HL Deb 26 October 1998 vol 593 cc1691-3

3.14 p.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the course of their discussions with the Iranian authorities on improving the relations between the United Kingdom and Iran, they have raised the persecution of the Baha'is.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have spoken to the Iranian authorities on many occasions about the plight of the Baha'i community in Iran, which continues to cause serious concern. We also maintain regular contact with the Baha'i community here in the United Kingdom about the situation of their counterparts in Iran. On 4th October, we protested to the Iranian authorities in Tehran, along with our Austrian and German partners in the EU troika, calling on them not to carry out the execution of two members of the Baha'i community whose death sentences had recently been confirmed. We were told that the sentences had nothing to do with the Baha'i faith but in any case were still subject to review and therefore not final. We and our EU partners will continue to monitor carefully both these cases and the situation of the Baha'i community in Iran.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Iranian authorities refuse to give any further details of the nature of the offences alleged to have been committed by the two Baha'is or the previous Baha'i who was convicted of unspecified national security offences and executed? Does she believe that such executions are part of a systematic programme of repression against the Baha'is initiated by Ayatollah Golpaygani in 1991 and recently involving a crackdown on the institution of higher education, the sole institution offering higher education to the Baha'is, and raids on no fewer than 500 private citizens of the Baha'i faith, including the confiscation of many of their goods? Will the noble Baroness protest vigorously against the repression? Will she tell the Iranians that no ministerial visit to Iran will be arranged until they lay off?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we have protested to the Iranian authorities about the two individuals under sentence of death. But, as I said to the noble Lord, we are told that the cases are subject to further review and that therefore, at the moment, the sentences are not final. Through our contacts with the Baha'i community in the United Kingdom, we are aware of a further wave of arrests of Baha'is across Iran which took place around the end of September. These seem to have been directed against teachers in the way that the noble Lord described and those engaged in long-term learning by the Baha'i community. Most were released after arrest but had to surrender property ownership deeds as a form of bail.

I assure the noble Lord that we shall continue to monitor the situation very carefully with our EU partners. We shall take further action as necessary. In particular, we shall continue to press the Iranians for more transparency about their judicial process in those and other human rights cases. We attach particular importance to that.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Baha'i community has for many years now been exposed to intimidation and harassment on the part of the Iranian authorities and that protests, certainly in relation to the less high profile cases, seem to carry very little weight with those authorities? Does my noble friend agree, particularly as the economic relationship between Britain and Iran seems likely to improve in the short term at least, that it is very important that the Baha'i community does not feel that it is forgotten and that economic interests weigh more heavily than their human rights.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with a certain amount of what my noble friend says. It is important to remember that the Baha'i community has been the subject of some forms of persecution on and off since the mid-19th century. However, I hope that the improved diplomatic situation between ourselves and Iran and the forthcoming exchange of ambassadors will allow us to make our points on human rights in a forthright and direct way. I assure the noble Lord that that is what we intend to do.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, given the Foreign Secretary's ethical foreign policy and its emphasis on preventing torture, what steps have the Government taken to protest about widespread torture during the investigation phase of criminal prosecutions in Iran? Furthermore, what progress has been made in halting torture, amputations and stonings condemned by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in April and what specific discussions on this subject did the Foreign Secretary have with his Iranian counterpart, Dr. Kamal Kharrazi, when he met him at the United Nations last month?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the problems about torture continue to be a point of concern to the Foreign Secretary and, of course, to my honourable friend Mr. Fatchett. We and the European Union want these issues with Iran dealt with. We have had discussions on issues concerning terrorism.

We believe that human rights in Iran are ripe for improvement, given the improved relationship between our two countries since the position concerning Mr. Rushdie's fatwa was addressed. I hope that what we are seeing here is not an overnight change. Of course, it is not. It is an improved situation and one on which we need to capitalise bilaterally and through the EU in the discussions that we have with Iran on the issues that continue to concern us. We believe that there is a positive situation here and one we can work towards improving.