A planned visit to Iran by five European MPs has been called off just before their scheduled departure.
The change in plans was announced on Saturday after Tehran said it would refuse to let them meet a jailed activist lawyer and a filmmaker, just a day after the two were awarded a prestigious European human rights prize.
Iran claimed that the delegation, made up of leftwing and ecologist MEPs, had only itself to blame for placing preconditions on the delegation’s visit.
“The five MEPs were about to leave for Tehran when delegation chair [Tarja] Cronberg received a phone call from the Iranian ambassador to the EU, saying they would not be allowed to meet with the two Sakharov Prize winners,” jailed lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and filmmaker Jafar Panahi, a European Parliament source said.
Cronberg was told that it was “impossible to guarantee” a meeting “in so short a time”, a statement from the parliament said.
“[She] cancelled the delegation visit, which was considered an opportunity to reopen the dialogue with Iranian parliamentarians and the country’s civil society,” it added.
Sotoudeh, 47, who is serving an 11-year jail sentence for conspiring against state security, and Panahi, 52, who is under house arrest and has been banned from making films for 20 years, were awarded the 2012 Sakharov Prize on Friday.
‘Rejected a precondition’
Kazem Jalali, a prominent lawmaker and head of Iranian parliament’s relations with the European Parliament was quoted as saying on the Iranian assembly’s website: “Unfortunately, the European Parliament, by putting forward irrational and unusual requests, created obstacles for the trip.”
He said it was “neither acceptable nor rational to link the trip to the pretext of awarding prizes to those who have been convicted in a legal court as means for political propaganda.”
The European Parliament’s “unwise move” led to the cancellation of the delegation’s visit to Tehran and it was the parliament that was “responsible for its repercussions”, Kazali added.
The ISNA news agency quoted Hossein Sheikholeslam, international affairs adviser to the speaker of parliament, as saying that Iran had “rejected a precondition set by the European parliamentary delegation to meet with two prisoners”.
The Young Journalists Club, an affiliate of the state broadcaster, reported similarly on its website: “The Islamic Republic of Iran categorically rejected any pre-conditions. Therefore this visit has been cancelled.”
‘Shameful’ plan for visit
Iran has cracked down on both Sotoudeh and Panahi since the disputed June 2009 presidential election.
Sotoudeh is a leading human rights campaigner known for her work as a lawyer representing opposition activists, while Panahi has been acclaimed at international festivals for his gritty, socially critical movies.
The human rights and democracy prize “is a message of solidarity and recognition to a woman and a man who have not been bowed by fear and intimidation and who have decided to put the fate of their country before their own,” Parliament President Martin Schulz said Friday.
Schulz had also warned that the visit would be cancelled if the delegation was unable to meet Sotoudeh and Panahi.
The visit had already aroused controversy inside the parliament, with some MEPs feeling it would be exploited by the Iranian regime.
The leader of the British conservatives had condemned the plan as “shameful” and said it would be used as a “propaganda gift”.
The rights award comes on the heels of tough new European Union sanctions against Iran aimed at forcing a breakthrough in talks between global powers and Tehran on its disputed nuclear programme.
After a biting oil embargo took effect in July, EU foreign ministers last week tightened the economic noose by targeting dealings with Iran’s banks, shipping and gas imports.
The last visit by a European parliamentary delegation to Iran was in 2007.