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Iran: New Crackdown On Dissidents 'Seeks To Create Despair’

Emadedin Baqi (file) (ISNA) October 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Human rights groups around the world are protesting the latest detention of prominent Iranian activist Emadedin Baqi, which comes amid a fresh crackdown on political dissent that some say seeks to “create despair” in Iran’s embattled opposition ahead of parliamentary polls next spring.

Baqi, who was jailed on October 14 on charges of “endangering national security,” is considered one of Iran’s leading dissidents. He was previously jailed for three years on security charges for his writings about the serial murder of dissidents and intellectuals in Iran in the late 1990s. The founder of the Society To Defend Prisoners' Rights, Baqi in recent years campaigned to defend prisoners’ rights and against the death penalty in Iran.

His latest detention came on the basis of a previously suspended one-year sentence. His lawyer said he has been charged with revealing secret information about prisoners. His family has been quoted by Human Rights Watch as saying that since his release in 2003, he has been summoned by officials 23 times.

Baqi's detention has been strongly condemned by rights groups in Iran and elsewhere, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It has also sparked concerns among other Iranian activists that authorities could jail other dissidents who have suspended jail sentences hanging above their heads like a sword of Damocles.

Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and head of the Tehran-based Center of Human Rights Defenders, called Baqi’s arrest the latest sign of an intensifying government crackdown on civil society. "Unfortunately, pressure on Iran's civil society continues,” Ebadi told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda on October 15. “The arrest of Baqi is against Iranian law."

Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for the Middle East and Northern Africa, said that, "the Iranian government should applaud Baqi for his efforts on behalf of prisoners' rights, not arrest him."

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement that his arrest is an example of the "strategy of harassment and pressure" used against activists by Iranian authorities "who are trying to silence the growing number who are demanding the legitimate right to a free and independent press."

Amnesty International also strongly condemned Baqi's arrest and said the charges against him are politically motivated and aimed at "silencing the human rights defender's criticism of the human-rights situation in Iran."

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said on October 18 that Baqi's arrest demonstrates Tehran's "disregard for Iranian citizens campaigning for their basic rights."

Baqi’s case has also highlighted concerns that the regime is purposely leaving legal cases against dissidents and activists unresolved, in order to be able to detain them at will at later dates. "Individuals are detained for some time secretly or publicly; they are then released on a large bail and their case remains unresolved,” Hadi Ghaemi, the Human Rights Watch researcher on Iran, told Radio Farda recently. “As a result, even though they are not in prison they remain -- to a large extent -- hostage to Iran's judiciary."

Meanwhile, Detentions Increase

On October 17, three Iranian student activists were sentenced to jail terms of up to three years on charges of "insulting Islam’s sanctities and its authorities" in a student newsletter. Reformist student groups have rejected the charges as "fabricated" and said the students are the latest victims of what they have described as a "government project to silence critics in universities." Journalists and intellectuals have been also under pressure.

On October 18, a reformist journalist, cleric Mohammad Javad Akbarin, was reportedly detained at the Tehran airport. Akbarin is said to be close to Iran's main pro-reform party Mosharekat, or Iran's Islamic Participation Front.

Hadi Ghabel (left) (epa)

Initially, it was reported that he was detained on the order of the Special Court for the Clergy before leaving Tehran for Beirut where he was due to continue his studies. Yet hours later several websites reported that he was not detained but was being prevented from leaving the country. Akbarin is due to appear before the Special Court for the Clergy next week.

The incident comes about a month after the arrest of another reformist cleric, Hadi Ghabel, who was also jailed by the Special Court for the Clergy. Ghabel -- an outspoken member of Mosharekat -- was detained in Qom in September on security charges. Ghabel had also been jailed in the past for criticizing Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Ghabel's son has said that two sessions of his father's trial took place behind closed doors and without allowing him access to a lawyer.

While the arrest of critics in Iran is hardly new, the latest wave of detentions has increased their scope and is “extremely worrying,” according to Issa Saharkhiz, a prominent journalist. The Tehran-based Society To Defend Press Freedom also warned on October 18 that freedom of speech in Iran is deteriorating.

Some observers, including Ghabel’s brother, Ahmad, say the latest arrests are an attempt to silence critics ahead of March 2008 parliamentary elections. "As some of his party members had speculated, it seems that they have arrested him so that it provokes reactions [among reformists] and would give [authorities] an excuse [to confront them],” Ahmad Ghabel told Radio Farda recently. “This is one analysis. The other one is that ahead of the elections they want to say that reformists cannot protect their own forces. They want to create despair.”

RFE/RL Iran Report

RFE/RL Iran Report

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.