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The Iranian government should immediately release the 26 prominent women's rights activists arrested on March 4, and stop its prosecution and persecution of all women’s rights advocates, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the health and safety of the detainees, and holds the Iranian government fully responsible for their well-being.

The authorities have refused to provide any official information regarding the arrests of the 26 women on March 4, or to allow their families or lawyers to visit the detainees. On Tuesday, March 6, the arrested women started a hunger strike inside the prison to protest their arbitrary detention. At least one detainee, Shahla Entesari, is being held in solitary confinement.

"These arrests raise Iran's repression of peaceful activists to a new level," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "There are absolutely no legal grounds for arresting these women, under international or Iranian law."

The government has considerably increased its harassment and intimidation of women's rights activists in recent weeks. On the morning of March 4, the Judiciary held a trial for four women's rights activists charged with "acting against national security by participating in an illegal gathering." The gathering at issue was a peaceful demonstration on June 12, 2006 to protest discriminatory laws against women.

Nasrin Setoudeh and Mohammad Dadkhah, the two lawyers representing the four women, told Human Rights Watch that the judicial authorities held the trial behind closed doors and did not allow the defendants into the courtroom. The authorities allowed the two lawyers into the courtroom but did allow them to see the defendants' files. The court has not issued a decision in the case.

To protest the prosecution of the four women, several dozen prominent women's rights advocates, including lawyers, journalists, bloggers and activists, held a silent protest in front of the court.

Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that the protestors were orderly and peaceful. They stood silently on the sidewalk, holding signs stating, "Freedom of peaceful assembly is our right." The security forces repeatedly harassed the women in an attempt to disperse them. As the four defendants left the courthouse to join their supporters, police vans blocked incoming traffic, and security agents forced 34 women, including the four defendants, into the vans and transported them to a detention center on Vozara Street in Tehran.

On the evening of March 4, the authorities transferred the detainees to ward 209 of Tehran's notorious Evin prison. The information ministry, which effectively carries out intelligence functions, is in charge of ward 209, where many political prisoners are held.

The authorities released the eight youngest detainees on March 6 without charging them. The authorities have not provided any information to the families of the remaining detainees.

"The government of President Ahmadinejad is trying to roll back even the modest freedoms won by Iranian civil society over the last decade," Whitson said.

Human Rights Watch notes that March 8 is International Women's Day, which is traditionally celebrated in public gatherings in Iran. It calls on the Iranian government to respect its citizens' rights to assemble peacefully, and to guarantee the security and safety of anyone who wants to commemorate International Women's Day.

Freedom of assembly is a fundamental right, guaranteed under international law. Recognized in Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, exercise of the right to peaceful assembly is also guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 21 of the covenant, to which Iran is a party and legally bound, provides 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 provides for 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."

The women in detention are: Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani; Parvin Ardalan; Sussan Tahmasebi; Nahid Keshavarz; Mahbubeh Hosseinzadeh; Asieh Amini; Shadi Sadr; Minoo Mortazi Langerudi; Fatemeh Govarai; Shahla Entesari; Mahbubeh Abbasgholizadeh; Maryam Mirza; Maryam Hosseinkhah; Nahid Jafari; Azadeh Forghani; Jila Baniyaghoub; Elnaz Ansari; Jelveh Javaheri; Zara Amjadian; Zeynab Peyghambarzadeh; Nasrin Afzali; Mahnaz Mohamadi; Somayeh Farid; Rezvan Moghadam; Sara Loghmani; and Maryam Shadfar.

For pictures and short biographies of some of the arrested women, please visit:

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