UK unites behind Iran demands as dual citizen Ali Reza Akbari faces death penalty

The case has prompted a fresh round of calls for more British sanctions against the regime

A woman takes part in a demonstration against the Iranian regime in London. Getty
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The UK on Thursday intensified its condemnation of Iran, as the fate of a dual British-Iranian citizen sentenced to death was in the balance.

Ali Reza Akbari, a former deputy defence minister of Iran, was awaiting execution after being convicted in Tehran of spying charges. Iran has claimed he was involved in the assassination of a nuclear scientist.

His plight was first raised by his wife Maryam, who lives in Hammersmith, West London.

Fears grew on Thursday that Mr Akbari's death was imminent.

MPs in the UK Parliament called on the Conservative government to adopt a tougher line on the Iranian regime and designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organisation, as already frayed relations between the two nations further deteriorated.

MPs urged the government to take action to “stop that death penalty going ahead”, in reference to Mr Akbari’s sentence.

Tory MP Alicia Kearns, chairwoman of the foreign affairs select committee, said “in response to every state murder of protesters, within 48 hours afterwards, the West [and] our allies [and] the UK should impose specific sanctions”

She said without such a system in place “there is no direct response to stop each individual execution”.

Conservative MP Bob Blackman drew a comparison between the IRGC’s iron grip and the conduct of the Nazis. “The suppression of speech against this regime is undemocratic and frankly dangerous,” he told the House of Commons.

Mr Blackman said the “merciless” IRGC was responsible for the “horrific situation” in Iran, where thousands of protesters have been arrested and tortured following the death of Mahsa Amini in September.

“What else does the IRGC have to do before the government actually proscribe them?” he asked.

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said recognising the IRGC as a terrorist group was “way past due”.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly earlier said “Iran must halt the execution” and immediately release Mr Akbari. He turned the government’s condemnation of Iran up a notch when he branded the sentence handed to the dual national “a politically motivated act by a barbaric regime that has total disregard for human life.”

'Change in rhetoric shows UK's concerns'

Alistair Burt, a former Middle East minister at the UK’s Foreign Office, said he was “surprised” by Mr Cleverly’s choice of words, which he said reflected the severity of the situation. He said the minister's use of the word “barbaric” to describe another government represented a significant escalation in tensions.

Speaking to The National on Thursday as reports emerged in Iranian state media suggesting Mr Akbari had been killed, Mr Burt said: “It was a change in rhetoric.

“It was a very strong statement which I think indicates a real degree of concern that a British citizen is at risk of execution.

“It was a clear demonstration of concern that the UK’s willingness to work with Iran is being hindered by [Iranian] actions.”

Mr Burt said the worsening in bilateral relations was to be regretted, particularly because the UK “was so supportive of the JCPOA [nuclear deal] and made an effort to work with Iran.”

Mr Akbari was arrested in 2019 and convicted of spying for the UK, which he denied.

The Iranian regime used a video published by state news outlets on Thursday to try to back up claims that Mr Akbari was guilty of spying and playing a role in the 2020 assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Mr Fakhrizadeh was Iran’s top nuclear scientist at the time of his death in an attack outside Tehran. An autonomous satellite-operated gun was used in the fatal road ambush.

The footage did not include any confession by Mr Akbari of involvement in the assassination but recorded him saying that a British agent had asked for information about him.

In a separate audio recording broadcast by BBC Persian on Wednesday, Mr Akbari said he had confessed to crimes he had not committed during months of torture in detention.

In the video broadcast by Iran's state news agency Irna, Mr Akbari said: “They wanted to know about high-ranking officials depending on the major developments … for example he [the British agent] asked me whether Fakhrizadeh could be involved in such and such projects and I said why not.”

It was one of several clips released on Thursday.

Mr Akbari did not say what, if any, information he shared, or with whom.

The authenticity of the video and audio, and details about where and when they were recorded, could not be immediately established.

Britain's foreign office declined to comment on the videos.

'Teenager awaits death in rat-infested cell'

Meanwhile, the fate of Mehdi Mohammadi Fard, a teenager sentenced to death in Iran, was also discussed by MPs during a debate on Iran in the House of Commons. Members of his family who are based in the UK have appealed to ministers for help, claiming he has been tortured, beaten and kept in solitary confinement in a “rat-infested cell”.

He was tried in court without legal representation and sentenced to death for “corruption on earth and war against God”, the House of Commons was told, after attending an anti-regime protest.

At least four people are known to have been executed in Iran since mass anti-government rallies sprung up in the wake of Ms Amini’s death. The 22-year-old died after being arrested by Iran’s morality police after wearing her hijab “inappropriately”.

Lilian Greenwood, Labour MP for Nottingham South, who represents a relative of the 19-year-old, said her constituent wants to meet the UK government to discuss what action could be taken to stop the execution.

Ms Greenwood said the teenager has required hospital treatment for his injuries, which include a broken nose.

“Whilst he does now have a lawyer and an appeal has been lodged, his family — both in Iran and here in the UK — are of course terrified for Mehdi and need our help,” the MP said.

Foreign Office minister Leo Docherty thanked Ms Greenwood for “movingly” raising the case and said Middle East Minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon would meet her and her constituent to “see what action can be made”.

Updated: January 13, 2023, 4:00 AM