(New York) - Iranian authorities should immediately charge or release the wife and brother-in-law of a prominent lawyer, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should also stop harassing and intimidating Mohammad Mostafaei, who has spent his career defending juveniles and the underprivileged, including many who were sentenced to execution.
Mostafaei has been missing since July 24, 2010, when he was questioned by the authorities and then released. Later in the day, security officials went to his office with a warrant to arrest him, several Persian-language media reported. Unable to find him, security forces arrested Mostafaei's wife, Fereshteh Halimi, and his brother-in-law, Farhad Halimi, in the vicinity of Mostafaei's office. Both remain in detention but have not been charged.
"The authorities have provided no reason for the arrests of Fereshteh and Farhad Halimi," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The burden is squarely on the Iranian government to explain why these arrests do not essentially amount to state-sanctioned hostage-taking."
On July 24, Mostafaei wrote in his online blog, Modafe', that the public prosecutor's office in Evin Prison had summoned him for questioning. He wrote that most of the questions were about the source of financial assistance to clients who had been sentenced to death for crimes allegedly committed when they were juveniles. During the past year, Mostafaei helped set up a fund for his juvenile clients to help them pay diyeh, or blood money, to families of victims so they would forgive the alleged offenders and spare them from execution.
A few hours after this post, Mostafaei sent another: "Today after being interrogated by Branch 2 of the prosecutor's office they contacted me again and I was summoned for a second time." Mostafaei continued, "I don't know what the problem is this time, but in any case I have to go to the prosecutor's office at Evin again tomorrow. They may even arrest me today. I don't know." He has not posted any other messages since.
The Iranian Judiciary has not said why it issued the arrest warrant for Mostafaei.
Mostafaei is one of the most prominent human rights lawyers in Iran. In recent years, he has handled numerous high-profile cases, including that of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43 year-old mother of two whom a court sentenced to death by stoning earlier this month after convicting her of adultery. After international pressure and outrage, Iran's Judiciary announced that she would not be executed by stoning, but it has not quashed her death sentence.
Mostafaei also has handled numerous cases of juvenile offenders sentenced to death for crimes involving murder and rape, and is a leading advocate in Iran of ending the death penalty for those who committed crimes as minors. Over the past few years, Mostafaei has provided important information and gripping accounts exposing the dire situation of juvenile offenders on death row.
In 2009, he described Delara Darabi's last moments to Human Rights Watch. Prison authorities secretly executed her in Rasht Prison for a killing she was alleged to have committed when she was 17. Darabi was one of at least four juveniles executed by the Iranian government in 2009.
This is not the first time that Mostafaei and other prominent rights lawyers have been harassed or arrested by Iranian security forces and the judiciary. Human Rights Watch has documented a persistent pattern of harassment and intimidation by the Iranian government against high-profile human rights lawyers and their families, including the Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, whose sister and husband have been repeatedly harassed and interrogated during the past several years. Government authorities shut down Ebadi's Human Rights Defenders Center (HRDC) in December 2008.
Since the disputed presidential election on June 12, 2009, authorities have either arrested or harassed numerous human rights lawyers, such as Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, Abdolfattah Soltani, Mohammad Seifzadeh, Hadi Esmaielzadeh, Manijeh Mohammadi, Kambiz Noroozi, Shadi Sadr, and Mohammad Olyaeifard. The judiciary convicted Olyaeifard of "propaganda against the regime" and sentenced him to a year in prison in February, after he spoke to foreign media about his client, Behnoud Shojaii, a juvenile who was executed by prison authorities on October 12, 2009. Olyaeifard is serving his prison sentence. Authorities also detained Mosatafaei after the disputed June 12 elections, but released him shortly after his arrest.
"It has become increasingly clear that the Iranian government targets rights lawyers not only as retaliation, but to cut off the outside world from vital information." Whitson said. "The international community needs to stand behind lawyers such as Mostafaei, and support their right to continue their important work free from state intimidation and interference."