Three international human rights organizations today expressed concern to the speaker of the Iranian parliament over comments made by one parliamentarian about women lawyers in Iran.

The three organizations -- Human Rights Watch, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) -- warned that two prominent women lawyers, Shirin Ebadi and Mehrangiz Kar, could now be at risk of attack by religious vigilantes.

The comments were made on April 12, 1998, during a discussion in the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majles, or parliament) about an amendment to Article 6 of the Press Law, concerning media coverage of women's issues. Majles member Dr. Marzieh Wahid Dastjerdi referred to people who had debated women's rights issues in the press, and made clear references to articles by prominent lawyers, threatening that "we are going to deal with these people ourselves." Although Dr. Dastjerdi did not name the women lawyers, it was clear in that context that the lawyers were Shirin Ebadi and Mehrangiz Kar, who have been outspoken advocates of greater rights for women in Iran. In the past, vigilante violence has followed the statements of government officials criticizing individuals or institutions. For example, at a medical conference in Tehran on May 12, Dr. Dastjerdi strongly criticized an Iranian surgeon who had spoken out on against a proposed law on gender segregation in health care. One day later, vigilantes of the Ansar-e Hezbollahi, or Partisans of the Party of God, attacked and beat the surgeon.

"We recognize that opposing points of view should be recognized in the course of parliamentary debates," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "But the words of parliamentarians should not legitimize political violence by zealots." The letter urges the speaker of the Majles, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, to condemn Dr. Dastjerdi's comments.

Lawyers Committee for Human Rights
Human Rights Watch
International Federation for Human Rights

The full text of the letter is attached.

His Excellency
Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri
Speaker of the Islamic Consultative Assembly
Tehran
Iran
May 19, 1998
Your Excellency:

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights, three independent non-governmental organizations which work for the promotion and protection of human rights around the world, are writing to you to express their concern over comments made by a member of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majles) about prominent women lawyers in Iran. We fear that these comments may place the lawyers at risk of attack by vigilantes, and have a chilling effect on the ability of lawyers to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, to the detriment of respect for the rule of law in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

During discussion in the Majles on April 12, 1998 about the amendment to Article 6 of the Press Law concerning the representation of women and the coverage of women's issues, Majles member Dr. Marzieh Wahid Dastjerdi referring to those who had debated women's rights issues in the press and making clear references to articles by prominent lawyers, threatened that "we are going to deal with these people ourselves." Although the women lawyers were not named in this instance it was clear from the references made that the women referred to were the lawyers Shirin Ebadi and Mehrangiz Kar.

While we recognize that opposing points of view should be expressed in the course of parliamentary debates, the words of parliamentarians should not legitimize political violence by zealots - such as the so called Partisans of the Party of God, (Ansar-e Hezbollahi), - who take into their own hands the enforcement of religious orthodoxy. There is a pattern of statements by government officials or parliamentarians criticizing individuals or institutions being followed by vigilante violence. For example, on May 12, at a Medical conference in Tehran, an Iranian surgeon who spoke out against a proposed law on gender segregation in health care was first strongly criticized by Dr. Dastjerdi, and one day later, beaten by Ansar-e Hezbollahi vigilantes at the same conference. The Minister of the Interior, Hojatoleslam Abdollah Nouri, apologized to the surgeons, but no action has been taken to apprehend or prosecute these vigilantes.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers adopted by the Eighth UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders and welcomed by the 45th General Assembly of the UN, with the assent of the Islamic Republic, on December 14, 1990, sets out guarantees necessary for the functioning of lawyers. They provide in Principle 16 that:

Governments shall ensure that lawyers a) are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference;...

In relation to lawyers' right to freedom of expression and association the Basic Principles provide in Principle 23:

...In particular, they [lawyers] shall have the right to take part in public discussion of maters concerning the law,...

In their comments on laws affecting women, Ms. Ebadi and Ms. Kar were exercising their internationally recognized right to comment on matters concerning the law and to promote the cause of justice and human rights. The nature and tone of comments made by the members of the Majles mentioned above could have lead to harmful consequences to the personal security of the individuals concerned and detrimental to the process of considered law making in the Islamic Republic.

As Speaker of the Majles, we respectfully urge you to promote and welcome the involvement of lawyers in public debate of matters concerning the law in the Islamic Republic as being in the best interests of the society. We ask that you condemn irresponsible comments from members of the Majles that may endanger the personal security of lawyers exercising their fundamental rights.

Thank you for your consideration of these matters.

Sincerely,

Neil Hicks
Senior Program Coordinator
Lawyers Committee for Human Rights

Hanny Megally
Executive Director
Middle East Division
Human Rights Watch

Patrick Baudoin
President
Federation Internationale des Ligues de Droits de l'Homme