of the Washington-based Human Rights Watch. Twenty people were arrested in March and another 40 earlier this month in what Mr Stork said looked like a coup designed to stifle free expression and activism for reform in the run-up to the forthcoming election. As has been mentioned, already 30 independent newspapers have been closed down and hardly a week goes by without news of further arrests of journalists. Among those detained in the latest sweep was Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, leader of the newly formed Democratic Front of the Iranian People, and all the people who were attending his weekly lecture at that time. Mr Tabarzadi is editor-in-chief of the daily Hoviyat-e-Khich, and, according to Reporters Sans Frontieres, his arrest brought the number of journalists in custody in Iran up to 21, the largest number for any country in the world. Last Saturday that rose to 22 with the arrest of Amid Na’ini, editor-in-chief of Payam-e Emrooz magazine, who was said to have confessed to publishing two sacrilegious articles, one of which said that the Angel Gabriel was an “imaginary creature”.
On Monday, Mohammad Salamati, a close ally of President Khatami, went on trial, accused of spreading rumours of a conservative-led impeachment motion against the president. He is managing editor of the weekly Asr Ma, Our Age, and also secretary-general of the Islamic Revolution Mujahedin Organisation, and an important member of the Second Chord Coalition which supports the president. Mr Salamati came before the notorious judge Sa’id Mortazavi, who has been responsible for the decimation of the press and journalists. He was accused of questioning the reliability of state-controlled TV reports about the conference held in Berlin, mentioned earlier, to discuss reform in Iran.
Yet another senior figure belonging to the president’s faction, Mostafa Tajzadeh, the deputy interior Minister who is supposed to be supervising the elections on 8th June, appeared in court in relation to his alleged role in the violent unrest which arose at a pro-reform student conference in Khoramabad last August.
I can understand the Government wishing to believe that President Khatami would be able to liberalise the regime, to end arbitrary detention, reduce the number of executions, extend freedom of expression and widen the political space to allow democratic pluralism. However, it has to be recognised that none of these have been achieved during the four years of his presidency, and there is no prospect that the forthcoming election will lead to any amelioration. It is not even certain, with just over a month to go, that Mr Khatami will stand as a candidate. But if he was genuinely committed to reform, he must be bitterly disappointed at having been able to achieve so little, and he will be reflecting that within the straitjacket of the velayat-e-faqih, the doctrine laid down by Ayatollah Khomeini of the supremacy of the spiritual leader, the elected president and Majlis have about as much say in national affairs as your Lordships do in this country in our affairs. Three years ago, the BBC hailed Mr Khatami as Iran’s Gorbachev, and Foreign Office experts were convinced that somehow, miraculously, he would transform the regime into a participatory democracy. In fact, as the BBC now says in its evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee,
- “since the general elections of February 2000 (convincingly won by the reformists), hard-line conservatives have reasserted their grip on all the levers of real power which they command, and have struck back in every way possible”.
People may still support Mr Khatami, if he decides to stand, because he is perceived to want change, and not because he can actually deliver it. But I doubt whether it is possible to sustain indefinitely a political system which is incapable of producing what the electors demand. A theocratic dictatorship with a democratic veneer is unworkable and unstable, but for as long as it lasts, the governing mullahs have to trample on human rights, to counter the growing opposition to their rule.Our policy should not be to rely on the process of reform gathering momentum but should take account of the possibility that the extremists will come out on top, whatever may happen on 8th June. If human rights are under greater threat than ever with a so-called reformist president and a would-be reformist Majlis, why should it be assumed that 8th June will make any difference? With the reactionaries in control of the judiciary and the Basij militia, which is to recruit another 2 million new members this year according to its commander, as well as the Revolutionary Guards Corps, they are in a position to stamp out unrest and dissent. Our policy for the period after 8th June has to take account of that; otherwise, we shall fail.
The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, I share with others in the House a concern about the violation of human rights in Iran. I do not doubt the figures and the stories quoted this evening and also in the debate in the House on 27th March on proscribed organisations in relation to the Terrorism Act. Concern is perhaps too weak a word; there is sadness, anger and sometimes a sense of horror. Nevertheless, I did not sign the letter on human rights in Iran circulated by some Members of your Lordships’ House for a reason I should like to explain and why I am glad of the opportunity to take part in this debate.
Iran is an Islamic state and Islam is a fundamental part of its life and culture. If it is to move in the direction that we all want to see, with genuine democracy, greater respect for civil liberties and less abuse of power, then it will do so, I believe, in Islamic terms. The problem with the letter and some of the language of this debate is that they are couched in Western human rights language. Human rights are, I believe, of universal validity and are not simply an invention of post-World War II Europe. But we need to pay attention to the Islamic context in which that language has to become a reality. In short, my contention is that there needs to be a greater appeal to the fundamental principles of Islam and Islamic civilisation, which properly understood can underpin and reinforce the values which we share and support from a secular, Jewish or Christian perspective.
Like other noble Lords taking part in the debate, I have received a wodge of papers from the National Council of Resistance of Iran. It is, as we know, particularly critical of the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, in the debate on 27th March. In response to that speech it asserts:
- “Fact. If ‘standards of Western European democracies’ mean the principles stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right of life, freedom of speech . . . then according to which logic can one argue that the Iranian people are not entitled to them?”.
They are entitled to them. But in speaking about them I suggest that it would be most helpful if we could appeal to those fundamental principles and values which are already enshrined in Islam as a religion and in Islamic culture and civilisation.Take religious toleration, for example, which is of such crucial importance to the beleaguered Baha’i community in Iran. Sura 2:256 of the Qur’an says:
- “There is no compulsion in religion. Rectitude has become clear from error”.
Then there is human dignity, which is always violated when there is not due process of law, and cruel or degrading punishments, which have been referred to in the debate today. Sura 15:28-29 of the Qur’an says:
- “And when thy Lord said to the angels ‘See, I am creating a mortal of clay of mud moulded. When I have shaped him, fall you down, bowing before him!'”.
The angels, according to the Qur’an are called to bow before human beings, the respect we owe our fellow sister and brother human beings cannot be less. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, is to take part in the debate. I hope that he will be able to elaborate on and reinforce these principles.Within the Islamic world at the moment there is a great debate about the relationship between democracy and Islam. We have to recognise that some, both governments and extremist opposition parties, believe that they are incompatible. But others argue that Islamic values demand a democratic system. The concept of Shura or consultation is fundamental to Islam. There is also the tradition of independent reasoning, Ijtihad, and consensus, Ijma. On this basis some leading Muslim thinkers argue that democracy is not only compatible with Islam but is required by it. So as one prominent writer has said:
- “The legislative assembly–majlis al Sura–must be truly representative of the entire community, both men and women. But a representative character can be achieved only through free and general election; therefore the members of the majlis must be elected by means of as wide as possible suffrage, including both men and women”.
We all know that the basis of political power in Iran at the moment is complex and not always clear, but obviously the role of the Supreme Leader and the Council of Guardians is crucial. Nevertheless, there is an elected president and an elected majlis or parliament. Another leading Muslim writer on human rights in Islam has written:
- “An integral part of this vision”–
- “is an insistence in freedom of expression, encompassing the right to criticise government at all levels, and especially to protest against tyrannical action, stemming from the Qur’anic injunction to ‘enjoin good and prohibit evil’ (Qur’an 9:71). Alongside freedom of expression, the Islamic system also upholds political pluralism; the Prophet observed, for example, that difference of opinion within the Muslim community was ‘a sign of God’s mercy’. Indeed, the jurisprudential doctrines of difference of opinion (iktilaf) and reasoned thinking aimed at arriving at a level of opinion (ujtihad) have long informed a pluralistic intellectual tradition in Islam. The general Qur’anic exhortation to justice has important implications in the affairs of state, as in the criminal justice system; the Islamic vision insists that all accused enjoy the right to due process of law in open court, and hence to freedom from arbitrary imprisonment”.
That is a devout Muslim writing about the tradition of human rights in Islam.We know that there is a democratic element in Iran at the moment and I should like to suggest that we should do all we can to encourage the development and growth of that democratic party within a culture which is and, so far as one can tell such things, will remain essentially Islamic. Despite the tensions and struggle between those who want to change in a more democratic direction and those do not, things have changed for the better.
- “Change is certainly very visible . . . in some respects the position of women is better than before 1979 and they are socially very confident. Religious and ethnic minorities are also a little more relaxed and appear to be freer today than in the early years of the revolution”.
He thought that there was a recognition that change would come more cautiously and gradually than originally had been imagined. I myself was recently in Iran on holiday and found people to be remarkably cheerful and open. In the papers we received from the National Council of Resistance in Iran, reference is made to many of the atrocities that have taken place over the past year and concludes from this that:
- “This stems from a simple reality of the regime ruling Iran. The government in Iran is based on a theory of government called velayat-faqih, or the absolute rule of the religious jurist. By understanding this underlining concept, it becomes quite evident that any change to this principle is tantamount to the collapse of the whole theocracy rule in Iran. That is why this system is absolutely incapable of any reform and moderation”.
I would suggest that that is an unduly pessimistic assessment. There are forces for change in Iran at the moment and I believe that there are principles and values in Islam itself which can reinforce and carry forward this process of change.The non-Islamic religions in Iran have suffered very badly since the revolution, above all the Baha’is, whom I have already mentioned, but also the small Jewish community, some of whom were tried and imprisoned last year, and the Anglican Church. On the positive side, the Anglican Bishop in Iran has now been officially recognised by the state. On the negative side, the property that was seized after the revolution has not been returned and the resolution of the 1988 Lambeth Conference respectfully requesting the Islamic Republic of Iran to respond positively to the claims of the Anglican Church in Iran has not yet happened.
While in no way glossing over the abuses which continue in Iran and continuing to draw attention to these, as other noble Lords quite properly have done this evening, I believe that we should welcome and affirm the process of change which has taken place there. Above all, we should see that process and its future possibilities within its Islamic context and do all we can to bring to the fore those Islamic principles and values which resonate with our western human rights language.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, Iran is an extraordinary country with an extraordinary history and a no less remarkable present. In his report on the human rights situation in Iran to the United Nations Human Rights Commission on 16th January this year, Mr Maurice Copithorne, the Special Representative for the commission, put it this way:
- “Iran is going through a period of critical turmoil. The struggle is for the soul of Iranian society, for certain values such as justice, one of the oldest political values going back, scholars say, to the Achaemenian period”–
- “and for the more modern ones of accountable governance and the welfare and dignity of all citizens”.
- “believes that change is clearly underway and that given certain foundational improvements that have taken place–
- “in areas such as women’s education, democracy and health, the trend is now irreversible”.
- “the currently successful mass suppression of two fundamental human rights, the right to the freedom of expression itself and the right to be free from detention for seeking to exercise that right”.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to that.However, I would add that, despite the closure of over 30 reformist papers over the past year or so, invariably without any open process or clear legal justification, the Canutes of the reactionary Iranian clerical establishment cannot keep the genie of free expression in a bottle of their choosing. Just before we debated the Terrorism Bill in relation to MKO/MeK/NCRI in this House on 27th March, I asked the British Embassy in Iran to let me know how things then stood in terms of reformist newspapers. Although it was only six weeks ago, the embassy reckoned that at least 10 such national newspapers were in circulation, each with readerships in excess of 60,000.
As recently as this month, more than 150 of the 290 deputies in the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, sent a formal letter to the head of the judiciary, Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi, demanding an end to what they called the illegal and unwarranted arrest of liberal and reformist figures. This followed the recent banning of the liberal opposition group, which again has already been referred to, the Freedom Movement, and the detention of more than 40 of its activists. Yet in the very aftermath of that banning, a new reformist paper, Nowruz, went on sale, run by one of the reformist MPs, Mr Mirdamadi. I suggest to noble Lords that all this is not nearly as a black a picture as so far has been painted tonight.
Students continue to hold demonstrations and conferences which thousands enthusiastically attend to express their views. On the anniversary of the 1999 student riots–I was there with a parliamentary delegation the following week–the Tehran university students were back on the streets, publicly making their views felt. In August of last year a massive conference took place at Khorramabad, to which various speakers were invited and which the revolutionary guards did their best to prevent and upset. No fewer than three inquiries have taken place since the disturbances in Khorramabad. Two of those inquiries have come to the clear conclusion that the revolutionary guards were responsible and must not be allowed to undertake such disruptive activity.
Of course, producing reports and coming to conclusions is not the same as achieving results, but it is all part and parcel of a vigour of democratic expression and activity in Iran which, I venture to suggest, has not been fully or indeed fairly expressed so far in the debate.