HC Deb 11 April 2000 vol 348 cc178-80
11. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

If he will make a statement on human rights in Iran. [117177]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Hain)

Although there have been improvements in Iran's human rights record since the election of President Khatami in 1997, we continue to press his Government over continued persecution of the Baha'i religious minority, the lack of transparency in Iran's judicial proceedings and the trial of members of the Iranian Jewish community.

Mr. Dismore

I remind my hon. Friend that the 13 Jews who were detained in Iran more than a year ago face the start of their trial on Thursday. I urge him to use all possible endeavours to put pressure on the Iranian Government to ensure that they receive a fair trial, with adequate legal representation and international observers, so that we can bring that travesty to an end and ensure the detainees' release from those dubious, bogus and trumped-up charges.

Mr. Hain

I know of my hon. Friend's close interest in that trial, and I applaud him for it. It is an interest that the British Government—including my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and myself as the Minister responsible—have consistently raised with the Iranian Government. There has been some good news: it is not clear that the trial will start this week. The judicial spokesman has said that the defendants, who do not have representation, will now have time to appoint lawyers, which is good. He has also announced that proceedings will be open to the media and media representatives, which is also good news. It is also clear that only a few of those involved will be charged with espionage and the others will face lesser offences, thus removing the prospect of the death penalty. I hope that the Iranian authorities will take account of the enormous concern across the world about the trial and act accordingly.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

While I welcome that question and the Minister's response to it, does the Minister agree that all matters pertaining to middle east issues are of the greatest sensitivity? Does he agree also that someone who will be taking an increasing role in these matters is the Government's so-called special envoy, Lord Levy? In the circumstances, will the Minister confirm to the House that there is no question of Lord Levy's having been in contact with any foreign intelligence agencies?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman started off very well, and I applaud him for that. He shares our concern and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) about the plight of the Jewish detainees in Iran, an issue that we shall continue to address.

As I said during the previous Foreign and Commonwealth Question Time, Lord Levy plays an important role as the personal envoy of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He is highly respected throughout the middle east. He meets presidents, kings, foreign ministers and others to promote the peace process. His role should be applauded and not continually sniped at. The hon. Gentleman should think of a better ending to his question next time.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that although there remain considerable causes for concern about the human rights record within Iran, reports of reputable human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International show that there has been a slight improvement, and do not bear out the more lurid allegations that were rehearsed at the beginning of the sitting by, for example, the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess)? The important matter in Iran, with the election of the new, reform-minded Government, is for countries such as the United Kingdom to work constructively with the new regime to try to help Iran to make the transition towards a modern Government who can play a positive role within the region?

Mr. Hain

That question was a breath of fresh air and common sense after the previous one. My hon. Friend makes the important point that, under President Khatami and his reforming Government, there has been considerable progress on human rights and in other respects. The recent clear mandate that he received for reforms in the elections in Iran has given him the opportunity to work with the international community—Britain included, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will travel to Tehran shortly. That will ensure that Iran is brought back into that community on a basis of friendship with other nations, rather than on one of hostility, as in the past. We need a process of critical but active engagement to assist that reform process, which is precisely what we are doing.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

Certainly, we must express concern for the 13 members of the Jewish community who are detainees, but is it not correct that Muslims are experiencing similar charges? If that is the case, is it not wrong to concentrate only on people of one religion? Should we not express concern for both Jews and Muslims? Does the Minister agree that there has been a substantial advance in human rights in Iran over the past five years?

Mr. Hain

Yes, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there has been a substantial advance in human rights in Iran. There is, however, a long way to go. I can confirm that Muslims are charged under the same procedure in the same trial, and we are equally concerned for their human rights. Given the sensitivities in the middle east, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will understand why there is particular concern for the detainees who are of Jewish descent and who have been prosecuted.