Britain must relinquish political expediency for a principled approach to Iran’s human rights crisis


London, MEFD – On Wednesday 1 November, Middle East Forum for Development (MEFD) held an event in the House of Commons regarding the human rights situation in Iran.

The event was chaired and hosted by Mr Jim Shannon, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Member of Parliament, and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief. The speakers included Mr Mosa Zahed, executive director of Middle East Forum for Development; Ms Sara Saei, a student of spiritual teacher and prisoner of conscience Mohammad Ali Taheri; Mr Reza Hosseinbor, Iranian Baloch human rights activist and Mr Qusay Doraghi, representative of Ahwaz Human Rights Organisation (AHRO) UK.The panellists addressed the grave human rights violations by the Iranian authorities in general and the persecution of Iran’s minorities in particular and further deliberated about how the international community can better support and protect such minorities.

Mr Shannon remarked during his opening speech that, “The Iranian constitution only officially recognises Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians as religious minorities. Despite this, these groups, as well as most religious minorities groups in Iran, face discrimination in law and in practice.” Mr Shannon added that, “They are discriminated against in many areas including in education, employment and inheritance and are persecuted for practising their faith. Converting from Islam, and trying to convert others, is still punishable by death.”

Mr Shannon argued regarding Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s Charter of Citizen’s Rights, “Rouhani’s election and Charter pledges have not been fulfilled and fundamental rights are not a reality for many.” He further emphasised that, “The number of prisoners of conscience also remains staggeringly high – roughly 800. At least 250 of these are imprisoned because of their religious beliefs.” In the aftermath of this year’s presidential elections, “Iranian NGOs have noted a sharp increase in the number of Christians and other minorities receiving excessive sentences after being found guilty of vague national security-related charges…” Mr Shannon added.

Mosa Zahed specified that, “Executions, torture and repression of Iran’s society continue unabated, with the Iranian authorities having executed 435 individuals during the first half of 2017.” Zahed expressed his concern about the fact that among those executed, at least four were juvenile offenders and that 86 more await the death penalty. Zahed further emphasized that, “Despite being State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran engages in systematic repression of journalists at home and abroad, utilising state institutions such as the Ministry of Intelligence in order to intimidate and harass reporters and their family members.” He stipulated that, “It is now more than ever an imperative that the international community coordinates a unified response in order to effectively confront the Iranian authorities’ grim human rights record.”

Sara Saei raised awareness about the plight of Mohammad Ali Taheri, who is imprisoned for establishing a spiritual doctrine and group called Erfan-e Halgheh. Taheri was arrested in April 2010 and released after two months. He was rearrested in May 2011 and sentenced by a Revolutionary Court in Tehran for five years, 74 lashes and a large fine, for “insulting Islamic sanctities”. In December 2015, Taheri was acquitted of a second charge of “spreading corruption on earth”, for which he had been previously sentenced to death in August 2015. The Iranian authorities have subjected Taheri to torture and mock execution throughout his imprisonment and on 27 August again sentenced him to death on the charge of “spreading corruption on earth”, which was ultimately quashed on 30th October by Iran’s Supreme Court. Sara Saei stipulated that the Iranian authorities increasingly crack down on Erfan-e Halgheh students .“Weeks after Taheri was retried, at least one hundred of his students were arrested by the Revolutionary Guard in cities such as Esfahan, Tabriz, Shiraz and Mashhad” Saei said. “The detained students are held for interrogation and forced to make false statements against Mr Taheri or to bring new charges against him”, she added.

Mr Doraghi argued during his speech that the Ahwazi Arabs’ rights have been systematically violated by the Iranian authorities, underscoring that his community“has been marginalised, excluded and discriminated by successive governments in Iran.” Mr Doraghi emphasised that the Khuzestan Province “accounts for up to 90% of Iran’s oil Gross Domestic Product” and that “70% of the population of Khuzestan hold less than 5% of the key and important governmental positions.” He further stipulated that, “With inadequate political representation, the Ahwazi Arabs are unable to address the injustices faced by their people in the economic, cultural, political and judicial sphere.” Mr Doraghi finished by stating that the Iranian authorities must respect the collective rights of the Ahwazi minority and “allow us to have internal autonomy to build our civil society and develop our cultures, languages, histories and economies.”

Mr Hosseinbor raised awareness about the plight of Iran’s Baloch minority, stating that Iranian authorities had carried out ethnic cleansing and genocide “through starvation and sickness and direct killing in Balochistan, Ahwaz and southern part of Iran which are dominated by [a] Sunni population.” Mr Hosseinbor argued that “the Islamic Republic is determined to settle 2.5 million Shia fanatics in this region to change the demography of the population, usurping the land of native people. As of today, a large part of residential land of Port Chabahar has been usurped from native people by the security forces and allocated to new settlers. Consequently, 46% of indigenous people of Chabahar have been driven out of their homes and lands.” Mr Hosseinbor further underscored in his final remarks that 40% of Balochistan has undergone desertification and that officials within the Iranian government “declared about five years ago that a large part of Iran will turn into a desert as a result of drying up of nearly all water resources in the next 20 years. The result will be that about 50 million Iranians will be forced to leave Iran or die from hunger.”

Ms Shimaa Elsayed the founder of Women’s Action Against Violent Extremism (WAVE) and a leading committee member of Amnesty International UK Women’s Action Network (WAN) was also in attendance and expressed the deep concerns of both organisations in regard to the systematic violation of women’s right in Iran and use of vaguely worded national security charges to crack down on women’s human rights defenders and women’s rights activists. WAVE and WAN have been working together to campaign, in particular for women’s human rights defender in Iran Narges Mohammadi and British Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Ms Elsayed urged the British government “to call on Iranian authorities to release immediately and unconditionally Narges Mohammadi and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and all other human rights defenders who have been imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their rights.”

The panellists agreed that the UK government must relinquish political expediency and espouse a principled approach in solving Iran’s human rights crisis.

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