An inmate peers from behind a wall as a guard walks by in the infamous Evin jail. Photo: Getty
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For the Bahá'ís imprisoned in Iran, freedom and human rights seem remote

Seven Bahá'ís – members of Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, persecuted by the government for decades – have now spent six years in prison for practising their religion.

It has been a month of contrasts, frankly of extremes.

May 2014 marked six years since seven adults were taken from their homes and thrown into the notorious Evin prison in Iran. One is the mother of a dear friend whose gifts are treasured in my home. 

Who are these prisoners? The charges against the seven included espionage and propaganda against the Islamic order. They are mothers and fathers, one is a school principal, another an agricultural engineer, a businessman, a psychologist. What matters though is that they are Bahá'ís, members of the country’s largest non-Muslim religious minority and persecuted by the government for decades. The fabricated charges against them, the illegal closed trial that led to a twenty-year jail sentence – the longest given to any prisoners of conscience in the country – were all set up to punish them for their role in coordinating the affairs of the Bahá'ís in Iran, affairs which are numerous in a religious community that operates through such networks of elected and appointed lay people.

The most moving protest on this anniversary was the large group of prominent Iranians within Iran that risked life and limb to stand up against the unjust imprisonment of the seven by visiting their family members. This group included human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh – joint winner of the 2012 Sakharov Prize honoring those who have dedicated their lives to the defence of human rights and freedom of thought – and Ayatollah Masumi Tehrani, a senior Muslim cleric who recently gifted a piece of art to the Bahá'ís as an expression of hope for a future Iran committed to respect for the human rights of all.

There remains, however, a very sharp contrast between this cohesion amongst Iranian defenders of human rights and the actions of the Iranian authorities. When a European Parliament delegation visited Tehran last December for the first time in six years, Iran angrily criticised them for “secretly” meeting with so-called seditionists including Sotoudeh. When the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton visited Iran in March, she too was harshly criticised for meeting with a group of leading Iranian women activists, including Sotoudeh. A European Parliament resolution on 3 April 2014 condemning Iran’s “continued, systematic violation of fundamental rights” led to Iran’s Parliament cancelling a planned visit with EU parliamentarians.

As calls for respect of human rights were being heard from Iran, Iran’s revolutionary guards proceeded with their latest attempt at oppression by excavating a historically important Bahá'í cemetery in Shiraz, the southern Iranian city of my birth. Some 950 graves of Bahá'ís that include those of 10 women – the youngest just 17 – executed for refusing to forcibly deny their religious belief, now risk being destroyed forever. Many thousands from around the world will forever be denied the possibility of remembering the 10 Bahá'í women at their resting place. Thousands of family members will be denied the basic dignity of saying prayers for their dead and my daughters will never be able to see the graves of their great-grandparents.

Which of these shall I share with my 8 and 11 year old? The profound joy of principled camaraderie amongst Iranian upholders of justice, or the attack on their dead ancestors? I’ve shared both, trusting that they will gain an insight into the choice we all ultimately face of sacrificing for the greater good or sinking to the depths of hatred. All this, with patient optimism that the former is conquering the latter and the future of Iran is bright.

Dr Nazila Ghanea is Assistant Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford and serves as a member of the OSCE advisory panel on freedom of religion or belief. She writes this piece in her personal capacity

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Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.