In an open letter sent to Iran's chief judicial official, Human Rights Watch called for an end to the prosecution of prominent independent and reformist figures who attended an international conference last April.
"Iran should immediately halt the prosecution of these individuals and all charges against them should be dropped," said Hanny Megally, the Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division. "Those who have remained outside of Iran since the Berlin conference for fear of prosecution should be assured they will not be subject to reprisals upon their return."
The trials began on Sunday, October 29. All the defendants received notice to appear before the court only a few days prior to the commencement of proceedings, giving them no opportunity to prepare a defense. The charges against them have not yet been fully disclosed.
November 2, 2000
H. E. Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi
Head of the Judiciary
Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran
Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the trials that have started behind closed doors of at least ten Iranians, apparently for attending and/or speaking at an international conference in Berlin, Germany on April 7 - 8, 2000. The charges against them, which have not yet been fully disclosed, include “engaging in propaganda against the national security of Iran.” We are concerned that these individuals, most of whom are prominent independent and reformist figures, are being prosecuted for exercising their basic right to freedom of expression. We are also alarmed that they are being tried before an exceptional court, the Revolutionary Court, whose procedures have in the past fallen far short of international standards for fair trial.
Human Rights Watch has learned that one of the defendants, Shahla Sherkat, the managing director of Women magazine, was summoned recently to appear before Revolutionary Court 3 in Tehran. When she arrived at the court on Sunday, October 29, she discovered that the trial proceedings were about to begin even before her lawyer had obtained access to the prosecution files. It appears that the remaining defendants (list appended) also received summonses to appear in court without allowing their lawyers the opportunity to have access to case files and to prepare their defense. In April, the defendants attended an international conference in Berlin on the future of Iran, which was also attended by banned and exiled political activists. This has been used by some conservative politicians to portray the defendants as persons linked to hostile foreign powers. The state-controlled Iranian media has described the event as anti-Iranian and anti-Islamic.
Hassan Youssefi Eshkevari, a religious scholar, has been held in prison since his return in August. His trial began in October before a Special Court for the Clergy. He is facing charges of apostasy, which may carry the death penalty. Mehrangiz Kar, a lawyer and women´s rights activist, and Shahla Lahidji, a publisher were detained for a few weeks in April and tried on Tuesday October 31 behind closed doors. Veteran independent politician Ezzatollah Sahabi, now more than seventy years of age, was detained upon his return from the conference and interrogated for more than six weeks before being released on bail. Sahabi was tried publicly today before the Revolutionary Court along with Alireza Alavi-Tabar, an editor, and Monirou Ravani-Pour, a writer. Two participants in the Berlin conference, Akbar Ganji, an investigative journalist, and Khalil Rostamkhani, have been held in prison since their return in April and May respectively.
Your Excellency, the prosecution of these individuals is a violation of Iran´s obligation to uphold the right to freedom of expression as provided for in Article 19 (2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states:
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
Furthermore, we are troubled by the manner of their summonses, which has not allowed their lawyers adequate time and access to the necessary court files.
The court before which they are appearing raises further doubts about the fairness of this process. Iranian press reports on October 31 quoted Abassali Alizadeh, the head of Tehran´s Justice Department, as saying that these trials will be held in public, but some sessions have already begun in secret.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that these prosecutions are a continuation of a pattern of repression against reformist and independent figures that has gathered momentum since February´s parliamentary elections. Since then virtually all independent newspapers have been closed down and leading editors, journalists, and thinkers have been imprisoned.
Human Rights Watch calls on your Excellency, as head of Iran´s judiciary, to halt immediately the prosecution of individuals for exercising their right to freedom of expression. All charges against these individuals should be dropped, and all of those in prison should be released. Those who attended the conference and have yet to return from abroad should be given assurances that they will not be subjected to any reprisals for their participation.
Should the trials of these individuals nevertheless continue, Human Rights Watch respectfully requests permission to send independent lawyers to observe future sessions and to assist us in assessing the fairness of the proceedings.
I look forward to your early response.
Hanny Megally Executive Director Middle East and North Africa Division
cc: HE Mr. Mohammad Hadi Nejad Hosseinian, Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the U.N.