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Iran: The Kar Case, Part 1 -- PEN Appeals For Ailing Iranian Rights Advocate

The international writers group PEN has issued an urgent call to human rights groups to support Iranian lawyer and women's rights advocate Mehrangiz Kar, who is on trial on charges of working against Iran's national security. PEN says it is seriously concerned for the health of Kar, who is ill with cancer and is reported to be forbidden to leave the country to seek treatment. In part 1 of a two-part feature, RFE/RL correspondent Azam Gorgin provides the background to the Kar case.

Prague, 22 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When Mehrangiz Kar and other Iranian reformists traveled to a conference in Berlin early this year, they had no idea it would turn into a political nightmare which could see them put in prison.

The conference was organized in April by Germany's Heinrich Boell Foundation. It was designed to assess the results of Iran's parliamentary elections, which two months earlier had dealt a sweeping defeat to hard-line conservatives. The Iranian participants' intention was to discuss the future of their country's reform movement in a calm, non-provocative manner.

But the conference was soon disrupted by Iranian exile groups protesting Iran's Islamic system. To the shock of the participants, one protester stripped naked and a woman in short sleeves danced around the room, using the conference to deliberately insult Islamic values.

Islamic hard-liners back home lost no time seizing upon video images of the protests to discredit the conference and launch a new attack on Iran's reform movement. The conservative-dominated state television repeatedly broadcast the offending pictures and judicial officials followed up with charges against 17 of the conference participants.

The charges come under the vague umbrella of "acting against national security" and suggest the reformists deliberately set out to tarnish Iran's image abroad. If convicted, the defendants -- now mostly at home on bail -- could face prison terms or worse. The only cleric among them, Hassan Yousefi-Eshkevari, has already been convicted of charges that include spreading corruption, which carries the death penalty. He is now appealing.

For most of the defendants, the trials are simply another round in Iran's ongoing power struggle between conservatives and hard-liners. For Mehrangiz Kar, however, who is in ill health, the whole protracted affair is endangering her life.

The 56-year-old attorney, writer and former editor of the now-banned "Zan" literary review has been diagnosed with breast cancer and has already undergone a mastectomy and a course of chemotherapy in Iran. But any prospects of her leaving Iran to seek other therapies abroad are uncertain as long as she remains on trial.

Kar's problems have led to a growing mobilization of human rights groups over her case. This month the international writers' group PEN issued an urgent appeal that the charges against her be dropped on humanitarian grounds.

Sara Whyatt, program director for PEN's Writers in Prison Committee in London, told RFE/RL that Kar has become the victim of a political struggle which could cost her life.

"Recent reports suggest that Mehrangiz Kar's breast cancer has become critical. It seems because she is on trial she is not allowed to leave the country to receive urgent medical attention, which is the reason why we have renewed appeals for her release and indeed for [release of] all the others who are detained solely for practicing their right to speak out."

Kar and the other defendants deny all the accusations against them and have demanded the courts clear their names. But in many cases, the vague charges they face have only grown with time to include further alleged offenses.

Kar now also faces charges of violating the observance of hejab [that is, the full head and body covering required of women], denying the Islamic necessity of hejab, and agitating against the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The ailing Kar recently re-stated her innocence in a message to the Italy-based women's rights organization Soroptimist International, which designated her this month as a "Woman of 2000." Accepting the award by phone from Tehran as the group met in Saint Vincente, in northern Italy, Kar said the trials are intended to humiliate her.

"I was prosecuted behind closed doors, without public witnesses, approximately two weeks ago, in a Revolutionary Court of the Islamic Republic, but the accusations against me have not yet been announced. In the court, I was told that there are three additional accusations and, because it does not fall under the jurisdiction of a Revolutionary Court, it would be referred to the general courts. The general courts will summon, prosecute and humiliate me."

Kar continued:

"I would like to mention that only my prosecution, together with that of publisher Shahla Lahiji, was conducted in secret, behind closed doors. The court for other participants was public and they were able to benefit from the presence of reporters and the press and, generally, public witnesses. We both were denied this privilege."

Shahla Lahigi, another participant in the Berlin Conference, is also a publisher and human rights advocate.

Kar spoke from home, where she is awaiting progress in her trial. Meanwhile, she continues to call for greater women's rights in Iran.

(Part 2 of this feature is an interview with Kar on the state of women's rights in Iran.)