On Saturday evening, July 30, agents of the Judiciary, operating under the authority of Tehran chief prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, arrested Soltani inside the offices of the Lawyers Association in Tehran. The next day, a Judiciary spokesman announced that Soltani was arrested for "revealing secrets relating to the case of nuclear spies." Soltani is currently being held in Evin prison in Tehran but has yet to be brought before a judge or formally charged.
The Judiciary statement suggests that Soltani unlawfully divulged information from clients of his who have been charged with revealing Iran's nuclear secrets. But Soltani has no access to the files in the case. Instead, Human Rights Watch said the arrest appears to be a politically motivated response by the government to Soltani's role in the Zahra Kazemi case, the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist murdered in July 2003 while she was in government custody. A few days earlier on July 25, Soltani stated before the court of appeals that Kazemi had been in the custody of Judiciary agents and security forces when she was murdered, and that the Judiciary's continued inaction two years after her death was a cover-up.
"Soltani's arrest is an ominous sign for human rights in Iran as the new president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepares to take office," said Hadi Ghaemi, Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Soltani's arrest came during a week when human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi received numerous threats from the Judiciary officials. Ebadi is co-counsel with Soltani in the Kazemi case and participated in the July 25 hearing. On July 30, Mortazavi's deputy stated publicly that Ebadi was orchestrating the hunger strike of imprisoned journalist Akbar Ganji and that she "has suspicious ties to foreigners."
Last week, the daily Kayhan, which has close ties to Mortazavi, repeatedly published similar accusations against Ebadi. Ebadi has strongly rejected these accusations, saying "These are attempts to cover up truths that certain people do not wish to see exposed."
"With the threats against Nobel winner Shirin Ebadi with her international stature," said Ghaemi, "how can any critic feel safe in Iran?"
Ebadi and Soltani are co-founders of the Center for Defense of Human Rights in Tehran. The Center's lawyers represent victims of human rights abuses. These include a number of high profile cases, notably Akbar Ganji and the family of Zahra Kazemi.
Ganji, who has spent the last five-and-a-half years in prison because of his writings, has been on hunger strike for more than 50 days. According to his wife, he is near death and is sustained only by occasional injection of fluids to which he strongly objects.
"It is no coincidence that Soltani and Ebadi are now under attack. These actions are politically motivated to prevent human rights defenders from holding the government accountable for its actions and to intimidate and silence them," Ghaemi said.
In 2002, the Iranian Judiciary arrested and convicted another prominent lawyer, Nasser Zarafshan, after an unfair trial behind closed doors, on charges of "disseminating confidential information." He was sentenced to five years in prison. Zarafshan represented the families of intellectuals and writers murdered by intelligence ministry agents in 1998.
Human Rights Watch said that the government of Iran has an affirmative obligation to protect Ganji, Ebadi, Soltani and other rights advocates. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which the General Assembly adopted by consensus in 1998, declares that states "shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of [human rights defenders] against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary actions" as a consequence of their legitimate effort to promote human rights.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to end its harassment and persecution of lawyers and human rights defenders and to release Akbar Ganji and Abdolfattah Soltani from custody immediately and unconditionally.
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