Iran protests, death of Mahsa Amini: NZ MPs confront Iranian ambassador Reza Nazar Ahari in fiery meeting

Iranian-born MP Golriz Ghahraman confronted the Iranian ambassador with images of Mahsa Amini and protesters killed since her death in an at times heated meeting at Parliament about the Islamic Republic’s response to the protests and executions that have drawn widespread condemnation.

Iranian ambassador Reza Nazar Ahari made a historic presentation to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade select committee today – the first since deadly protests gripped his nation nearly a year ago following Amini’s death – where he was also challenged by Parliament’s sole practising Muslim, Ibrahim Omer, the mistreatment of women and girls in the name of his faith.

“I am a proud Muslim. Islam is being used as a tool to torture, to oppress to kill women and girls in Iran, and some other Muslim countries as well,” said the Labour MP, who is also the country’s first MP of African descent and second former refugee.

“The morality police, who killed Mahsa Amini, they were taken off the streets now they are back… Why is your Government using Islam to oppress women and girls and when is this going to stop?

“Because it is tainting Islam. Islam does not enforce hijab to women.”

Ahari, ambassador to New Zealand since June, said Amini’s death was “tragic” but likened it to police killings in the United States with George Floyd and the recent shooting of a teenager in France, as an isolated incident and not emblematic of the country. He also pushed back at the number of executions and claimed the protests were a new phenomenon and fuelled by foreign interference.

Ahari also revealed further details about the two New Zealanders who were detained in Iran for four months last year and freed after tense negotiations, claiming they were never “held hostage” and were free, only their passports were taken.

Ahari’s appearance comes after Iranian authorities recently announced a new campaign to force women to wear the Islamic headscarf and morality police returned to the streets 10 months after the death of Amini in their custody sparked nationwide protests.

The morality police had largely pulled back following the death of 22-year-old Amini last September, who was arrested over her refusal to wear a hijab, as authorities struggled to contain mass protests calling for the overthrow of the theocracy that has ruled Iran for over four decades.

The protests largely died down earlier this year following a heavy crackdown in which over 500 protesters were killed and nearly 20,000 detained. But many women continued to flout the official dress code, especially in the capital, Tehran, and other cities.

During Ahari’s appearance, Green MP Ghahraman, who originally came to New Zealand as a child refugee from Iran, presented him with images of people killed in Iran, including Amini and various protesters.

“She is not just a name,” Ghahraman said as she handed a photo of Amini to Ahari.

“This is her, lying in a hospital bed.

“Your sister, as you’ve said, murdered.

“So I want you to look at her image as you answer these questions. This was systematic, because she was not the first.”

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman handing photographs to Iranian ambassador Reza Nazar Ahari during his appearance. Photo / Mark Mitchell© Mark Mitchell

Ghahraman said these protests were not new and not simply of this generation.

“My mother’s generation, when you introduce the hijab, protested, and also by the hundreds of 1000s.

“It is no woman’s culture to be told what to wear or be killed if she doesn’t cover her hair.”

Ghahraman also held up and provided Ahari with photos of imprisoned rapper Toomaj Salehi; Mohammad Mahdi Karami and Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini, who were executed for their part in the protests; and Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohamadi, the imprisoned journalists who broke the Amini story.

She referenced an earlier briefing by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials in which she said they were told more than 400 protesters had been executed, which was based on information from the New Zealand Embassy in Tehran.

“On behalf of the Green Party… we consider the systematic and widespread killing of protesters in the civilian population, to amount to a crime against humanity.

“The New Zealand government and our committee has a responsibility to act, and you have a responsibility to act, if you are to continue to live in our democratic and free nation as a representative of that regime.”

Greens MP Golriz Ghahraman with a photograph of imprisoned Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi as she speaks to Iranian ambassador Reza Nazar Ahari. Photo / Mark Mitchell© Provided by NZ Herald

Ahari said the death of Amini was “tragic” but compared it to the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the United States and recent shooting of a teenager by a police officer in France.

“We are not defending… any mistake…

“She was one of our daughters, sisters…

“It is a crime of accident.”

He said a special committee had been created to investigate it.

The protests that followed were not about hijab, he said, but about replacing the Iranian regime with another.

He said hijab had long been a part of Iranian culture and blamed the recent protests on the work of foreign intelligence services.

Iranian ambassador Reza Nazar Ahari during his appearance before the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade select committee. Photo / Mark Mitchell
© Provided by NZ Herald

Iranian ambassador Reza Nazar Ahari during his appearance before the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade select committee. Photo / Mark Mitchell© Provided by NZ Herald

There could have been some “misconduct” with protesters but it was not systemic, he said.

He also challenged the figure provided by New Zealand officials about executions, and added anybody executed had “done some sort of crime or killing some people, not just participating in protests”.

He said the reality in Iran had been distorted by mass media and foreign intelligence services.

Ahari also spoke to the detention of New Zealand social media influencers Topher Richwhite and Bridget Thackwray who went missing in Iran for four months last year, amid questioning from National MP Simon O’Connor.

It is understood negotiations about their detention prevented the New Zealand Government from taking a stronger response over the Iran protests.

Ahari denied they had been “taken hostage”. He said they had taken photos in a restricted area.

They had not been arrested.

“They have not been hostage for some period of time… they were free, only passports taken.”

A protest in Wellington over Iran’s violent crackdown on protests following the death of Mahsa Amini last year. Photo / Mark Mitchell© Provided by NZ Herald

He said there were security issues at play, which was why the return of their passports took “a very long time”.

He said he was not aware of any funds being exchanged or trade deals for their release.

National Party foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee said he had been in Parliament 27 years and the only protest he had gone out on to the forecourt to support was the protest against what appeared to be the “oppression of women in Iran”.

“It is no doubt… motivated by an emotional response, because of the father of two daughters I couldn’t stand the possibility of them having lives that were so restricted by a government regime.”

He added New Zealand once had a “very good relationship with Iran.

“We don’t have that now… For us, it’s very hard to look at a country like Iran and see that oppression and not have a very strong reaction against that.”

Since the protests last year, New Zealand has applied a range of sanctions and travel bans on Iran, some also related to Iran’s association with Russia amid its war on Ukraine.

Protesters here have called for the Government to go further including included freezing assets and funding, travel bans and designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terror entity. As of June 19, 55 Iranian individuals had travel bans applied.

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