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Release rights activist, guarantee her a fair trial, says Human Rights Watch

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, September 1, 2010 - Iran's Judiciary should ensure that human rights activist Shiva Nazar Ahari receives a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said today, including full access to a lawyer, adequate time to prepare her defense, and the ability to challenge evidence presented against her. The Judiciary should also release her from pre-trial detention, where she is being held in violation of international and Iranian law, Human Rights Watch said. The trial is scheduled to begin on September 4, 2010.

Security forces arrested Ahari and two colleagues from the Committee of Human Rights Reporters (CHRR) – Koohyar Goodarzi and Saeed Haeri – on December 20, 2009. The three were preparing to take a bus to Qom to attend the funeral of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, a prominent dissident cleric. Prosecutors charged Ahari with "assembly and collusion to commit a crime" (article 610 of the Islamic Penal Code), "propaganda against the regime" (article 500), and moharebeh, a vaguely defined offense meaning "enmity against God" (articles 183, 186, and 190-91) that carries the death penalty and is often reserved for persons accused of belonging to an organization that takes up arms against the state.

"Targeting Shiva Ahari and numerous other activists is proof positive of the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "She faces extremely serious charges, and the very least the government can do is to guarantee her a scrupulously fair trial."

Mohammad Sharif, who is representing Ahari along with his colleague Afrooz Maghzi, told Human Rights Watch that he was allowed to review his client's case file for the first time approximately two weeks before Ahari's first – and so far only – trial session, on May 23. Sharif said that the moharebeh charge relates to Ahari's alleged involvement with the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an exile opposition group. Prosecutors often accuse human rights and opposition activists, including members of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, of ties to the exile group. The accusation often leads to the charge of moharebeh – but rarely, if ever, have prosecutors actually met the burden of proof that such ties exist.

Ahari denies any links to the group, and Sharif told Human Rights Watch that Ahari's file contained no evidence indicating that his client was in any way affiliated with the group or that she took up arms against the state. Sharif has said that the other national security charges generally relate to her human rights activities with the Committee of Human Rights Reporters.

A member of that group told Human Rights Watch that during the first hearing Judge Pir-Abbasi of Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Courts sent the file back to the Prosecutor's Office and requested, among other things, that they clarify Ahari's alleged relationship with the Mojahedin-e Khalq and set the next trial date for September 4. Earlier this year, a member of the human rights group told Human Rights Watch that interrogators were pressuring Ahari and her colleagues to admit to links with the exile group, and government-controlled media have mounted a steady campaign since Ahari's arrest, accusing her and her colleagues of ties to the opposition group.

Authorities are holding Ahari in the general women's ward of Evin Prison. Prison authorities have allowed Ahari's family brief prison visits in recent months. A rights activist who is close to the family told Human Rights Watch that "sanitary conditions inside the women's ward are extremely poor."

"There is no warm water," this person said, "and because of the lice everyone is forced to wash their hair with laundry detergent."

Since the May 23 court hearing, authorities have not allowed Sharif to meet with Ahari.

"Meetings with political prisoners, unlike other situations where the lawyer can simply go to the prison and submit his retainer letter and meet his client, require judicial permits," Sharif said. "Unfortunately, [the Judiciary] has not issued such a permit in my case."

Sharif also told Human Rights Watch that under Iranian law, his client's "temporary detention" should be reviewed and renewed every two months, and the Judiciary should have allowed her to appeal any decision to prolong the detention and provide a basis for why it should continue.

Koohyar Goodarzi, who authorities detained with Ahari, was convicted in June 2010 by Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court of "propaganda against the regime" and other security-related offenses and sentenced to one year in prison. He and 16 other prisoners were put in solitary confinement in July after staging a hunger strike to protest mistreatment by prison authorities. Saeed Haeri, also arrested with Ahari, was released on March 2010.

Iran is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 9 states, "Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release." The article also says that "it shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody," though release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial. Detainees "shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that the court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful."

Article 14 requires that authorities allow a detainee "adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defense and to communicate with counsel of his own choosing," and "to be tried without undue delay."

"By subjecting her to prolonged pretrial detention in poor conditions, charging her with vaguely worded but serious offenses, and denying her access to her lawyer, the Iranian government has violated Ahari's fundamental rights to a fair hearing," Stork said. "The only just course of action is to release her and allow her to meet with her lawyer so that she can prepare her defense."

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