A conference focusing on human rights violations in Iran was held on Sep.18 in the UK House of Lords by Forward Strategy, a new UK-based consultancy promoting social justice.
The event, chaired by lawmaker Lord Ian Austin, coincided with the anniversary of the death of Mahsa Jina Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested by Iran’s morality police in September 2022 for failing to observe the country’s compulsory hijab law, and who died while in police custody. The parliamentary conference was also the launch of the Mahsa Amini Project, an initiative by Forward Strategy to gather evidence of human rights violations in Iran.
“We’re here today to reaffirm our support for the Iranian opposition, for the brave women standing up against this theocratic dictatorship and we commit ourselves to the slogan ‘women life and freedom,’” Lord Austin said.
During the debate, panelists discussed the perception of Islam in the West; the sharp rise in the use of the death penalty since Amini’s death; an increase in incidents of violence against women and girls; oppression of ethnic and religious minority groups as well as ongoing discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community in Iran.
“The regime’s strategy is increasing repression,” said another speaker, Nazenin Ansari, who is the managing editor of Kayhan Life. “It knows that ultimately it is incapable of resolving the fundamental causes that ignited the Mahsa revolution: lack of justice, freedom and economic sustenance.”
“If ethnic minorities in Iran had equal access to the law, then more than 100,000 Baluch people would not be without a birth certificate and denied basic human rights,” Ansari added.
Amini’s death on Sept. 16, 2022 sparked nationwide protests in Iran which began with calls for gender equality and quickly grew to include demands for better pay and living conditions, and regime change.
Forward Strategy’s company was incorporated on Nov. 7 by the French journalist and political analyst Catherine Perez-Shakdam and by Dr. Stepan Stepanenko, a member of the Belarus Coordination Council — a body tasked with protecting the sovereignty and independence of the Republic of Belarus.
Perez-Shakdam and Stepanenko previously worked as research fellows at the London-based Henry Jackson Society, a right-wing national security think tank.
“We wanted to send a very simple message that Iranians are not alone, and we are willing to fight with them,” Perez-Shakdam told Kayhan Life. “It’s about giving them a voice and a platform.”
The event was moderated by Perez-Shakdam. The other speaker was Usama Hasan, a senior analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in London.
UK Conservative Party lawmaker Stuart Polak attended the debate as a guest.
Iran is an Islamic Republic, and Shia Islam is the official religion of the country. While its constitution recognizes non-Shia Muslims, as well as Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Iranians, the United Nations has repeatedly criticized the government for its escalating persecution of these groups, and several other religious and ethnic minority communities.
“An Iranian academic told me that there are lots of moderate Iranian Shia Muslims around the world and that they’ve given up hope because they feel they’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” Hasan said. “They feel they’re caught between the Shia Islamists in Iran, and that a lot of the discourse in the West falls into a kind of Islamophobia.”
“There’s no compulsion in religion. Obedience to God makes no sense if you have a gun pointing at your head. Enforced religious practice is not religion,” Hasan said.
“We have the great pleasure and privilege of living in a democracy where our rights and the rule of law are realities, and we have the privilege of experiencing this every day,” Perez-Shakdam said. “Our duty is to stand with those who can’t have those rights, who can’t exercise those rights.”
Stepanenko said: “Iran’s President Ibrahim Raisi is in New York despite the IRGC being proscribed by the US in 2019.” He was discussing the impact of the UK potentially designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization, following the UK’s proscription of the Wagner Group in Russia.
“Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was on television saying that the Russian Ministry of Defense funded and controlled Wagner and that it was a state controlled operation, and yet, still, in Highgate, London, there’s a Russian trade mission. There are Russian businesses that do business in London and vice versa. Would proscribing the IRGC make a difference?”
Perez-Shakdam replied: “I think it would, because it would send a very clear signal that we drew a line somewhere and we were actually holding it, which would be nice for a change.”