HL Deb 13 February 1992 vol 535 cc836-8

3.17 p.m.

Baroness Mallalieu asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps, if any, they intend to take to ensure that the sentence of death passed on Mr. Salman Rushdie by the Government of Iran on 14th February 1989 is lifted.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, the Iranian Government are well aware of our view, which remains unchanged, that the fatwa is an unacceptable infringement of the human rights of a British citizen. We have raised the issue of the fatwa with them on many occasions and will continue to do so.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that reply. For the past three years from tomorrow, the Iranian Government have continued to incite the murder of a British citizen who expressed himself within the law and have forced him effectively to live in hiding and under armed guard. Therefore, will Her Majesty's Government give an undertaking in clear and unequivocal terms that, so long as the Government of Iran continue to incite terrorists internationally by means of a bounty on Mr. Rushdie's head and continue to urge his murder and that of others involved in publishing his book, there will be no resumption of full diplomatic and economic ties with that country?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I can only repeat what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said last year in another place: There will be no dramatic or immediate change in our political relationship with Iran".—[Official Report, Commons, 18/12/91, col. 257.] We would not rule out the gradual development of closer contacts with the Iranians at the right time. For that reason such contacts can reinforce the effectiveness of the views that we make known to them —to cover the exact point that the noble Baroness has put forward.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, does my noble friend share my view that the only effect of the fatwa so far has been to reduce the respect in which the otherwise respectable religion of Islam is held throughout the civilised world? Does my noble friend agree that the only other result has been to make an unreadable novel into a best seller?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, in answer to my noble friend's first point, there have been a number of repercussions from the fatwa being imposed upon Mr. Rushdie. That is totally unacceptable.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that the leaders of the Moslem community in this country are fully aware, because they have chosen to live here, that the fatwa imposing a death sentence on a citizen of this country is against the laws of this country? Will he consider arranging for either his right honourable friend or himself to meet those Moslem leaders with a view to them bringing pressure to bear on the Government of Iran on this issue?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, everybody in this country is aware of the situation. Certainly the Moslem element here has had discussions and has firmly been made aware of the British Government's view.

Lord Acton

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that considerable anxiety has been expressed about this matter in the United States of America? Would it be possible for the Government to contact the American Government with a view to ascertaining whether they can do anything to assist?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I take note of what the noble Lord says. I shall pass it on to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, will the noble Earl consider a linguistic question? Is it possible for anybody, except a British judge, to pass sentence on a British citizen in this country? Is it not more correct to refer, as did my noble friend in her supplementary question, to incitement to murder? Is not the word "sentence" out of place in this matter?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, a fatwa has been imposed upon Mr. Salman Rushdie. That is totally unacceptable because it is an infringement of the human rights of a British citizen.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that those of us who lived through the 1930s detect the same spirit of appeasement in this Government over this matter as was the case in the Tory Government of Mr. Neville Chamberlain? Are the Government really content, having achieved absolutely nothing over the past three years, for their reputation to be, as it now is, as a Government so weak and so irresolute that they have been unable to guarantee the citizens of this country their basic simple right to live and move and express themselves in freedom under the law?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I fully understand the emotion that this issue raises. However, I disagree with the noble Lord on both counts.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, does the Minister accept that this is another example of bigotry and intolerance by a certain religion and that that religion follows a very clear example made by the Christian religion at some earlier date?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I think we are getting on to what was discussed on the last Question. I had best not answer that one.

Lord Gridley

My Lords, I take note of what has been said. However, does my noble friend agree that, while we all deplore the suffering of Salman Rushdie, it is wiser in the circumstances for us to avoid criticism of any religion, wherever that religion may be? The noble Lord, Lord Molloy, reminded us that when we were governing countries overseas we were very careful indeed not to interfere in their religion while following our own religion. As this is a matter about which people get very excited, is it not better to avoid that situation occurring?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we are in no way criticising religion. What I have said, and what we shall continue to say, is that the fatwa is an unacceptable infringement of the human rights of a British citizen.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, will the noble Earl accept that there is deep disquiet and that there would be repugnance if at any stage this Government were to withdraw from the top of their agenda, in relation to their political dealings with Iran, the appalling situation of Mr. Rushdie? Will he assure the House that that is not likely to happen?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I can assure the House that the situation with regard to Mr. Rushdie and the fatwa and the bounty that has been placed upon him will remain very much to the forefront of our minds and in our negotiation.

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