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The Iranian government should immediately release two women’s rights activists arrested on April 1 and end its harassment and persecution of human rights defenders, Human Rights Watch said today.

On April 1, 2007, security forces arrested five women’s rights activists who were planning to gather signatures for the One Million Signatures Campaign, a project aimed at collecting one million signatures to demand an end to discrimination against women in Iranian law. This includes a call for women’s testimony in court to carry the same weight as that of men, equality of inheritance rights between men and women, the elimination of polygamy, and equality of compensation payments in the event of the wrongful death of a man and of a woman. The arrests took place in Laleh Park in Tehran; three of the five were released two days later.

“These arrests are the latest sign that the Iranian government can’t tolerate people who demand rights for women,” said Fadi Al-Qadi, Middle East advocate at Human Rights Watch. “Iran should stop targeting peaceful activists, and abide by international human rights law.”

According to eyewitness reports provided to Human Rights Watch, a small group of women’s rights activists were in Laleh Park preparing to ask passersby to sign their petition when uniformed security forces approached them. They told the activists they merely wished to speak to them but proceeded to arrest five: Mahboubeh Hosseinzadeh, Nahid Keshavarz, Saideh Amin, Sarah Imanian and Imanian’s husband, Homayoun Nami.

On April 3, authorities transferred the five to a branch of the Revolutionary Court. According to a colleague of Hosseinzadeh, court officials then asked the detainees to sign a pledge to end their activities on behalf of the campaign. Hosseinzadeh and Keshavarz refused.

Court officials told them that their activities amounted to acting against Islam and the state and that they would be charged accordingly and taken to Evin Prison.

That afternoon, officials brought the five detainees to Niloufar Police Station in Tehran where they released Amin, Imanian, and Nami. They transferred Keshavarz and Hosseinzadeh to Evin prison.

On the evening of April 4, Keshavarz called her husband from Evin Prison and told him that she and Hosseinzadeh had been taken to the women’s general ward. She informed him that the previous night they had been detained in a punishment block for women at Evin, where she and Hosseinzadeh had feared for their safety.

Keshavarz’s lawyers, Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi and Nasrin Sotoodeh, went to the Revolutionary Court on April 4 to inquire about the detainees. Authorities barred the two lawyers from entering the court, thus preventing them from obtaining information about the case against their clients.

Authorities have also prevented the families of Keshavarz and Hosseinzadeh from meeting them since their arrests. On April 5, relatives and friends of the two went to Evin prison to request a visit. The prison officials told them that due to the warden’s absence, they would be unable to see the detainees and that they should pursue the matter at the Revolutionary Court. At the court, officials provided no clarification about the detainees’ cases on the grounds that the presiding judge was absent, and advised them to return on Saturday, April 7.

Iran is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and as such is legally bound to protect freedom of expression, assembly and equality before the law, and prohibit arbitrary detention, such as detention resulting from the exercise of one of these rights. It must also guarantee due process and humane treatment to those in detention.

During the past year, the Iranian government has intensified its persecution of women’s rights advocates, especially those involved in the One Million Signatures Campaign. On March 4, four days before International Women’s Day, authorities arbitrarily arrested 34 women involved in the campaign, two of whom spent more than two weeks in solitary confinement. Keshavarz and Hosseinzadeh were among those detained.

While all the women were eventually freed on bail, prosecutions against them are proceeding. On April 4, authorities summoned three of those detained on March 4 – Parastoo Dokoohaki, Sara Loghayee, and Saghi Loghayee – to appear in court on Sunday, April 8 to answer charges of “disturbing national security and the general order by gathering illegally.”

“The Iranian government should release Keshavarz and Hosseinzadeh immediately and stop persecuting those who work peacefully for women’s rights,” said Al-Qadi.

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