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(New York) - Authorities should immediately release two prominent opposition leaders and their family members and allow them to engage in peaceful political activity, Human Rights Watch said today. The government is holding Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, their wives, and one of Karroubi's sons. Authorities recently transferred the two leaders and their wives to another location after restricting their movement and placing them under house arrest for more than two weeks, opposition members said.

The house arrests began after the leaders called for demonstrations in support of protesters in Tunisia and Egypt and to voice displeasure with conditions in Iran. On or around February 24, 2011, after opposition websites called for protests over their house arrest, security forces transferred Mousavi and Karroubi and their wives, Zahra Rahnavard and Fatemeh Karroubi, to Heshmatiyeh prison, a detention facility on a Revolutionary Guard base in Tehran, according to several media reports and an opposition member who spoke to Human Rights Watch. Their detention does not comply with Iranian law, Human Rights Watch said. They have not been told why they were arrested, nor have they been brought before an independent judge and charged with any crimes, a spokesman for Mousavi said.

"The detention of Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi is a crude attempt by Iran's rulers to stifle and silence peaceful political dissent," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Authorities had effectively placed Mousavi and Karroubi under house arrest since February 14, the date of the first planned public protests in Iran in 2011. On March 2, Tehran's prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, denied reports that leaders had transferred Mousavi and Karroubi to a detention facility and said they are still inside their homes. Mohsen Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, spokesperson and chief prosecutor for Iran's Judiciary, had told reporters on February 28 that authorities had "isolated" Mousavi's and Karroubi's movements and that communications between them and others had been severely restricted. "Those who are working against the Islamic regime ... should know that they will be hunted down," he told reporters.

On February 25, the Council for the Coordination of the Green Path of Hope (Council), which coordinates the activities of Iran's opposition movement and supports Mousavi and Karroubi, called on Iranians to gather in Tehran and other major cities on March 1 to "protest the continued house arrest and imprisonment of the leaders of the Green Movement." Thousands of Iranians again filled the streets of Tehran and other major cities on March 1. Security forces, including riot police and basij militias, whose numbers overwhelmed demonstrators in many parts of Tehran, attacked the demonstrators with teargas, batons, and gunshot pellets in an effort to prevent crowds from forming and chanting anti-government slogans. Dozens were arrested, according to witnesses.

In response to the earlier calls by Mousavi and Karroubi for protest marches, and despite heavy security, three protests have taken place in Tehran and other cities since February 14. Authorities responded with violent attacks on peaceful protesters and arrested dozens in Tehran and other major cities on February 14, 16, and 20. At least three people have died as a result of clashes between protesters and security forces, two of whom had been fatally injured on February 14, and a third on February 20.

On February 28 websites affiliated with the opposition leaders reported that authorities had forcibly removed Karroubi and his wife from their home on the evening of February 24 after keeping them under house arrest for two weeks. Saham News, a website affiliated with Karroubi, reported in February 26 that security forces had entered Karroubi's home and arrested his younger son, Ali Karroubi. His whereabouts are unknown. Security forces had previously detained Ali Karroubi and allegedly beaten him in February 2010, without having charged him with any criminal offense, according to accounts by his mother Fatemeh Karroubi posted on the Saham News site.

Ardeshir Amir Arjoman, a spokesman for Mir Hossein Mousavi who is living in exile, told Human Rights Watch that security officials who have surrounded the leaders' homes consistently refuse to provide any information about their whereabouts, but that unnamed sources inside the country have confirmed that authorities have transferred Mousavi, Karroubi, and their wives to the Heshmatiyeh prison in Tehran without presenting them with an arrest warrant. Arjoman also confirmed earlier reports that authorities had erected a steel gate to prevent access to Mousavi's private residence.

Government officials, and pro-government members of Iran's Majlis, or parliament, have called for the two opposition leaders to be tried and executed. Since the outbreak of protests following Iran's disputed 2009 presidential election, security forces have closely monitored Mousavi and Karroubi's movements, and plainclothes agents have gathered outside Karroubi's private residence and carried out several violent attacks against him and his family, Saham News has reported.

Article 32 of the Iranian Constitution provides that "no person may be arrested except according to and in the manner laid down in the law," and that the charges must "immediately be communicated" to a detainee and the case referred to a competent authority within 24 hours. Additionally, article 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a signatory, strictly prohibits the arbitrary arrest and detention of individuals.

"Authorities have severely restricted Mousavi and Karroubi's movements for more than two weeks now," Stork said. "Their reported transfer to a detention facility indicates an escalation of situation by the government, but it does not change the fact that authorities are clearly violating both Iranian and international law by arbitrarily detaining the two and their family members."

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