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The Iranian government is relying on its broadly worded “security laws” to suppress virtually any public expression of dissent, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. It uses these laws to subject those arrested to prolonged incommunicado detention without charge, solitary confinement, and denial of access to counsel.

The 51-page report, “‘You Can Detain Anyone for Anything’: Iran’s Broadening Clampdown on Independent Activism,” documents the expansion in scope and number of the individuals and activities persecuted by the Iranian government over the last two years.

“Dozens of Iranian laws provide the government cover for suppressing any peaceful activity they perceive as critical of their policies,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities can trample over people’s basic rights and still claim to be acting legally.”

Relying on information from detainees and eyewitnesses, as well as a close analysis of Iran’s security laws, “You Can Detain Anyone for Anything” documents the government’s use of security concerns as a pretext for detaining and denying due process rights to a range of civil society activists. These include women’s rights campaigners calling for changes to Iran’s laws that discriminate against women, students working for social and political reform, workers calling for better wages and independent unions, and journalists and scholars, including those with no history of political activism.

Since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in August 2005, government officials have increasingly used “security” as grounds for persecuting independent activism. A set of laws within Iran’s Islamic Penal Code entitled “Offenses Against the National and International Security of the Country” lay the groundwork for the government to suppress peaceful political activity and deny due process rights to those arrested.

The government has also increasingly brought security charges based merely on an individual’s connections to foreign institutions, persons, or sources of funding. In most of the cases documented in this report, the authorities have accused those arrested of undermining national security through their alleged foreign connections.

The authorities frequently hold detainees arrested on security grounds in facilities operating outside the mandated prison administration, most notoriously in Section 209 of Tehran’s Evin prison. Detainees in Evin 209 are subject to violations of their due process rights as well as abusive treatment during interrogation and in detention.

One former detainee told Human Rights Watch about the psychological and physical abuse he and fellow detainees suffered at the hands of his interrogators in Evin 209:

“They would insult us and our family in the most vulgar ways. Or they would threaten to beat us or throw us in the cells of dangerous criminals like al Qaeda members. They would threaten rape with soda bottles or hot eggs. They also would give us false news about our loved ones and brought forged documents to scare us. They told one guy that his dad had been fired because of him and showed him a piece of paper on official-looking letterhead.”

Another former detainee described the authorities’ disregard for Iranian laws pertaining to the treatment of prisoners and their use of indefinite solitary confinement as a form of punishment:

“We didn’t know what we were being charged with, or what was going to happen to us. The guards blindfolded us at the entrance of [Evin] 209. Almost everyone objected at once to this, but they ignored us. I think to scare us for speaking out, they took one of us to solitary confinement right away.”

Iran’s vague security laws allow the government to arbitrarily suppress and punish individuals for peaceful political expression, association, and assembly, in breach of international human rights treaties to which Iran is party. Prison units such as Evin 209 and the treatment of detainees inside its walls are also in violation of Iranian laws governing the operation of detention centers and the rights of detainees.

Human Rights Watch called on the government of Iran to amend or abolish the vague security laws and other legislation that allow the government to arbitrarily suppress and punish individuals for peaceful political expression, association and assembly in breach of international law. Human Rights Watch also called on the government to treat detainees in accordance with international standards, and to either bring Evin 209 under the supervision of the regular prisons administration or shut it down.

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