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The Iranian Judiciary should immediately end its prosecution of several women’s rights advocates for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said today.

On March 4, the Judiciary will hold a trial for five women charged with “acting against national security by participating in an illegal gathering.” The women on trial are: Nusheen Ahmadi Khorasani; Parvin Ardalan; Sussan Tahmasebi; Shahla Entesari; and Fariba Davoodi Mohajer. In addition, the Judiciary has charged at least four other activists, Alieh Eghdamdoost, Bahareh Hedayat, Delaram Ali and Azadeh Forghani, with the same offense but has not set their court date.

“Iran is prosecuting women for peacefully protesting laws that discriminate against them – and that violate Iranian and international law,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.

The Judiciary filed charges against the women’s rights activists following a public demonstration to protest Iran’s discriminatory laws against women in Tehran on June 12, 2006. The security forces prevented peaceful demonstrators from gathering and advocating for women’s rights. Police agents beat the demonstrators with batons, sprayed them with pepper gas, marked them with color spray, and took 70 people into custody. All the detainees have since been released.

Freedom of assembly is guaranteed under international human rights law. Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides everyone with the right to peaceful assembly. Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party, recognizes the right to peaceful assembly, stating that “no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

The Iranian constitution also ensures the right to peaceful assembly. Article 27 of the constitution stipulates that “public gatherings and marches may be freely held, provided arms are not carried and that they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.”

Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who is a lawyer for several of the accused women, told Human Rights Watch that the June 12 gathering fulfilled all of the conditions set forth by Article 27 of the constitution and the Judiciary has no legal grounds for prosecuting the demonstrators.

On January 5, 2007, the Judiciary held a trial for Zhila Baniyaghoub, a journalist who attended the June 12, 2006 demonstration. The authorities charged her with “acting against national security by participating in an illegal gathering.” Police agents arrested her during the demonstration and released her on bail after one week of detention. During the trial, her lawyer, Farideh Gheirat, argued that Baniyaghoub was present at the demonstration as a journalist to cover the event. The presiding judge subsequently dropped charges against Baniyaghoub and acquitted her.

Human Rights Watch commends Baniyaghoub’s acquittal and calls on the Judiciary to drop charges against all other defendants as well.

In addition to prosecuting women’s rights activists, the government has also increased its persecution of people who continue to call for reforms of Iran’s discriminatory laws against women. Women’s rights activists launched a campaign, “Change for Equality,” to collect 1 million signatures to protest these laws. The authorities have targeted campaign volunteers by harassing them and denying them the ability to advocate for their cause in public spaces. They have also blocked access to the campaign’s website by filtering it. During the past two weeks, campaign organizers have moved their website to a new domain at least three times due to filtering.

“By targeting peaceful advocates, the government is demonstrating its intolerance for civil society actions,” Whitson said. “The authorities should listen to women’s rights advocates and work with them to reform discriminatory laws, instead of prosecuting them and perpetuating a system of discrimination.”

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