Rishi Sunak has hit back at accusations his government was soft on Iran in the lead up to Tehran’s execution of dual citizen Ali Reza Akbari.
The UK Prime Minister on Wednesday faced scrutiny in the House of Commons over his handling of the case, with one Labour MP accusing the Conservative government of “making little effort” to prevent the killing.
Andy Slaughter, MP for Hammersmith, where Mr Akbari lived before being arrested in Iran in 2019, urged Mr Sunak to “show some courage” in response to the killing by designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organisation.
While he declined to say whether he was considering such a step, the Prime Minister said he was seeking answers from Iran on the circumstances of the case.
Mr Akbari's execution on January 14 set off a wave of international condemnation and prompted more sanctions from the UK.
The former deputy defence minister of Iran, who held British and Iranian citizenship, had been accused of spying for MI6, the UK’s secret intelligence service. He vehemently denied the charges.
Since his death, his relatives in Tehran have claimed Iranian authorities are preventing them from seeing his body or burying him in Shiraz, his birthplace.
Mr Slaughter, whose constituents include Mr Akbari’s wife Maryam, are questioning whether the UK government could have done more to stop the regime from carrying out the execution.
The Labour MP lambasted Mr Sunak’s government and also the previous Conservative leaders who were in office while Mr Akbari was in prison.
“In the three years preceding and the days following his murder, the UK government made little effort to protect the life or protest the death of a British national,” Mr Slaughter said.
“Tomorrow, Mr Akbari’s family and I meet the Foreign Office minister. They want to hear what help the government could offer them at this time of their greatest suffering.
“Today, this House wants to hear from the Prime Minister [about] what sanctions he will impose on the regime behind the trifling steps taken so far.
“First and foremost, will he show some courage, follow the lead of the United States and the European Parliament, and proscribe the entire Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation.”
The Prime Minister replied that Tehran was “prolonging the suffering” of the Akbari family, which is “typical of their disregard for basic human dignity”.
He said Iran “must now provide answers about the circumstances of his death and his burial".
Mr Sunak said his administration had “pressed the Iranian regime formally through their charge d'affaires in London and the Foreign Ministry in Tehran”.
Britain will continue to put pressure on Iran “until the family get the answers they deserve”, he said.
Mr Sunak also emphasised the sanctions his government has already imposed on “several members [of the regime] connected with the case” since Mr Akbari’s execution. Mr Slaughter appeared frustrated at the Prime Minister’s response.
Mr Sunak has for weeks faced pressure to designate the IRGC a terrorist entity, a move which would place it in the same category as Al Qaeda and ISIS.
The government on Monday announced another series of sanctions against Iran over its “brutal repression” of civilians taking part in protests, which broke out after the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September.
The package included freezing the assets of Iranian deputy prosecutor general Ahmad Fazelian, who the British Foreign Office said was responsible for an unjust system that uses the death sentence for political purposes.
James Cleverly, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, said the latest punitive measures would be felt across the system “from the judicial figures using the death penalty for political ends to the thugs beating protesters on the streets”. He said such behaviour was “at the heart of the regime’s brutal repression of the Iranian people”.
"The UK and our partners have sent a clear message through these sanctions that there will be no hiding place for those guilty of the worst human rights violations,” Mr Cleverly added.