Villiers leads debate in Parliament on horrific human rights abuses in Iran

Theresa Villiers, local Member of Parliament for Chipping Barnet, this week led a debate in Parliament on human rights abuses in Iran.

Theresa has campaigned on the issue since 2016 when an Iranian constituent, Joseph Nick Sear of Friern Barnet, approached her about the deaths of political prisoners in Iran. Ms Villiers then met with Mr Sear at one of her surgeries, and heard more about the very serious human rights abuses taking place in Iran. Mr Sear’s wife was killed in the 1988 mass executions in Iran. It is believed over 30,000 were summarily executed and buried in unmarked graves.

Taking up Mr Sear’s concerns, Theresa has been lobbying Foreign Office to press the Iranian Government to improve their record on human rights. She has spoken at various rallies in Parliament and in Trafalgar Square. In the summer, she also attended the ‘Grand Gathering’ in Paris hosted by the National Council for Resistance in Iran which regularly attracts a crowd of around 100,000.

Theresa asked the House of Commons authorities for time for MPs to consider these important questions the debate was held in Westminster Hall on the 11th October. Other speakers included Bob Blackman, MP for Harrow, and Matthew Offord, MP for Hendon.

Theresa’s speech to open the debate was reported in Hansard, along with the interventions by other MPs:

“Many observers hoped that the election of President Rouhani in Iran would lead to an improvement in the subject matter of our debate: respect for human rights in Iran. Unfortunately, there is no convincing evidence for that; in a number of respects, the situation appears to have worsened in recent years. In July, the Minister described the human rights situation in Iran as “dire”. In my view, he was correct to do so.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International highlighted a wave of floggings, amputations, blindings and other vicious physical punishments, which it described as exposing the Iranian authorities’ “utterly brutal sense of justice”.

Hundreds are routinely flogged in Iran each year, sometimes in public. The country executes more people than anywhere else in the world except China. In 2015, 977 people were executed: the highest level in a quarter of a century. In January alone this year, Iran executed 87 people—that is, on average, one every nine hours.

Amnesty International reported in 2007 that Iran had executed more children between 1990 and 2005 than any other country in the world. Sadly, as recently as last Monday, 21-year-old Alireza Tajiki was executed. He was 15 when he was arrested and 16 when he was sentenced to death. He is believed to be the fourth person executed this year in Iran who was arrested as a child. Amnesty reports that there are 88 juvenile offenders on death row. It has also highlighted concerns that the court system lacks independence and impartiality.

Nick Thomas-Symonds intervening

The sister-in-law of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is serving a prison sentence in Iran, lives in my constituency. Nazanin’s case was raised in the July Westminster Hall debate to which the right hon. Lady referred. While she has been in prison, two further charges have been proffered against Nazanin: accusations of involvement in organisations to overthrow the Government. Will the right hon. Lady join me in calling on the Foreign Secretary to do more and redouble his efforts on this case?

Theresa Villiers

I am happy to do that; I was planning to raise that worrying case slightly later in my remarks. I hope that the Minister and Foreign Secretary will do everything they can to try to secure the release of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

In terms of the court system, the concern is that people are often executed for offences that are vague or overly broad—or, in some cases, really not justified as criminal offences at all. Trials in front of so-called revolutionary courts can be grossly unfair. In some cases, long prison sentences have been imposed after trials lasting as little as 45 minutes.

I come back to the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman. Many of us in this House have spoken out in support of two British Iranian nationals held unjustly in prison in Iran. As we have heard, the first is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has spent over a year in Tehran’s Evin prison after being sentenced to five years for non-specific charges relating to national security. I understand that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have both raised that case with their counterparts in Iran. Of course, I welcome that those representations have been made at such a high level, but it is gravely worrying that so far they have had little effect. Only yesterday, news emerged that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe could face additional criminal charges and a further prison sentence of 16 years.

The second case is that of 77-year-old Kamal Foroughi, a British Iranian businessman who has spent six years in jail in Iran. He has been denied medical leave, despite significant health problems. I urge the Minister to repeat the Government’s call for consular access to Nazanin and Kamal. I hope he will go further today and call for the immediate and unconditional release of both prisoners.

I am afraid that Iran continues to detain many civil society activists and opposition figures. Press freedom is heavily curtailed: the world press freedom index for 2016 ranks the country as the 11th worst in the world for free speech. Reporters Without Borders has dubbed Iran as “the Middle East’s biggest prison for journalists”.

According to the “journalism is not a crime” project, 55 journalists, bloggers and cartoonists are currently in prison.

In June 2016, two Iranian musicians and one film-maker began a three-year prison sentence for online distribution of underground music. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s February report on human rights noted that more than 170 people were arrested in November purely on the basis of messages they posted on social media.

It is deeply worrying that the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are wholly unprotected in Iran and that homosexuality is a crime punishable by death. In August last year, gay teenager Hassan Afshar was executed. He had no access to a lawyer and was sentenced to death two months after being arrested.

The rights of women are heavily restricted, with strict rules on dress being just one of many ways in which their freedom is severely limited. Iran has no law against domestic violence and women’s rights activists are treated as criminals or even enemies of the state. A married women is also not allowed to leave the country without the permission of her husband. In September 2015, for example, the captain of Iran’s female football team was unable to take part in an international tournament because her husband forbade her from travelling.

The minimum legal age for marriage for girls is generally 13, but that can be lowered in cases where the father and a court agree. Human Rights Watch published the deeply worrying statistic that there were more than 40,000 marriage registrations in one year where the girl was aged between 10 and 14. The Iranian legal system views girls as criminally responsible from the age of nine, permitting them to be sentenced to death. In 2015, a woman was sentenced to death by stoning in an Iranian court.

Gregory Campbell intervening

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing the debate. She outlines in graphic detail the appalling litany of offences in Iran. Does she agree that it is time that not just our Government but the international community indicate to Iran that although it occasionally opens up towards being more transparent towards the west and appears to pursue moderation, it needs to make its mind up? The international community needs to ensure that Iran knows it has crossed the line. If Iran wishes to open up towards the west, these sorts of activities have to come to an end.

Theresa Villiers

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. After all, many said that securing the Iran deal would lead to change and open up relationships. The international community now needs to ensure that those opportunities are used to drive forward the urgently needed change and end the kind of terrible cruelty I have been outlining.

There is increasing concern about the plight of minority groups in Iran. All those communities, including Christians, Baha’is and Sunni Muslims, face discrimination and significant limitations on their political and democratic rights. Attempts by Muslims to change their faith can be met with criminal prosecution. There are also, I am afraid, regular reports of the arrest of members of the so-called house churches. Christian Solidarity Worldwide contacted me before the debate and told me that, earlier this year, 12 Christians were arrested while engaged in activities such as Christmas celebrations and a church picnic. They were later sentenced to prison terms considerably in excess of those stipulated by law.

Christians have often been detained for lengthy periods without being informed of what offences they will be charged with. Christian Solidarity Worldwide believes that since the presidential election in May 2017, there has been a sharp increase in the number of Christians receiving excessive sentences after being charged with vaguely worded and unsubstantiated national security charges such as “insulting the sacred” or “propaganda against the State”. That action has often been targeted at converts to Christianity, but even people from long-standing Christian communities have fallen victim to arrest and unfair imprisonment. Among recent worrying cases is that of the Assyrian pastor, the Rev. Victor Bet-Tamraz, who led the Pentecostal Assyrian Church in Tehran. On 3 July he was given a 10-year prison sentence for offences including “conducting evangelism” and “illegal house church activities”. His wife and son are also facing criminal prosecution.

The Baha’i community in Iran also faces continuing oppression. I have received reports that in the period since President Rouhani’s election in 2013, more than 150 Baha’is have been arrested, 28 have been expelled from universities for their religious beliefs, and more than 400 have suffered economic disadvantage as a result of actions such as intimidation of Baha’i business professionals or closure of Baha’i businesses. There is also grave concern about the demonisation of Baha’is by the authorities in Iran. It is believed that the virulent incitement to hatred and the propaganda that regularly emanate from official media outlets may have helped to create the conditions that led to the brutal murder in September 2016 of a member of the Baha’i community, Mr Farhang Amiri.

Finally, I draw the House’s attention to a series of events that are a source of great hurt and sadness for a number of my constituents, some of whom are present in the Public Gallery. The issue that they have raised with me is the mass killings that took place in Iran in 1988. It is believed that at least 30,000 people were summarily executed and buried in unmarked graves—all because they were calling for change, democracy and human rights. With us today are people who lost close relatives in those killings. In a report published in August, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Asma Jahangir, concluded:

“If the number of persons who disappeared and were executed can be disputed, overwhelming evidence shows that thousands of persons were summarily killed. Recently, these killings have been acknowledged by some at the highest levels of the State.”

Ms Jahangir also referred to the publication of an audio tape, which implicated the Minister of Justice in Iran and a high court judge in those horrendous crimes. Ms Jahangir’s report tells us that following the publication of the audio recording, some clerical authorities and the chief of the judiciary admitted that the executions had taken place and, in some instances, even sought to defend them.

It is astonishing that people heavily associated with the violent events of 1988 have continued to play leading roles in the Rouhani administration and Iranian public life. It is a source of deep regret that the international community has paid such minimal attention to what happened. The UN special rapporteur has called for a wide-ranging independent investigation. My constituents want the UK Government to condemn the 1988 killings as a crime against humanity and to back the call for an investigation. I appeal to the Minister to do that today. Next year is the 30th anniversary of those horrific events in Iran. It is time the relatives of those who lost their lives were given answers about what happened.

It is with real sadness that I have set out for the House just a part of the long list of human rights abuses carried out in the Islamic Republic of Iran on a daily basis. The Iranian Government are well known for their state sponsorship of terrorism, and their malign involvement in so many conflicts around the region is causing injury and death on a massive scale; but we should never forget the suffering they also inflict on their own population. No bright new dawn for Iran has emerged under the Rouhani regime. Nor has the nuclear deal led to any improvement in the situation. While diplomatic and business ties with Iran are steadily being restored and strengthened, the suffering continues and Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Mr Foroughi continue to languish in prison.

I urge the Minister today to ensure that the UK Government seize every opportunity to press for change in Iran and for an end to the cruelty inflicted by the authorities there on so many people. I hope that at the most senior levels the UK Government will use bilateral channels as well as the UN to strongly condemn the abuse of human rights in Iran. I understand that the UN General Assembly will vote on a resolution on the situation in Iran in November. I urge the Minister to take a tough line when those matters are debated. Above all, I ask him to condemn the 1988 massacre and give his support to the bereaved families who want answers about what happened to their loved ones, and who want those responsible for that terrible atrocity finally to be brought to justice.”