(New York, July 26, 2009) - Iranian authorities continue to arrest prominent human rights lawyers in an attempt to prevent them from representing reform supporters detained following Iran's disputed presidential election, Human Rights Watch said today. Other lawyers have been threatened.
"Iranian authorities are trying to create an atmosphere of fear among all lawyers who agree to defend political prisoners," said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East division. "Many reform supporters arrested after the presidential elections have been denied access to their lawyers, and now they're finding the lawyers imprisoned with them."
On July 15, 2009, plainclothes security forces seized human rights lawyer Shadi Sadr on the street while she was walking to attend Friday prayers. On July 21, security forces telephoned Mohammad Seifzadeh, another leading human rights defense lawyer, and threatened to take steps (which they did not specify) to prevent him from continuing his human rights activities.
Hadi Esmaielzadeh and Manijeh Mohammadi were among other human rights lawyers who were questioned by the security section of the Tehran prosecutor's office a few days after the June 12 election. Seifzadeh, Esmaielzadeh, and Mohammadi are all members of the Human Rights Defenders Center (HRDC), a prominent human rights organization led by Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, which security forces have threatened to close on a number of occasions in recent years.
"They told me not to cooperate with Shirin Ebadi," Seifzadeh, who is a board member of HRDC, told Human Rights Watch.
A friend of Sadr who witnessed her arrest told Human Rights Watch what happened:
"We were heading toward Friday prayers. At the intersection of Keshavarz Boulevard and Filastin Street a motorcycle, with two men on it dressed in civilian clothes, approached us. A green Peugeot with three passengers, also dressed in civilian clothes, stopped in front of us. One of the Peugeot passengers got out of the car and said to one of us, ‘We need to take you with us.' Then the motorcyclists approached and pointed to Shadi and said, ‘We need to take her, not the other lady.' Shadi got in the car, but two of us started yelling: ‘Who are you? Where they are taking Shadi?' Shadi started asking too. One of my friends opened the car door to help Shadi get out but the person sitting next to Shadi was holding on to her firmly. Shadi was able to get out of the car, but her manteau got torn and her headscarf came off. She was able to run into the road. One of the men dressed in civilian clothes ran towards her and started beating her with a cable. He picked her up and threw her in the car. In a blink of an eye, the car sped away. They didn't show a warrant or any papers for her arrest."
Since June 12, authorities have arrested at least four other human rights defenders - Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, Abdolfattah Soltani, Mohammad Mosatafaie, and Kambiz Noroozi. Mostafaie was later released but the other three remain in detention.
Officials later claimed to have discovered two handguns and a large package of opium in Dadkhah's office. Three human rights lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they believe this was clearly an effort to increase pressure on him and other lawyers to stop representing political prisoners. Mohammad Ali Dadkhah was arrested exactly an hour before a scheduled meeting with the campaign of reformist presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi to discuss issues regarding political prisoners.
"The timing of his arrest leaves no doubt that the security authorities do not want anyone to take care of the prisoners' cases," one of the lawyers said.
Families of two detainees told Human Rights Watch that their sons told them during a telephone call that they do not want lawyers. The father of one detainee quoted his son as saying: "They cannot help us. Don't ask lawyers to present my case."
The detained lawyers are among the few attorneys who, despite pressure from Iranian authorities, have publicly discussed human rights violations in prisons with media both inside and outside Iran. One lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he received a phone call from the intelligence ministry regarding to the political prisoners he represented. "You should be aware that talking to media, particularly foreign media, is perceived as cooperating with the enemies," he quoted one official as saying. "If there is any information about those who you represent the court will announce it. You should not talk to media, otherwise you will be prosecuted."
Another human rights attorney told Human Rights Watch that the authorities are arresting these lawyers in order to cut off an "information supply" to Iranians and the outside world. "Because these lawyers follow up on their clients' cases and talk about violations of law, authorities are unhappy about the news that leaks out," he said.