Iran: Demonstrations – Bishop of St Albans tables question for short debate

The Bishop of St Albans tabled a question for short debate on 27th October 2022, concerning the recent protests and demonstrations in Iran:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: To ask His Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Government of Iran concerning the recent demonstrations in that country.

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity that this short debate affords to highlight the plight of many people in Iran, especially young women, who are fighting for their basic human rights and, as a consequence, suffering horrific violence at the hands of the state.

Within a few metres of this Palace of Westminster, we have seen and heard the many protesters over recent weeks who have been chanting—please excuse my pronunciation — “Jin, Jiyan, Azadî”, a slogan which has been taken up by the protesters. It is Kurdish and it means “Woman, Life, Freedom”. The protesters are demonstrating in solidarity with the women in Iran. I hope that this will give us an opportunity for their voices to be heard in this Chamber today.

In recent years, the light of international scrutiny has been shone on the Iranian Government. In addition to the recent demonstrations that we are discussing, Iran’s Government have continued to use the death penalty, to place restrictions on freedom of religion, and to detain British nationals. I commend the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in securing the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori from their detention in Iran. I hope His Majesty’s Government will show the same vigour in promoting the release of the detained British national Morad Tahbaz and in supporting all those who are unfairly detained by the Iranian Government.

I will give some of the background to the demonstrations that have been taking place, and indeed growing, in Iran over recent weeks. On 13 September, just over six weeks ago, 22 year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested by the Iranian Government’s Guidance Patrol—a section of the Iranian police tasked with upholding Islamic dress code. She was alleged to have worn tight trousers and worn her headscarf improperly. Three days later, Mahsa was dead. The Law Enforcement Command of the Islamic Republic of Iran—the Iranian police—reported that Amini suffered from a spontaneous heart attack, fell into a coma and died. However, witnesses, including the women detained alongside her, stated that she was severely beaten by the police prior to her death. This is supported by leaked medical scans that reveal bone fractures and haemorrhaging. Over 800 members of Iran’s medical council have accused the Government of attempting to cover up the real causes of her death.

Since then, as has been widely reported in our media, protests have erupted across the country, with women demanding an end to mandatory hijab laws, justice for the murder of Mahsa Amini, and the protection of women’s rights. Indeed, reports coming out of Iran today, despite the social media close-down, suggest that the largest demonstration so far took place just yesterday. In defiance of the authorities, thousands of women gathered at Mahsa Amini’s grave. Demonstrations also took place in other parts of the country.

What makes these protests unique, and the response of the Iranian Government far more concerning, is the age of the protesters. The second-in-command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has placed the average age of these protesters at only 16 years-old. Indeed, schoolgirls have been at the spearhead of this struggle for women’s rights. We have heard horrifying reports of the actions of the Iranian state towards children.

On 20 September, 16 year-old Nika Shakarami went missing after attending a protest in central Tehran. Ten days later, her family members, who had briefly been given a chance to identify her body, said that her nose had been completely destroyed and her skull had been

“broken and disintegrated from multiple blows of a hard object”.

On 12 October, Iranian security forces stormed a secondary school and attempted to force the girls to participate in a pro-Government demonstration, supporting oaths of allegiance to the Ayatollah and the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Those girls who refused to sing pro-Government songs were arrested and beaten. Sixteen year-old Asra Panahi was one of 12 students who were taken to hospital following the attack. She died from internal bleeding.

These are not isolated incidents. The Islamic Republic of Iran has cracked down brutally on protests in community after community in every corner of that country. Human rights groups have stated that at least 244 people have been killed, including 32 children, and that over 12,000 have been detained. The Government have shut down internet and mobile phone services in affected areas, arrested journalists and have been accused of threatening the family members of protesters with waterboarding and mock executions.

I have absolutely no doubt as to the gravity and seriousness of the actions of the Iranian regime and wholeheartedly stand with the women who have bravely protested for freedom. The examples I have just provided barely scrape the surface of the horrors of what is going on.

There is little we can do to influence the Iranian Government, but what we can do is to raise our voices, along with the countless voices of women around the world, to show those who are fighting for these basic freedoms that they are not forgotten, that many people are standing in solidarity with them and that we will continue to highlight their plight. I am grateful to noble Lords for the contributions they are going to make to this debate, and I would like to end by asking the Minister about His Majesty’s Government’s response to the protests.

First, a little over a year ago the Islamic Republic of Iran was elected to a four-year term on the UN Commission on the Status of Women. I understand that His Majesty’s Government have a policy of not commenting on UN elections conducted by secret ballot. However, noting the extreme behaviour of the Iranian security forces to women and young girls that I raised earlier, do His Majesty’s Government have any plans to raise this matter with the UN? What is the point of being in the UN if these things are not raised?

Secondly, senior political figures and clerics, such as Ali Larijani and Ayatollah Alavi Boroujerdi, have come out in support of the protesters, criticising their Government’s hard-line stance towards them. What steps will His Majesty’s Government be taking to enter discussions with sympathetic politicians and religious leaders as we try to raise the plight of these women and hopefully, by the grace of God, bring it to a close?

Hansard

Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Polak (Con): My Lords, I pay tribute to my local bishop, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, for obtaining this important debate. I wish the new Minister well on his debut.

It is often said that fact is stranger than fiction. To follow the right reverend Prelate’s words, it is hard to believe that on 25 March 2022 Iran began a four-year term on the Commission on the Status of Women, the UN’s top women’s rights body. I want to go one stage further than the right reverend Prelate. Commending the women for their bravery and courage is absolutely right, but it is just words. Talk is not enough, so let us act—and I think we can act. Can the Minister advise me on whether the UK can take a lead at the UN and ensure that Iran is immediately suspended and removed as a member of the UN Commission on the Status of Women? It is impossible to understand how it can be on it. I urge the Minister to take that to the department. Let us lead—and this we can do.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP): My Lords, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans on bringing this debate to the House, particularly as it is the 40th day since the death of Mahsa Amini. Her death has resonated throughout the world. She is an incredible martyr for something that ought never to have taken place, something we perhaps allowed in some small way to happen in Iran. I also welcome the new boy on the block, the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, and hope he enjoys his post; it might be quite demanding.

I suspect that here in this Chamber we all support the women of Iran. We understand that they are morally justified in what they are doing, which is a peaceful but very loud and vigorous protest. They are incredibly brave in the face of a repressive, dangerous and cruel regime. I would like to ask what we can do about it and what the Government have started to do. The right reverend Prelate said that there is not much we can do, but there probably is a lot—including proscribing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. I have a few more ideas if the Government would like some of them.

I would like to know how this affects the nuclear deal with Iran. The deal is that they do not try for an increase in enriched uranium, and we do not put sanctions in place. However, given the current human rights abuses, will the Government continue to express full support for restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was mentioned earlier, or will they stand with the women of Iran who are fighting for freedom? Will there be additional targeted sanctions of any kind to show that the UK is a defender of human rights and freedom for all in society? With inflation in Iran of 40%, it is likely that some of the richest Iranians will start to bring their private assets to Britain. Has any thought been given to imposing measures on the assets of the richest, and perhaps those in power, who might be banking with us? While we are at it, could we also demand that Iran stops supplying Russia with drones? That might be a step forward for world peace.

Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD): My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for bringing this Topical Question to debate for us. As he introduced it so well, it is about a blend of our UK strategic interests and human rights and freedom of speech for the people of Iran.

As the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, indicated, our debate is less about looking at Iran through the prism of its regime—and therefore there is no question of our solidarity with people within Iran—and more about questioning the tactics and brutality of the regime. It is about highlighting in particular, as has been remarked consistently in this short debate, the bravery of women in Iran, and especially—it is what stands out—the young women in Iran, criticising in schools the president in their presence. There cannot be anything more brave than that. It should be an inspiration to the whole world.

Lord Johnston of Lainston (Con): This fight for freedom brings me now to the subject of today’s debate: the United Kingdom’s response to the Iranian regime’s brutal repression of peaceful protest. I thank the Bishop of St Albans for tabling this Question and his dedication to seeking the betterment of peoples’ lives around the world. I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this incredibly informed debate, and I will try to answer as many of their questions as I can in my comments.

We are gathered today in this House just 41 days after the death of Mahsa Zhina Amini following her arrest by Iran’s so-called morality police. These are 41 days in which the Iranian people have sent their strongest message yet that their human rights must be respected by the Iranian authorities. The violence levelled at protestors in Iran by the security forces is truly shocking. It is abhorrent that Iran has responded with such unconscionable violence, as well as mass arrests, internet shutdowns and media blackouts. This is no way for any Government to treat its own people. The international community must shine a light on the situation in Iran and hold the Iranian Government to account for the serious human rights violations they are committing. I think we are all agreed on that.

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