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Iran turns up pressure on rights activists

Campaigners are often seen as a threat to national security and influenced by Western interests.

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"The problem is, Ebadi and those people going for the signatures are not seen as home-grown activists," says Seyed Mohammad Marandi, head of North American Studies at the University of Tehran. "[People] think Western interests are behind it…. So they feel they have no place here. They are seen as people getting funding from abroad."

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"They don't like activism at all, and not just women, but trade unions and others," says a European diplomat in Tehran, who requested anonymity. "They want to tell the world: 'You can put pressure on us, it does not matter.' "

The UN General Assembly in December passed a resolution expressing "deep concern at serious human rights violations" in Iran. Officials say they adhere strictly to Iran's Constitution and that the execution of 346 offenders in 2008, according to an Amnesty International count) was in accord with the law.

In a February report, Amnesty described "arbitrary arrests and harassment" of more than 220 people in the previous three months, noting that it was ahead of the June presidential election.

Among the most active campaigns is a grassroots effort to reform laws that discriminate against women, called the One Million Signatures Campaign. Volunteers are often detained by police; high-profile protests in the past have led to scores of arrests.

"They know our population is 70 million, so if we gather 1 million signatures, it is nothing," says leader Parvin Ardalan, speaking in her tiny Tehran apartment. "The important thing is, the action we do is increasing consciousness in society and thinking of equality."

Steps taken against the group have raised its profile, including numerous court cases and "national security" charges. The website has been blocked 20 times. A spike of interest came when Ms. Ardalan was named winner of the 1997 Olof Palme prize, but prevented from collecting it when she was ordered off the plane moments before takeoff.

Ardalan's passport has not yet been returned. The prize citation on her wall is for "making the demand for equal rights for men and women a central part of the struggle for democracy in Iran." Ardalan was among four activists sentenced to six months in jail last September for "spreading propaganda." Her case is now under appeal.

The campaign also won the 2009 Simone de Beauvoir prize for women's freedom in January, but the group decided, given the current atmosphere in Iran, that they could not accept the €30,000 in prize money. The campaign fields volunteers who hand out leaflets about the discrepancies between men's and women's legal rights and asks people to sign a petition for change.

Vote to let women inherit land

A month ago, parliament voted to let women inherit land from husbands, one of several steps – which last year included vetoing changes in the marriage law that would have made polygamy easier for men – that are starting to slowly expand women's rights. "We are now powerful. Of course, we didn't do anything, but they are afraid of us," says Ardalan, noting that so far they may have 200,000 signatures. "We are changing discourse on women. They attack us ... but they must adhere to the law. Of course we couldn't gather 1 million signatures, but 1 million people know about us."

Iran detains journalist

Iran said Monday that Roxana Saberi, a freelance US journalist detained in Tehran, had been working "illegally" in Iran since her press card was revoked in 2006.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi said that since then, "her mission in collecting news and information from Iran – has been completely illegal." During six years in Iran, the US-born Iranian-American worked for NPR, the BBC, and others. Despite the loss of her press card, NPR has reported that officials nonetheless "tolerated" low-profile work that she did from Iran.

Ms. Saberi's father, Reza, said over the weekend that he last heard from his daughter on Feb. 10. She told him she had been arrested 10 days earlier, but that she expected to be released in two to three days.