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At U.N., Protesters Target Iran On Rights

Protesters demanded the ouster of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from the U.N. General Assembly before he addressed the body yesterday.
Protesters demanded the ouster of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from the U.N. General Assembly before he addressed the body yesterday. (By Bebeto Matthews -- Associated Press)

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By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

As human rights advocates gathered in New York on Monday to protest rights violations by Iran's government, the fate of two Iranian physicians who initiated their country's first comprehensive HIV prevention and treatment program remains uncertain as they languish in jail cells in Tehran.

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Brothers Arash and Kamiar Alaei have been held without formal charges in the high-security Evin prison since late June, when Iranian security forces seized them from their mother's Tehran home, and have virtually no contact with the outside world, according to Susannah Sirkin, a spokeswoman for the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights.

Speakers at an international AIDS conference in Mexico City in August used the forum to appeal for the release of the brothers, who spearheaded Iran's innovative and successful strategy to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS by focusing on drug addicts. A petition for their release has been signed by more than 3,200 prominent AIDS researchers, colleagues and public health activists worldwide.

The arrest of the Alaeis is part of a wave of arbitrary detentions of professionals suspected of acting on behalf of Western interests in Iran.

Speaking on the eve of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's address to the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said that "a broad crackdown on dissidents of all kinds" was one of the main features of Ahmadinejad's administration, along with a refusal "to acknowledge that anything of the sort is happening."

Although the Alaeis have not been officially charged, an Iranian lawyer in contact with Physicians for Human Rights said that the two doctors appear to have been targets of a far-reaching dragnet conducted by intelligence and security services. On Aug. 2, the Iranian Students' News Agency carried a statement by Hasan Hadad, the deputy general prosecutor of Tehran, suggesting that during their travels, the Alaeis had attempted to recruit and train people to topple the Iranian government.

"They have been involved in organizing gatherings on topics such as AIDS that have received attention from domestic and international NGOs," Hadad said. "They acted to recruit individuals to travel abroad with the aim of training them on overthrowing the system. They were well aware of their activities and topics of training, such as velvet revolutions." When the Alaeis were arrested, documents and materials in their possession were confiscated, New York-based Human Rights Watch reported in June.

"Everyone in global health is wisely advocating for civil society exchange," said Sarah Kalloch, who represented Physicians for Human Rights at the Mexico City gathering and is leading a campaign to get the Alaeis freed. "If that is a threat to the regime, it is a sad day for the health and well-being of the people of Iran."

The Alaeis were not always regarded by Tehran as a threat. Before their detention, they had international recognition for their groundbreaking work at home and in countries such as Tajikistan and Afghanistan, where they collaborated with local authorities and religious leaders. They had also received accolades and funding from Ahmadinejad's government for a five-year plan to set up an outreach and treatment network that was also backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William J. Clinton Foundation and U.N.-sponsored global funds.

"Iran has had a very enlightened program for what we call harm reduction, methadone treatment, therapy and health care for injecting drug users," Kalloch noted of the AIDS-prevention approach pioneered in that country by the brothers.

Now, the program's pioneers have fallen victim to Iran's deteriorating human rights record and its lack of accountability.

There are many others. Mehdi Zakerian, a legal scholar who had a commitment to lecture at the University of Pennsylvania this semester, was detained by security agents in August. Human rights defenders, trade unionists and female activists, as well as reform-minded clerics promoting the separation of religion from politics, such as Ayatollah Boroujerdi, have been jailed.

Rights advocates have also denounced Tehran for its record on executions. Iran tops the list for juvenile executions, with 26 out of 32 worldwide since January 2005, according to a Human Rights Watch report last week. Six juvenile offenders were executed this year, while more than 130 others are on death row.

Meanwhile, the total number of executions has also skyrocketed. In 2005, the year Ahmadinejad took office, Iran executed 86 people. In 2007, the number was 317, close to a 300 percent jump. Many cases followed bogus trials and obscure judicial proceedings, according to Human Rights Watch. On July 27 alone, 29 men went to the gallows and authorities divulged only 10 names, the group said.


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