UK-Iranian on day 72 of hunger strike calls on PM to keep his word

Yoghurt thrown over women in Iran

Vahid Beheshti, 45, is a British-Iranian journalist and human rights activist. For 72 days he had been camped outside the Foreign Office subsisting only on water, coffee and sugar pills, advocating for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to be added to the UK’s list of terrorist organisations.

Last Saturday, upwards of 3,000 people rallied in central London to support him. Emaciated, he delivered his remarks from a wheelchair. The day of the rally was selected to reference Bobby Sands, who, back in 1981, died on the 66th day of a hunger strike campaigning against the removal of Special Category Status for IRA prisoners in Northern Ireland.

His words echoing the length of Whitehall from a soundstage just opposite Downing Street, he said: “UK politicians, UK Government, now I am glad you see today [with] your own eyes: this is not only my demand.”

Mr Beheshti left the platform on his own two feet that day, but his condition deteriorated dramatically over the week since. On Saturday, after concerns were raised over the condition of his heart and liver, he was taken to hospital by ambulance, temporarily suspending his hunger strike. On Twitter he wrote: “As soon as I have recovered, I will be back opposite the Foreign Office, to continue this fight among my dear brothers and sisters who have fought alongside me.”

The IRGC has allegedly had a hand in numerous atrocities over the 44 years since its inception – but recent months have seen a dangerous escalation amid Iran’s increasingly unstable political climate.

The US added the IRGC to its list under Donald Trump back in 2019. Labour has been calling for the Government to do the same since January. On day 56 of Mr Beheshti’s hunger strike, a cross-party alliance of 125 MPs and peers signed a letter urging Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to take action.

Speaking to that day, Mr Beheshti said: “Even Rishi Sunak, before he was elected as our Prime Minister, in his first battle with Liz Truss, stated: ‘If I become Prime Minister we have to proscribe the IRGC.’

“I’m just asking for him to be a man of his word. He said it before he became Prime Minister, what happens now? He’s trying to pretend I don’t exist.”

Just over 100,000 people in Britain were of Iranian ethnicity at the time of the most recent census. Flanked by people of all backgrounds supporting their cause, thousands of them joined the march from the London Eye to the gates of Downing Street on April 29, paced by chants of: “IRGC terrorists, UK put them on the list!”

Mr Beheshti had lost 17.5 percent of his body mass by day 56. He said: “This is my physics – getting weaker and weaker day by day, of course – but mentally I become more certain and more determined to continue.” By the time he was forced to pause on day 72 he was down 21.5 percent.

He said: “The Government has to stand strong, that’s why I’ve put myself in this critical situation. They think that by appeasing them and by leaving the door open to these terrorists they can change their mind. They [the IRGC] know exactly what they are doing.”

Mr Beheshti described the force as “state hostage takers”, and ones that are brazenly operating in the UK. He said: “Two days after Iran International was forced to relocate from London to D.C., the head of the IRGC Hossein Salami said ‘Yes it was because of our threat’ publicly and “We are capable of doing more and we will if necessary.’”

Determining factors as to whether an organisation ought to be proscribed include “the specific threat that it poses to the UK” and “the extent of the organisation’s presence in the UK” amongst others.

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On September 16, 2022, 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian Mahsa Amini died in police custody after her arrest by the country’s so-called “morality police”, on a charge of improperly wearing her hijab. Mass protests have been erupting across the country ever since.

The suppression by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s regime was brutal. In the first four months of demonstrations, more than 19,600 people were arrested and at least 527 were confirmed to have been killed, according to the Iranian Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA).

A desire to keep these crimes under wraps also led to a crackdown on the media operating in Iran. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) claims more than 71 journalists have been arrested, detained or called in for questioning since the protests began – 25 of whom remain imprisoned to this day.

Among them are Niloufar Hamedi, who broke the news of Mahsa Amini’s death, and Elaheh Mohammadi, who reported on her funeral. On Wednesday, World Press Freedom day, the pair were awarded the UN’s top prize alongside fellow detainee Narges Mohammadi.

Iran International is a Persian-language independent news broadcaster with a large base in London. Despite an Iranian state sanction back in October, the station continued to expose the violence of the authorities and became one of the primary sources of information about the protests.

Their journalists in the UK have been paying the price. With an imminent threat picked up by the Metropolitan Police, Iran International was forced to abandon their offices in Chiswick in February. Undeterred, the station was out reporting on Saturday’s rally.

The IRGC’s actions have hardly gone unnoticed. On April 24, in concert with the US and EU, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly announced sanctions were being put in place against “the IRGC in its entirety.” This, according to Mr Beheshti, is not enough. He said: “They manipulate us, they laugh at us. They laugh at you when you put sanctions.”

According to the latest estimates by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the IRGC counts at least 190,000 troops under its command. Although separate from the Iranian government, Mr Beheshti knows the IRGC have a hand in “everything”. He said: “They are involved in the economy, politics, the day-to-day life of people in Iran, in the region, and now here.”

Some of their funding comes from Mr Khamenei’s regime but a large part flows from international drug dealing and human trafficking, he claimed. “That’s why we need to put them on the terrorist list, so that we can put proper limitations on their financial sector outside Iran. They have so many different companies which are active outside the country. If we proscribe them those companies become disabled.”

The Government is yet to provide a response, but last month, Jonathan Hall, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, penned a note providing some clue. He warned that “proscribing a State entity under the Terrorism Act 2000 would depart from consistent and decades-long UK policy, and calls into question the definition of terrorism which, to date, has proven practical and effective”.

Mr Beheshti is not convinced by this. He said: “I am willing to pay the price, whatever it is, even my life, to defend our freedom, defend our democracy, preserve and defend our British values here, our safety and security.” His wife, Mattie Heaven, is a Coventry councillor. She described her husband’s decisioin to suspend his hunger strike as “the most relief that I have felt in a long time.”

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