HL Deb 02 November 1998 vol 594 cc6-8

2.51 p.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, on their next visit to Iran, Ministers will ask to see prisoners on death row in Evin prison.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we and our EU partners regularly raise our human rights concerns with the Iranians, including our concerns about the death penalty. No dates have yet been set for a ministerial visit to Iran, nor any programme discussed. The Government made clear their opposition to capital punishment when they joined Council of Europe partners at their summit on 10th and 11th October in calling for the universal abolition of the death penalty.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that her visit to the prisoners on death row in St. Catherine's, Jamaica, was a good way of highlighting our concern about the death penalty there? If a ministerial visit to Iran is arranged, it would be useful if Mr. Derek Fatchett, or whoever travels to Tehran, could apply to make a similar visit to death-row prisoners in Evin. Is the Minister aware that the UN Rapporteur on Iran expressed concern about the great increase in the number of people being executed, which reached 199 in 1997? He felt that if the Iranian authorities would at least report in public on the death penalties being imposed, some measure could be obtained of the justice of the system and whether or not it was used in a political manner.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Minister of State, Mr. Fatchett, raised our concern about human rights in general and the death penalty in particular with the Iranian chargé d'affaires in London. He also raised the issue with Mr. Ahani, the director of the Iranian Foreign Affairs Ministry, on his recent visit to London in September. No dates have yet been arranged for any visit by Mr. Fatchett to Iran. All decisions about such visits have to be taken in the light of the prevailing circumstances at the time. I can assure the noble Lord that my right honourable friend will consider the most effective way of raising the issue of human rights in general, and the death penalty in particular, if and when he is able to visit Iran.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, is the noble Baroness able to tell us how many countries still have the death penalty?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, no. I am unable to give the noble Baroness that information. However, I shall make inquiries and I shall then write to her and place a copy of my answer in the Library of the House.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does my noble friend raise the British Government's concern about the death penalty on visits to the United States of America and make representations about the 3,000 people in the United States on death row?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am the Minister with first responsibility for our relationship with the United States of America. I do, indeed, raise the concern of the United Kingdom about the death penalty with our friends from America. On occasions I have had some frank exchanges with them on the subject.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware—although the point made by the noble Lord is taken—that the United States at least has a system of trials and appeals which is open to the public, whereas in Iran nobody knows how the convictions are secured and in many cases people do not have a right of appeal?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is aware of the varying judicial systems around the world and the differences between them. I understand that my noble friend was raising some particular questions about the United States. I believe that the point he was making—slightly elliptically—was that possibly Her Majesty's Government did not take a robust line on the issue with all countries that have the death penalty. If that is what my noble friend thinks, he is wrong in that surmise. Those questions are raised properly and appropriately.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I wonder whether I could push the Minister on this point. Following the restoration of diplomatic relations at ambassadorial level, what pressure do the Government intend to exert on Iran to ensure the full access of human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch and international human rights monitors, and the UN special representative to Iran, Mr. Maurice Copithorne, given the fact that independent domestic human rights monitoring is severely restricted?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the first step is to ensure that we have a full ambassadorial exchange with Iran. As I was able to tell the House last week, that is under discussion at the moment. We hope that the next step will be to arrange a ministerial visit to Iran. Obviously, such a visit—if it is arranged—will be the first ministerial visit to Iran since 1979. There will be many issues to be discussed, including human rights.

The noble Lord raises further questions about such people as Mr. Copithorne and others. Of course, we should like to see Mr. Copithorne have full access to Iran and to have a full discussion about those issues in Iran. However, we can draw some comfort from the fact that Mrs. Robinson will go to Iran early next year and the Iranian Government have agreed that on her visit she should be accompanied by officials from Amnesty International.

Nobody claims that these issues come right overnight. However, Her Majesty's Government hope and believe that they are moving in the right direction so far as concerns Iran.