Mahsa Amini Iran protests: UK ministers' response has been woeful – Christine Jardine MP

It was Rev Martin Luther King Jnr who reminded us that “no-one is free until we are all free”.

Protesters take to the streets of Iran's capital Tehran following the death of Mahsa Amini in 'morality police' custody (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters take to the streets of Iran's capital Tehran following the death of Mahsa Amini in 'morality police' custody (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)

For me that has seldom seemed more real than in this past week when a confluence of factors underlined that, however far we have come as a global society, we are still a long way from the mountain top.

I appreciate that different countries and cultures will perceive freedom differently. Or that in some societies the drive to free people from life-threatening poverty and hunger will be the top priority.

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But while we may have our third female Prime Minister in the UK, laud the achievements of Jacinda Ardern, and point to the successes of women across the globe, we cannot ignore the evidence that we are not all free.

As Liz Truss addressed her party conference, pictures were being beamed around the world of widespread protest in Iran following the deaths of two women.

For those of us old enough to remember the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979, this past week has illustrated how little we actually know and understand about Iranian society even now.

We have become used over the years to seeing a simplistic portrayal in the media. We tend to think only of a theocracy whose geographic position in the gulf gives it enormous strategic importance and whose culture is very different from our own.

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The international concern over that state’s pursuit of nuclear capability has been at the centre of diplomatic wrangling and, for the US in particular, the focus of decades of tension.

Perhaps what we have lost sight of is that Iran is a country, a people who like any other want to live their best lives. And be free so to do.

This past week what we have seen is that desire expressed on the streets and universities of Iran, provoked originally by the death in custody of a woman accused of ‘improper’ dress.

International observers, including Amnesty International, say they have not witnessed protests of the scale and intensity that have followed the death of Mahsa Amini.

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The 22-year-old from Iranian Kurdistan was visiting Tehran with her family last month when she arrested and taken into custody by the morality police.

She apparently fell into a coma which security forces claimed was the result of a heart attack. But her family, who deny she had any heart problems, claim she was covered in bruises and hold the security police responsible for her death.

A 16-year-old has also since died in contested circumstances during the protests which followed and an alarming video has surfaced of students confronting security forces at Tehran University.

In this country, the political response has been strangely muted, perhaps because of parliamentary recess, and largely confined to the news channels.

But there is concern across the globe that what we are seeing is a genuine desire for more freedom for women within the society which is being brutally thwarted.

Abir Al-Sahlani, an Iraqi-born Swedish Member of the European Parliament, cut her hair as she spoke to the EU assembly about the situation in Iran.

What feels like hundreds, thousands maybe of women have done the same thing to show their solidarity for the women of Iran.

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But the response of our own Foreign Secretary and wider government has been woeful in comparison.

The UK Government should use the Magnitsky sanctions regime, where appropriate, for cases in which human rights abuses and atrocities have clearly been committed.

Excessive use of force cannot be unseen or go unremarked. Ministers must condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the use of violent repression to curtail public demonstrations, protests and freedom of expression.

The United States and Canada have now sanctioned Iran’s morality police and the Prime Minister must follow suit. They describe what we are seeing as opposition to Iran’s supreme leaders and a fight-back against the security forces aiming to clamp down on these female-led protests.

Perhaps it is the scale of the protests, or the sudden and rapid growth of internal dissent that we could previously only suspect existed which has caught us off guard.

Or is it that we do not have the understanding and the diplomatic relationships to accurately assess what is happening, or are we just too occupied with Putin’s war?

Whatever the reason we seem to be waiting, for what is not clear, but there are resonances of both the ultimately failed Arab Spring and the collapse of the Soviet Empire in what we are seeing.

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In 1989 we had a perception of the Eastern bloc that was decades old, flawed and did not recognise the weaknesses in Soviet control.

Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (as it then was) Romania and East Germany were all disintegrating in front of us and somehow we did not see it until the Soviet hegemony collapsed completely.

In 2022, are we trying to understand what is happening in Iran through a similarly outdated prism? That is not to suggest that the results will be the same, of course.

And I do not feel qualified, nor do I feel we have the right as a society to dictate what the eventual outcome of the protests and cries for freedom should be.

That right belongs in its entirety to the people of Iran.

But what I do want my country and others to do is respect their wishes and support them in achieving them.

Human rights are universal. I have freedom of choice, of thought and of expression. My rights and that of others to freedom of religious expression are protected.

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I have the right to vote for and pursue the aims of the political party of my choice and, if I want to, protest where I feel our authorities have fallen short.

But while those rights are denied to others, wherever they might be in this world, I cannot feel completely free.

Christine Jardine is Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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