{mosimage}The Scotsman, The government is shamefully still branding Iran's main opposition party as terrorists, writes LORD FRASER OF CARMYLLIE

AGENTS of Iran's notorious intelligence ministry detained Ebrahim Lotfollahi on 6 January during a university exam in the western city of Sanandaj. On 15 January, his parents were notified of his death in custody. The official version is that Lotfollahi committed suicide, but his relatives say he had signs of torture on his body when they briefly visited him several days after his detention.

The Scotsman

The government is shamefully still branding Iran's main opposition party as terrorists, writes LORD FRASER OF CARMYLLIE

{mosimage}AGENTS of Iran's notorious intelligence ministry detained Ebrahim Lotfollahi on 6 January during a university exam in the western city of Sanandaj. On 15 January, his parents were notified of his death in custody. The official version is that Lotfollahi committed suicide, but his relatives say he had signs of torture on his body when they briefly visited him several days after his detention.

His family and international human rights organisations suspect Lotfollahi was murdered in prison due to his stance against the ruling mullahs. His death mirrors the case of Zahra Bani-Ameri, a 27-year-old female physician, who suddenly died in October in a prison in the nearby town of Hamedan.

Lotfollahi and Bani-Ameri were victims of a brutal and despotic regime, which has thus far executed more than 120,000 of its opponents, mainly supporters of the main Iranian opposition movement, the People's Mujahideen of Iran (PMOI).

Fearful of becoming increasingly isolated for its domestic suppression and sponsorship of terror abroad, the regime is desperate to gag news of barbaric treatment meted out to its citizens.

On 30 January, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the head of the judiciary, banned publication of photos and video footage depicting scenes of executions, reversing the regime's usual practice of publicising such barbarity to engender fear among the population. Opposition activists have nevertheless been continuing to use cameras on mobile phones to capture executions in Iran.

The regime has responded to such acts of dissent by launching an unprecedented crackdown on young people, with women, in particular, often ending up on the receiving end of the police truncheons on bogus pretexts such as "mal-veiling".

This all begs the question: why is a regime that claims to represent Muslims everywhere and whose president claims it has already become a nuclear power feel it necessary to resort to such brutality against its own population?

The regime's anxiety is real and justified. Contrary to the image of strength that Iranian leaders strive to cultivate, the clerical regime stands on shaky ground. The faltering economy has failed to alleviate the daily suffering of the average Iranian, despite all-time record oil revenues. Discontent, spurred by government incompetence and stifling repression, is on the rise. On the international scene, with the United Nations Security Council geared up to adopt a third set of sanctions over the regime's suspected nuclear weapons programme, Tehran has never found itself so isolated since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. The last thing Iran's rulers can afford is the already restless population becoming more active and vocal in their condemnation of the mullahs' rule.

Particularly encouraging is the bravery of Iranian youth in the face of such oppression. In recent months, university students have exhibited remarkable courage by holding more than 60 anti-government demonstrations across the country. One very notable case took place in December at Tehran University, during which students chanted "death to dictator" and "freedom is our inalienable right" – a slogan adapted from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's familiar phrase "nuclear energy is our inalienable right". These have now become daily chants.

Yet, the mullahs are being assisted in suppressing the Iranian people's cry for freedom from an unexpected quarter. Our government banned the PMOI in 2001 and convinced the European Union to do the same a year later. Jack Straw admitted in 2006 that he had proscribed the PMOI as Home Secretary because the regime had demanded this of him.

The mullahs use the PMOI's terrorist label to execute political prisoners and then respond to critics that their actions are justified since they are putting "terrorists" to death.

However, the law has stepped in on the side of the Iranian Resistance. On 12 December, 2006, the European Court of Justice ordered the EU to lift the ban on the PMOI. In the UK, 35 MPs and peers, including many from the Labour Party, launched a legal challenge against the ban. On 30 November, 2007, a specialist court, the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission (POAC), ruled that the PMOI was "not concerned in terrorism" and ordered the Home Secretary to remove the group from the list of proscribed organisations. It described the Home Secretary's decision to maintain the PMOI on the list as "unlawful" and "perverse". Our government is, however, shamefully refusing to abide by the rule of law, and the PMOI remains proscribed.

This sends a message to the mullahs that the government will continue to appease them, despite their responsibility for training, arming and funding those responsible for much of the violence in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East. To the people of Iran, it says their suffering is an inconvenience to which the British government will continue to turn a blind eye. To us here in Britain, the only message that comes out from this ghastly episode is that the world's oldest democracy may have a government that sees itself as above the law.

On 23 January, the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution calling POAC's verdict a "slap in the face" for the government and it urged both the EU and the UK to "implement immediately the decisions of competent European and national judicial institutions affecting the status of the listed persons or entities."

It is now time for Whitehall to muster up the courage to admit to its past mistakes and lift the ban on the PMOI, making amends for the injustice to the organisation. This must be followed by steps at the Security Council to isolate the regime over its abysmal human rights violations.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, QC, is a former lord advocate for Scotland. He has appeared for the UK in both the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.