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Activists Warn of Rights Crisis Ahead of Ahmadinejad Visit

Omid Memarian

NEW YORK, Sep 17 2010 (IPS) - Speaking at a press conference in New York Friday, Shirin Ebadi, a highly-regarded Iranian attorney and the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, warned that the human rights situation in Iran is deteriorating, particularly for the many journalists and civil society activists considered political prisoners.

Shirin Ebadi, centre, has endured hostile mobs outside her home and offices as a result of her work as a human rights lawyer in Iran. Credit: Solmaz Sharif/IPS

Shirin Ebadi, centre, has endured hostile mobs outside her home and offices as a result of her work as a human rights lawyer in Iran. Credit: Solmaz Sharif/IPS

“If Mr. Ahmadinejad claims that Iran is a free country, he should let Physicians Without Borders go to Iran and visit the prisoners in bad health condition,” Ebadi said ahead of the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to address the U.N. General Assembly Sep. 23.

The event was organised by two New York-based rights groups, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and Human Rights Watch, as well as the Nobel Women’s Initiative.

In an interview with Dutch TV’s Kim Bildsoe in January, Ahmadinejad defended his government’s record. “Iran is very free. It is the highest conceivable degree of freedom…It is a free government, very close to the people.”

Activists say this statement is laughable. “What is the meaning of freedom that a lawyer is not to free to defend his or her client? The plights of the prisoners have gotten worse,” Ebadi said. “Whoever is bailed out from prison has to go to hospital directly, including Narges Mohammadi [a prominent human rights activist] who has become disabled after her release [a few months ago].”

“The most urgent issue regarding human rights in Iran is the release of political prisoners,” said Ebadi. “I want to ask the United Nations, international institutions and heads of states that are in negotiation with Iran to give priority to Iran’s human rights as much as Iran’s nuclear programme in their talks.”

She also criticised what she called United States’ “policy to support non-democratic states”, saying it fostered deep public hostility in the Middle East region “so that everybody who says ‘Down to USA’ [read: Ahmadinejad] becomes a champion.”

Iranian officials have repeatedly denied the allegations of arbitrary arrests of political activists, rape and torture inside prisons. Ebadi said that her colleague, Nasrin Sotodeh, a human rights lawyer, is in prison and under enormous pressure to confess her alleged “crimes”.

Human rights groups in the United States and Europe and U.N. officials have sought to send special rapporteurs on torture and arbitrary arrests to investigate the situation firsthand. At the Geneva-based Human Rights Council in June, Javad Larijani, the head of Iran’s delegation, said that the rapporteurs could travel to Tehran. But so far the Iranian authorities have refused to issue visas.

“Iran is a closed country,” said Faraz Sanei, the Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. His group, “Amnesty International, and the other human rights organisations are not allowed to go to Iran and gathering information is very hard but still there is a very vibrant civil society in Iran which has been under attack and it’s very important to support the human rights activists and students who are in prison,” he said.

“Those who are at the forefront of the democracy movement in Iran are the first ones that are being targeted,” he added.

“It is essential that during the upcoming session of the General Assembly, a special mechanism to address Iran’s worsening human rights situation is put in place,” said Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “We are at a very critical crossroads, between the nuclear stand-off, war-mongering, and a deepening rights crisis. Peace and stability of the region depend on the interplay of all these issues.”

Maziar Bahari, a prominent Iranian-Canadian journalist who spent more than 110 days inside Evin prison in Tehran after the contested 2009 presidential election, told IPS at the press conference that journalists should push Ahmadinejad to answer allegations of human rights abuses in his upcoming trip to New York.

“He is the president of Iran and it is important that he answers the questions about his country first,” he said. “If the people of Iran have elected him as president, it is to protect their interests and not the interests of the people of Gaza and Lebanon, and even though those are worthy causes, for now he has to tell the world what has he done to protect the human rights of Iranian citizens.”

Mohammad Mostafaie, a human rights lawyer who fled to Norway under pressure by the Iranian government, said it is impossible to defend political prisoners without the threat of prosecution.

“How could the Islamic Republic of Iran go after a nuclear programme when it does not respect its citizens’ basic rights,” he told IPS. “This is just contradictory.”

Mairead Maguire, the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, also criticised the use of what she called “barbaric” punishment.

“Stoning, this kind of punishment is quit barbaric. No matter who we are and wherever in the world we live, we say this is not acceptable,” she said. “We call on Iran to stop stoning and death penalty. And we call on the Iranian government to release political prisoners.”

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