Iran: Authorities must support, not suppress women human rights defenders

The Iranian authorities should cease their harassment of women human rights defenders and take urgent steps to dismantle the discriminatory legislation they are seeking to change, Amnesty International said in a report published today.

“Instead of using its powers to repress and intimidate those who protest and demand their rights, Iran’s government should address longstanding legal and other discrimination against women, who make up half of the country’s population,” said Malcolm Smart, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International. “They must release imprisoned women’s rights defenders and stop detaining and harassing those peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.” 

Amnesty International’s new report comes as Ronak Safarzadeh and Hana Abdi – two Kurdish Iranian activists – continue to be detained without charge or trial, or even access to a lawyer. They were arrested in October and November 2007 for peacefully exercising their rights.

The organisation also published details of 12 women’s rights activists,  11 women and one man, who are currently being detained or are otherwise facing persecution because of their peaceful efforts to lobby for legislative change.

According to the report, Iran: Women’s fRights Defenders Defy Repression , human rights defenders leading the campaign to end legalized discrimination against women are frequently arbitrarily arrested and detained, denied access to lawyers, family members and due process, and sometimes ill-treated with impunity by security officials. Some have been prosecuted on vaguely-worded charges, accused of threatening national or public security, apparently as a form of intimidation and to deter them from continuing their campaign to protect and promote women’s rights in Iran. Others have simply been detained without any formal charges for long periods during which they were held in solitary confinement and denied all access to the outside world, often under a legal provision that allows judges to order indefinitely renewable periods of detention.

The authorities’ harassment and intimidation of women’s rights activists have become even more evident and acute since the launch by activists of the Campaign for Equality on 27 August 2006. This aims to collect 1 million signatures of Iranians to a petition demanding an end to legal discrimination against women.

Dozens of activists and supporters have been arrested in connection with their activities for the Campaign for Equality, some while collecting signatures for the petition. As of January 2008, the Campaign’s website had been blocked by the authorities at least seven times. Official permission to hold public meetings has frequently been denied, and campaign activists usually hold their workshops in the homes of sympathizers, some of whom have then received threatening phone calls apparently from security officials or been summoned by them for interrogation. At least one such workshop was forcibly broken up by police who arrested those present, beating some.

Amnesty International is calling for a change in discriminatory legislation which, among other things, excludes women from the most senior positions of state and appointment as judges, denies them equal rights with men in marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, and determines that any evidence they give before a court carries only half the weight of that given by a man. 

The report calls on the government, Iran’s parliament (the Majles), and the judicial authorities who exercise significant influence over the position of women, to abide by Iran’s international obligations to uphold women’s rights and end legal and other discrimination.

“Iranian women’s demands to be allowed an equal place, and for an end to the discriminatory legislation which blights their lives, should be welcomed and encouraged by the authorities,” said Malcolm Smart. “The government should see the work of women’s rights activists and human rights defenders as an asset, and recognize the important contribution that such activists and defenders are making to address discrimination and intolerance and to promote universal human rights for all Iranians.”