Following a spate of violent attacks on women in Iran, in which unidentified perpetrators have thrown acid in the faces of women in the city of Isfahan for their alleged improper hijab (the Islamic dress code for women), prominent human rights defender Nasrin Sotoudeh told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that the Iranian Parliament’s “Plan on Protection of Promoters of Virtue and Preventers of Vice” must be immediately suspended.

“Dispatching unidentified and untrained individuals to promote virtue among the citizens is completely against the law, legal principles, and legal rationale, and is a menace to the citizens which must be stopped right here,” Sotoudeh said.

“I hope the horrific incidents in Isfahan serve as alarm bells for the officials, and for this Plan to be eliminated…. The officials must think to themselves whether their own daughters, wives, and sisters would match the principles of [those who consider themselves] ‘preventers of vice,’ and if not, should they be forced to pay this high price?” Sotoudeh continued.

ISNA News Agency first published news of an acid attack on October 16, 2014. In subsequent news reports, it was gradually revealed that the acid attacks had begun several weeks back. Official news media have so far only reported four acid victims in Isfahan, but unofficial reports suggest there have been as many as eleven victims, and that one of the victims died due to her injuries.

Over the past few days, Iran’s Interior Minister has asked the Head of the Judiciary in a letter to review the “Plan on Protection of Promoters of Virtue and Preventers of Vice.” Yet Mohammad Dehghan, member of the Iranian Parliament’s Executive Board, said on October 20, “The review of this Plan cannot be stopped because of an executive’s letter. The Government can announce its agreement or disagreement with the articles [of the Plan] and its reasons during a public session.”  The Plan received preliminary approval in the Iranian Parliament on October 21, but still needs to go through additional procedural steps and approval by official bodies before it can become law.

In a recent speech about confronting poor Islamic hijab in society, Isfahan’s Friday Imam Mohammad Taghi Rahbar said that that “promoting virtue and preventing vice” must go beyond a verbal notice. Four days after news about the acid attacks was made public, however, he denied his previous statements and said, “I didn’t say the warnings should go beyond verbal notice.”

Although in earlier reports the connection between the acid attacks and poor Islamic covering was underplayed, in a report on the attack of Soheila Jorkesh, one of the victims, Farhikhtegan Newspaper wrote on October 20 that “families of Isfahan victims have claimed that before throwing the acid on the victims, the perpetrators said, ‘We confront women who have poor hijab.'”

Nevertheless, the Iranian Judiciary’s Spokesperson, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, rejected any connection between the acid attacks and poor hijab. “Contrary to the allegations made by certain websites, such claims have not been confirmed yet,” he told reporters on October 20, according to ISNA.

Abbas Ali Mansouri Arani, a member of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said that the acid attacks are probably the work of “foreign intelligence services.” He added, “Some are trying to connect this issue to the discussion about hijab, chastity, and promoting the religious duty of promoting virtue and preventing vice. This is exactly what ISIS is doing in Iraq and Syria, acting against Sharia in order to provide a violent portrayal of Islam.”

Radio Farda quoted a source on October 16 who said that during recent weeks, at least six young women who were victims of acid attacks had been hospitalized at Isfahan’s Feiz Hospital. The source said that all six victims were “beautiful, young women who did not wear the chador [the long black veil].”

ISNA wrote on October 16, that unidentified bikers had thrown acid on a young woman driving a car the previous night. This was in fact the first news article about the acid attacks published by a government news agency.

Five days after news about the acid attacks became public, Deputy Interior Minister Morteza Mirbagheri claimed that the acid attacks are not a serial act, and that according to a report by the Isfahan Governor, “throughout the Isfahan Province, there is absolutely no concern about acid attacks,” despite the fact that newspapers reported that Isfahan citizens believe their security has been compromised.

“The horrific news about Isfahan acid attacks has disrupted the city residents’ security. The city’s women and girls are now providing security for themselves by appearing less on public roads and locking themselves up at home,” wrote Etemad Newspaper on October 20, adding “And those who do come out, roll down their windows with fear and trepidations, finish what they have to do on the streets quickly, so that they can confine themselves inside their cars with the windows rolled up again.”

Isfahan Police had said earlier that the acid attacks had been carried out by one person but the scenes described in the reports indicated that two bikers had carried out the attacks. The Deputy Interior Minister said later that “three to four people” had been arrested as suspects. The official did not provide any further explanation as to why there is no concrete information available on whether there were three or four detainees in the case.

Lawyer Farideh Gheirat told the Campaign that Iran’s Islamic Penal Code fails to define a clear punishment for acid attacks. “In the Islamic Penal Code, the punishment for acid throwing is not explicitly defined. In order to determine the punishment for such a crime, similar laws have been used which include payment of Diyah (blood money) for bodily injury. If the victim does not accept the Diyah, the convict’s punishment will be Qisas, (retribution). It means that in retribution for each lost body part of the victim, the convict’s similar body part will be removed,” Gheirat told the Campaign.

In an interview with Farhikhtegan Newspaper, Bahman Keshavarz, a prominent Tehran lawyer, said, “Perhaps the most important similar case was what happened in Kerman more than ten years ago. A group in Kerman committed a series of murders of individuals they had determined amongst themselves [to deserve to die], in order to improve the moral conditions of the society. They were sentenced to Qisas, retribution, and Diyah rulings were issued in the case.”