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Ban of Legal Aid Center Raises Concern over Iran's Human Rights

By Lea Terhune
Washington File Staff Writer

Tehran outlaws Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi's Center for Defense of Human Rights

Washington - When the Iranian government notified the Center for Defense of Human Rights (CDHR) that it was illegal and that if its activities continued, members risked arrest, co-founder Shirin Ebadi responded with an international e-mail appeal for support.

Ebadi, a well-known lawyer, is the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She founded the CDHR with a colleague, Abdulfatah Soltani, in 2001 to defend dissidents facing prosecution by the Iranian government. In her August 5 message, Ebadi said the center members "do not intend to shut down the center and we shall continue our activities. However, there is a high possibility that they will arrest us."

She has spent time in detention before, and her law partner, Soltani, spent most of the past year in Tehran's Evin prison. He was sentenced in July to five years for disclosing confidential information and for opposition to the regime. He is in the process of appealing the decision.

CDHR lawyers handle cases of dissidents who otherwise would be unable to defend themselves. According to Ebadi, "We defend political prisoners pro bono - about 70 percent of the political prisoners in Iran are clients of our center." They also give financial and moral support to their clients' families and report violations of human rights in the country.

The European Union and human rights monitors have noted the deterioration of human rights in Iran with concern. Human Rights Watch was one of several groups calling for Iran to fulfill its obligation to protect human rights workers under the 1998 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights Defenders, which supports citizens' rights "to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms," to "discuss new human rights ideas and principles and to advocate their acceptance" and challenge harmful government policies.

"Shirin Ebadi has fearlessly used her legal expertise to promote and protect fundamental human rights, equality and rule of law in Iran," said U.S. State Department official Erica Barks-Ruggles. "She has been an inspiring voice advocating for the Iranian people." Barks-Ruggles expressed alarm that the Iranian government would seek to  "constrain [Ebadi's] efforts to ensure all Iranians have a voice."

Incidents in past months have heightened concerns about human rights in Iran.  The July death of jailed dissident Akbar Mohammadi in Evin prison aroused suspicions. Amnesty International maintains his poor health was the result of torture, and said it is "strongly indicated" that "repeated delays or outright denial of medical care" contributed to Mohammadi's death. Iranian Justice Minister Jamal Karimirad told Reuters that he had been under "intense" medical supervision but "his health condition deteriorated."

In June, Iranian Prosecutor-General Saeed Mortazavi, seen by many as responsible for systematic civil and human rights abuses, was appointed to a delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. At the time Human Rights Watch researcher Hadi Ghaemi wrote that Mortazavi "has prosecuted scores of Iranian human rights defenders, journalists, dissidents, students and activists, and he is alleged to be implicated directly in acts of murder, torture, arbitrary detention and coercing false confessions."

Police also cracked down on an International Women's Day gathering March 8. They beat up participants, several hundred of whom assembled in Tehran for a peaceful show of solidarity with the international women's rights movement. A police official told the Iranian Labor News Agency that the gathering was held without official permit and the police action "prevented the gathering to take on a political dimension." Shirin Ebadi is defending some of the participants.

Many Iranian student activists and authors of Internet Web logs, or bloggers, are held in jails. Among them are Mojtaba Saemi Nejad, Arash Cigarchi, Abed Tavanche and Omid Abbas Gholinejad. Journalists are at high risk of arrest. Reporters Without Borders calls Iran "the Middle East's biggest prison for journalists and bloggers" in its 2006 annual report. Imprisoned journalists include Ali Hamed Iman, Elham Foroutan and Mohsen Dorostkar. Internationally respected scholar Ramin Jahanbegloo remains in jail, as does Yashar Ghajar, the head of the Islamic Institute of Amir Kabir University. After paying a high bail, labor leader Mansoor Osanloo was released from prison August 9. Human rights advocates lauded his release while renewing calls for the Iranian government to respect the rights of its citizens.

Calling the action against the CDHR a "huge setback" on that score, Sarah Lea Whitson of Human Rights Watch said, "If Ebadi is threatened for defending human rights, then no one who works for human rights can escape government prosecution."  Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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