Iran General News Law: Britain may lift ban on Iran's opposition

Law: Britain may lift ban on Iran’s opposition

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Daily Telegraph: ‘All our nuclear activities have been completely peaceful and transparent,” Iran’s president told the United Nations on Tuesday. But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not seem to have won over the doubters. The Daily Telegraph

By Joshua Rozenberg, Legal Editor

‘All our nuclear activities have been completely peaceful and transparent,” Iran’s president told the United Nations on Tuesday. But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not seem to have won over the doubters.

President George W Bush condemned Iran as part of an “axis of evil” in 2002 and America does not maintain diplomatic relations with Teheran — unlike Britain, which has a policy of “constructive but critical engagement” with the Islamic republic.

Even so, given that Mr Ahmadinejad has said he wants Israel to be “wiped off the map”, Britain is “seriously concerned” that Iran is currently supporting terrorist groups in the Middle East.

The Foreign Office says it has evidence that the mullahs of Iran are arming the Taliban in Afghanistan. And the Government is “gravely concerned” that Iran is “providing explosives, detonators and training to the Shi’a militias” who are killing British and US troops in neighbouring Iraq.

While one can see that a pragmatic foreign policy may require us to work with countries that we do not like, that should surely not extend to banning Iran’s main opposition group – the PMOI — which seeks to replace Mr Ahmadinejad’s regime with a democratically elected, secular government.

And yet a ban is exactly what Britain has imposed. Among other things, the PMOI is not allowed to raise or hold funds and its leaders cannot visit Britain. Thanks to the courts, however, that ban may soon be lifted.

To be fair, the PMOI was involved, until the summer of 2001, in what it describes as “military activities” inside Iran, while stressing that civilians were never targeted.

Since then, the PMOI says it has not been involved in terrorism. It took no part in the Iraq war of 2003 — its members had “protected persons” status — and it has renounced violence.

But Jack Straw, the then home secretary, proscribed the PMOI in March 2001. It has remained a banned organisation ever since, despite two applications to the Home Office for the ban to be lifted.

Under the Terrorism Act 2000, a proscribed organisation can bring an appeal to a tribunal known, reasonably enough, as the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission.

This court must allow an appeal against a refusal to de-proscribe an organisation “if it considers that the decision to refuse was flawed when considered in the light of the principles applicable on an application for judicial review”.

In July, the commission heard its first appeal. The case came before a panel of three — Sir Harry Ognall, a former High Court judge from Yorkshire renowned for his bluff, no-nonsense approach, and two QCs, Stuart Catchpole and Lindsay Boswell.

But the PMOI chose not to bring the appeal in its own name.

Instead, the appellants were more than 30 MPs and peers, an extraordinarily distinguished group including a former law lord (Lord Slynn), a former Home Secretary (Lord Waddington, QC) and a former Solicitor General (Lord Archer of Sandwell, QC).

Through their counsel, Nigel Pleming, QC, the parliamentarians said they did not believe the PMOI was now concerned in terrorism.

Mr Pleming argued that the PMOI should be taken off the banned list if there was no current evidence of continued or even recent terrorist activity, and he accused Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, of basing her judgment on misinformation provided by the Iranian regime.

But Jonathan Swift, representing Miss Smith, argued that there were reasonable grounds for her decision that the PMOI remained concerned in terrorism. She regarded the PMOI’s cessation of violence as temporary, involuntary and not a renunciation of violence by the organisation as a whole.

The ban has significant practical consequences for the PMOI: its supporters, including the parliamentarians, are regarded by Iran as supporters of terrorism and Britain’s ban forms the legal basis for an EU-wide ban, despite a ruling in favour of the PMOI by the European Court of Justice last December.

True, supporters of the PMOI live openly in Britain and are allowed to demonstrate freely across the road from Downing Street. But the ban also allows Downing Street to demonstrate its support for the Iranian regime.

Lord Archer, a former Labour law officer, said in his witness statement that the PMOI was proscribed “not out of concern for terrorism, but as part of an agreement between the British Government and the Iranian regime in which the PMOI was used as a bargaining chip”.

This claim was “incorrect”, according to Benjamin Fender, the former head of the Iran desk at the Foreign Office, in his evidence for the Government.

But Mr Fender accepted that Iranian ministers and officials had “chosen to discuss the PMOI with their counterparts from the UK and other EU member states on countless occasions”.

He said the Foreign Office had told the Home Office last year that there would be “foreign policy benefits to keeping the PMOI proscribed if it met the statutory test”.

Even more alarmingly, Lord Archer alleged that British and American forces bombed the PMOI’s Iraq bases in 2003, killing some 50 PMOI members, as part of a deal with the Iranian regime to keep Iran out of the Iraq war.

Responding, Mr Fender acknowledged that the Iranians had “expressed concern about the possibility of PMOI attacks on Iran during any military campaign”, adding that British officials had reassured their Iranian counterparts “that we would take the problem of the PMOI in Iraq seriously”.

How seriously? If Britain had agreed to kill non-combatants for political reasons, ministers would be open to accusations that they were responsible for war crimes.

The commission reserved its judgment in July after a week-long hearing — part of which was held in secret, with the parliamentarians and their lawyers excluded, although there were “special advocates” to represent their interests.

But before Sir Harry and his colleagues could deliver their ruling, the Government’s solicitors made an extraordinary request. They asked the commission if it would let them have a copy of its judgment a week in advance.

This would be in addition to the five working days in which the security services are normally allowed to check that there is nothing in the public ruling that should be moved to a separate “closed” judgment because its disclosure would be contrary to the public interest.

Why, then, does the Government want to see both parts of the judgment so far ahead of publication? Because it fears that, if the PMOI wins, the Iranians might wrongly believe that the commission’s decision was politically motivated and take action against British interests in Teheran.

The commission is being asked to allow the judgment to be circulated widely within government so that protective steps can be taken if necessary.

It is important to emphasise that I do not know whether the commission will lift the ban. As far as I am aware, the Government does not know, either. But ministers clearly believe there is at least a possibility that it will be lifted.

The commission will hold a directions hearing this afternoon to decide whether the Government should be given the advance notice it seeks. This is likely to be granted: the PMOI supporters involved in the legal challenge are not expected to oppose it, provided they, too, receive an advance copy.

The commission might have gone to the trouble of holding an oral hearing today even if it had been planning to dismiss the PMOI’s substantive appeal. But there must at least be a possibility that Iran’s opposition will soon be free to oppose Iran.

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