Police Shut Down Iran's Main Human Rights Center

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 22, 2008

TEHRAN, Dec. 21 -- Iranian authorities on Sunday closed the office of the country's main human rights organization, headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi.

Dozens of plainclothes detectives and local police officers entered the Center for the Defense of Human Rights in Tehran and shut it down hours before a ceremony was to take place commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

According to members of the organization, which has been active since 2000, the police had been informed of the meeting, at which political activists were scheduled to speak.

"The general human rights activities of this nongovernmental organization are the reason for this illegal reaction," the center's leadership said in a statement. Center officials speculated that the closure was in part a response to a United Nations resolution issued Thursday that expressed "deep concern" about the human rights situation in Iran.

Iran has been protesting for months against the resolution, which was put forward by Canada. In October, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a special human rights report that called on Iran to address concerns such as "amputations and corporal punishment."

Ebadi's organization assisted the United Nations in compiling the report. "Many international organizations quote our reports, including the report by the secretary-general, which resulted in a resolution against the government of the Islamic republic of Iran," the center's statement read.

An Interior Ministry commission that issues permits for political organizations said the center was carrying out illegal activities, such as publishing statements, writing letters to international organizations and holding news conferences, the semiofficial Mehr News Agency reported.

The commission, according to the news agency, accused Ebadi's center of distributing propaganda against the state. The report also cited repeated warnings delivered to the center and said the building had been sealed on the order of Tehran's top prosecutor.

In a telephone interview, Ebadi called the closure of her organization's office "illegal" and "unacceptable." She vowed to reopen the center, saying that "the police actions are against the law."

Ebadi acknowledged that the human rights center did not have a permit to operate but said authorities had blocked its legalization.

Since its founding, the organization has taken on 5,000 pro bono cases defending politically active women, journalists and students, said spokeswoman Nargess Mohammadi.

On Sunday, guests were arriving for the ceremony when police officers escorted Ebadi and her colleagues from the building. They had refused to leave their offices for more than an hour.

"This was supposed to be one of the few happy events for activists in Iran," said Asieh Amini, a journalist who focuses on human rights issues and who was one of about 300 invited guests. Amini said plainclothes officers took video of the guests.

The human rights center was financed with the $1.4 million Ebadi received when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. After death threats were pinned to the door of her home in April, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose policies Ebadi opposes, promised to investigate. No findings were made public.

In addition to its human rights work, the center has a committee on fair elections. The office of Ebadi's other organization, which focuses on mine-clearing and is in the same building, was also closed Sunday.

Iran has a history of arresting and pressuring dissidents who question the country's record on human rights and democracy.

On Sunday a special prize for oppressed dissidents was supposed to be given to Taghi Rahmani, an opposition figure who had been arrested several times, on charges of committing crimes against national security. Rahmani was to be honored for his work promoting human rights in Iran.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company