John McDonnell MP: Free Jafar Panahi and all political prisoners

John McDonnell MP launched the new campaign, ‘Free Jafar Panahi and all political prisoners in Iran’, at the February 12 annual conference of Hands Off the People of Iran. This is his speech:

This campaign is at the heart of Hopi’s work for the coming year. We formed Hopi at a time when there was a real danger of imminent attack on Iran, right after the war on Iraq. While opposing any imperialist attacks, we positioned ourselves in clear, active solidarity with the people of Iran who are fighting against their theocratic regime. That also led us to clearly oppose all sanctions on the country, because in our view that is just another form of imperialism attacking the people of Iran. I think we have successfully engaged others in that discussion.

It is clear that threat of a military attack and an invasion has still not gone. For example, you will have heard Tony Blair’s speech before the Chilcot enquiry. With his last words he effectively called on the imperialist powers to invade Iran. And, of course, we have seen the recent cyber-attacks on the country. The threat continues and the imperialists will not give up.

However, at the moment there is a certain quietude. Partially this has to do with other activities in their spheres of influence that the imperialists are anxious about, for example in Afghanistan. And there is an acceptance that, as long as the Iranian regime is quiet, ‘maybe we can turn a blind eye’. And that is why we have not had any major political leader in the west take on the question of Iranian political prisoners in a serious way. We have not heard any British politician in government raise the issue of Jafar Panahi, for example.

There is a certain acquiescence that the barbarity will go on and, as long as this barbarity in Iran does not affect the rest of the Middle East or the rest of the world, it is almost acceptable – very much in line with what goes on in other barbaric countries in that region. There is a real vacuum on the question of human rights in Iran, whereby those who look can easily discover the brutality of the executions, the hangings, the tortures, the arrests, the denials of human rights. But the media and mainstream politicians are not interested.

Just as Hopi had to stand up and put forward a principled position against war and against the theocratic regime, we now have to stand up and fight for the freedom of all political prisoners. The responsibility falls on our shoulders, because nobody else is doing it.

We are focusing on Jafar Panahi, because campaigns like this need a symbolic figure – in the same way that in the anti-apartheid campaigns we focused on Nelson Mandela, but, of course, we fought for the freedom of all political prisoners. By focusing on a well-known name like Jafar Panahi, we will be able to raise the campaign to a higher level.

We all have to set time and resources aside for this campaign and approach it in a systematic manner. Just like when we launched Hopi, we again have to focus on the union and labour movement, get articles in their journals and websites, organise for resolutions and fringe meetings at union conferences, and conduct discussions with MPs and political parties.

The parliamentary wing of Hopi, which includes myself, Jeremy Corbyn and a few others, will put forward early day motions and will try to lobby other MPs, including those who are now in government. We are also trying to organise some activities in parliament – for example, show some of Panahi’s films and get along intellectuals and artists to discuss the campaign and the issues. In other words, we will also run a parliamentary campaign.

Of course, we also need to mobilise artists and film makers to act in solidarity with Panahi. In addition to that, we also want to reach wider civil society and in that respect I think last year’s film showing in the Soho Theatre was a breakthrough, which attracted a whole new audience. We should also not shy away from engaging with religious groups, for example, who are working on human rights matters.

All the way through we have to discuss with these forces on how the theocratic regime can be got rid of. Clearly, this can only be achieved through the actions of the working people of Iran themselves. The only consistent force that can bring about long-term stability in a secular society is the workers’ movement.

That is a fairly extensive range of work. But we have done it before and I think we can do it again.

The situation in Egypt provides an ideal opportunity to raise these issues. I attended a demonstration in Trafalgar Square and, although the organisers had printed their placards only 24 hours earlier, they were already out of date and still contained the call for Mubarak to go. But this shows what is possible, how quickly things change and that this can also be achieved in Iran.

Only the people of Iran can bring down this regime. Our task is to assist them as best as we can. If our campaign brings just one release for one political prisoner, if just one prisoner can get some hope from a clipping about our activities smuggled into prison, then I think our campaign is already successful.

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