Thursday, October 13, 2005

Offensive Against Human Rights Groups

Shahram Rafizadeh, Rooz Online: a "reformist" website
Along with the publication of the report on the violations of human rights in Iran during the last quarter by Tehran-based Kanoon Modafean Hogooge Bashar (Center for the Defense of Human Rights), the visitation rights of political prisoner Abdolfatah Soltani’s family with him were cancelled and another prominent lawyer and member of the Center, Ali Dadkhah, was subpoenad to a court in Tehran, herald new efforts to silence this legal organization. READ MORE

After appearing before the 7th branch of Tehran Prosecutor’s office, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, one of the active members of the Center told reporters that judiciary officials had asked him to provide them with names of two individuals who had held a sit-in in front of Even prison and who were calling for the release of political prisoners. During the recent years many human rights activists and advocates, including defense attorneys who stood up to defend imprisoned political activists, journalists, and students have themselves been the subject of attacks, arrests and threats by certain official organizations. Some of them such as Nasser Zarafshan, the attorney for the families of the victims of the Intelligence Ministry’s serial killers continues to be detained in prison. This time, however, it appears that the defenders of human rights are being targeted directly.

The Center for the Defense of Human Rights was established about four years ago. Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, as a cofounder of the Center says at the time our goal is to work within the law and we are not an underground group or party and do not consider ourselves above the law.” With that as their frame of mind, they made a formal request from the Ministry of the Interior, as the law requires for an operating license. Till today, they have not received one. “Even though the provisions of the constitution do not require professional organizations to have a license if they simply wish to operate without utilizing government services, we made a formal request for one even though we did not wish to use government’s services,” she clarifies. “Our request and activities were even discussed in the Majlis (Parliament) Committee for Article 10 of the constitution.”

Even though the Center’s request was made at a time when former president Khatami was the head of the executive branch of government, and his policy had been to strengthen NGOs, an operating license was not issued to it, and so its fate was like that of other human rights and professional organizations such as the Kanoone Nevisandegan (Iranian Writer’s Association).

Not issuing a license to the Center which in the words of political observers was an indication of the negative view officials held on the group, had another meaning to the Center members. They knew very well that their activities that included taking positions against the violations of human rights, the provision of free defense for the victims of human right violations and political activists, and assistance to the families of ideological and political prisoners would bring more resistance from the government which would have to paid for. But despite this, none of them ever suspected that one day they would be accused of espionage, which is precisely what attorney Abdul Fattah Soltani who was defending imprisoned journalist Akbar Ganji was initially accused of soon after his arrest earlier this year. Subsequent events in the country and the world did not improve the situation. Soon other members of the Center too faced similar accusations, and furthermore, pressures from official agencies increased as well.

Two years ago when the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo awarded its annual Peace award to Shirin Ebadi, who was not only a founding and active member of the Center but had also been a prisoner herself because of her defense of Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, a vigilante who had initially participated in the student suppressions but later changed faith and exposed the group and its inner workings, even Mohammad Khatami could hide his displeasure. The wide support and welcome that Ebadi received from the public and even Majlis (Parliament) deputies and official reformers, brought this fear to those opposing reformers that soon there would be a new union between reformers and the advocates of human rights which would only complicate their goals. Human rights constitute one of the three problems that the Islamic Republic has with the outside world, the others being its nuclear policy and support for terrorist groups.

While Ebadi and other members of the Center such as Mohammad Sharif, Mohammad Seyfzadeh, and Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, had been under pressure right from the day Ebadi was awarded the Nobel peace prize, the Center became the object of serious intimidations after its lawyers began taking up the defense of prominent arrest and imprisonment cases such as the murder of Iranian-Canadian photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi and other Iranian journalists. A few months ago, in the course of the retrial of Zahra Kazemi’s case, Soltani asked “Why have the witnesses withdrawn their earlier testimony regarding the murder of Zahra Kazemi? He then insisted that while Kazemi’s murder had taken place “in a security building under the watch of closed-circuit cameras, the sentence says that the murderers could not be found.” He even further and said that the letter of the Ministry of Intelligence says that “officials of the Intelligence Ministry have offered to recreate the crime scene to prove their innocence, if they receive sufficient protection for their lives. What power is out there involved in this case that requires officials of the Ministry to request protection for their lives? “How can someone inflict a fatal punch on to someone in the presence of 20 other people without being identified?” Soon after these words, Soltani was arrested and all the efforts of his colleagues to free him have not freed this lawyer.

Just two months after the new hardliners came to presidential power, they began to prevent the work of the Center. A news item that appeared in Kayhan newspaper was the start of their operations. They made new accusations against Ebadi and Soltani regarding Ganji’s case and thus tried to exert pressure on the Center. Observers interpret the current call of the judiciary for Dadkhah to appear before the Tehran prosecutor and the continuation of the detention of Soltani are recent measures to increase the pressure on the Center and its activities. They explain that the hardliners who now control all the three branches of government in Iran but are also under intense international pressure on three key issues that includes human rights, they wish to crush this group to end the pressure that they feel is coming because of the Center.

Political observers believe that because the new conservatists view everything from a security perspective, they will do everything to shut down all the NGOs and especially those advocating human rights, just as they did with the Iranian Writers’ Association.