Defenders of Human Rights CenterRaid May Herald Broader Attack on Human Rights Defenders

(30 December 2008) The unlawful raid by Iranian security forces on the Tehran rights group run by Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi on December 21, 2008 raises concerns of a broader attempt to silence Iran’s human rights community, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and Human Rights Watch said today.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and Human Rights Watch called on the Iranian government immediately to allow the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC) to reopen its office and to investigate and hold accountable those authorities responsible for conducting the raid without warrant or other apparent legal basis.The DHRC, which Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, and other prominent Iranian human rights defenders founded in 2000, planned to hold a 60th anniversary celebration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at their Tehran office on December 21.

“The closure of DHRC is not just an attack on Shirin Ebadi and her Iranian colleagues, but on the entire international human rights community of which Ebadi is an influential and important member,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The Iranian authorities should allow the center to reopen and investigate why authorities raided it in the first place.”

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and Human Rights Watch expressed serious concerns of further persecution and possible prosecutions of Ebadi and DHRC members. In similar cases, Iranian authorities frequently have followed office raids and other harassment with arbitrary arrests and detention, often leading to prosecutions on dubious charges. Currently, Mohammad Sadiq Kaboudvand, founder of the Kurdistan Human Rights Organization, is serving a 10-year prison sentence solely for his activities as a human rights defender.

Narges Mohammadi, DHRC’s spokesperson, told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that the group had invited nearly 300 human rights defenders and supporters to the private celebration. She said a few hours before the start of the program, at around 3 p.m., she arrived at DHRC’s office to find dozens of police, members of state security forces, and plainclothes agents attempting to enter the building.

According to Mohammadi: “I asked them to produce a search warrant, but instead the commander told me, ‘My uniform is the legal basis. I don’t need to give you any warrant.’ As I was discussing the issue with the uniformed officer in charge, a plainclothes agent physically approached and threatened me while shouting insults. Police agents quickly restrained him and moved him away while he was shouting at me, ‘If you were not a woman, I would drag your legs and throw you into the street.’”

The government agents entered the office while Mohammadi, Ebadi, and two other DHRC members were present. The agents filmed the premises, made an inventory, and forced the center’s members to leave before putting locks on all entrances.

Security forces videotaped guests as they arrived for the event and prevented them from approaching the building. They also confiscated journalists’ cameras. “Plainclothes agents attacked and intimidated guests. In one instance, they beat a member of the DHRC, Hadi Esmailzadeh, on his chest and head and took his mobile telephone away. Their behavior was violent and vulgar,” Mohammadi said.

“If Shirin Ebadi and the DHRC cannot hold a simple event to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, then no Iranian citizen has any security to talk about or advocate for human rights,” said Hadi Ghaemi, spokesperson for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “This is a litmus test for the Iranian government’s tolerance of human rights defenders, and its results show ‘zero tolerance.’”

The DHRC’s mission statement describes its primary duties as “pro-bono legal defense of prisoners of conscience,” “supporting families of prisoners of conscience,” and “documentation and reporting of human rights abuses.”

The government of Iran has an affirmative obligation to protect rights advocates. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which the UN’s General Assembly adopted by consensus in 1998, declares that states “shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of [human rights defenders] against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary actions” as a consequence of their legitimate effort to promote human rights.