IRAN: International Voices Outraged Following the Death of Iran's Haleh Sahabi

Saturday, June 11, 2011
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Western Asia
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The controversial death of Dr. Ms. Haleh Sahabi is coming under international scrutiny as the U.S. State Department, The Foreign Office (FCO) in the UK and the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) issue statements on human rights abuse in Iran and the need for transparency.

Haleh Sahabi, had been serving a two year prison term for what Iran's court called “propaganda against the system” and “disturbing public order” and died during a temporary release from Evin prison while she was allowed to attend the funeral of her father. She died and was buried quickly without investigation on the same day her father was also buried at Lavasan cemetery, which is approximately 14 miles northeast of central Tehran.

Known as a human rights activist and respected religious scholar, Sahabi added a steady presence for the democracy movement in Iran. She was arrested and later tried and convicted for her involvement, along with others, in a public protest against Iran's 2009 election.

“Whether the rulers of Iran like it or not, the life and death of the Sahabi family, has been eternally linked to the struggle for freedom in this land,” said a recent letter by 750 Iranian women, all human rights activists, who have signed a Change for Equality petition directed at the top levels of government .

Change for Equality, is working diligently today to highlight the struggle of human rights and women's equality under the law. The Campaign for One Million Signatures award winning co-founder, Parvin Ardalan, is one of the organizing forces with the site which is providing a bridge to the public on many issues covering human rights in Iran. “We, the friends, sisters, brothers and colleagues of Haleh Sahabi will honor her memory and in remembrance of her we promise to keep alive the names of all those who have lost their lives in the struggle for freedom,” continues the Change for Equality petition letter.

Haleh Sahabi was the daughter of well-known Iranian political opposition leader and former parliament member, Ezatollah Sahabi, who was imprisoned for criticizing the 1941-1979 regime of Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi. Ezatollah was also later imprisoned under the current reign of Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. He was also a key figure speaking out for human rights and prison abuse of protesters following the 2009 general elections in Iran.

A concerted government effort to prevent Haleh Sahibi, as a respected religious scholar, from officiating at her father's funeral resulted in violence and aggressive acts by plainclothes policemen and other security officers. Haleh was a specific target of the aggression. During the altercation with security officers at her father's funeral, Sahabi suffered from a heart attack that lead to her death.

Witnesses attending the funeral have said a plainclothes policeman forcefully took a photo poster of Haleh's father away from her hands as she held it for others to see during the funeral ceremony. Witnesses also said she was violently pushed to the ground.

“While the official Iranian media have reported the cause of her death simply as ‘heart arrest', Mr. Fereydoon Sahabi, her uncle, said that she had died as a result of ‘blows to her chest and stomach and subsequent heart arrest after falling down',” said the FIDH – International Federation of Human Rights in a June 1 public report.

Haleh Sahabi's uncle, Fereydoon Sahabi, also said in his original statement that Haleh was attacked under great force, but recanted his statement in an IRNA – Islamic Republic News Agency report made public on June 3.

“People did take pictures of the scene when one of the intelligence agents severely beat her such that when she fell to the ground, she didn't get up again. Of course, there were a few other ladies accompanying Ms. Haleh. They were beaten too and are currently in their homes suffering,” said Fereydoon Sahabi during a June 2 interview with Iran news reporting agency, Jonbesh Rahe Sabz (known as JARAS).

“It is unfathomable that a government would be so terrified of its citizens that it would order the use of force against a daughter mourning at her father's funeral,” said Mark Toner, Official Spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State.

In a May 24 move to raise the level of transparency inside the government of Iran, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva has approved the selection of a Special Rapporteur to visit and report on human rights abuse conditions inside the country.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has also previously voiced his concerns. “Mr. Ban said he had been ‘deeply troubled by reports of increased executions, amputations, arbitrary arrest and detention, unfair trials, and possible torture and ill-treatment of human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and opposition activists,'” said a March 24, 2011 UN News Service release.

The government of Iran has officially denied any direct involvement with the death of Haleh Sahabi. Iran's Ministry of Communications has also currently filtered any text messages inside the country using the terms “Haleh” or “Sahabi.”

“The grotesque interference in Eztollah Sahabi's funeral is emblematic of the severe repression of Iranian political and civil society activists, who, even at their loved ones' funerals, have to suffer systematic abuse by unaccountable, unidentified individuals,” said Hadi Ghaemi, Executive Director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

“We call on the Iranian government to investigate the circumstances of her death,” said U.S. State Department spokesperson, Mark Toner, in a recent interview with CNN. “If reports are accurate that government security forces contributed to her death, this would demonstrate a deplorable disregard for human dignity and respect on the part of the Iranian authorities,” continued Toner.

Advocacy groups: Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans Frontières); Amnesty International; International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran; Iranian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LDDHI); Human Rights House of Iran (RAHANA), along with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) are also calling for investigations into the untimely death of Haleh Sahabi.

“Iran has lost a great defender of freedom of expression and the regime has killed his daughter, an active defender of the families of political prisoners. We will not forget this crime. The two press freedom predators at the head of the Islamic Republic are responsible for this courageous woman's death,” said an official statement from Reporters Without Borders.

Friend of the family, founder of the banned Islamist Socialist political party in Iran and member of the National Peace Committee, Dr. Habibollah Peyman, was present at the funeral and with Haleh Sahabi when she was taken to the hospital after she became unconscious following the actions by security officials. In the days following the funeral, Dr. Peyman was also arrested by Iran security officials.

Following the burial of Haleh Sahabi, security officials also blocked the entrance and arrested mourners who gathered at a Mosque in Tehran in the afternoon on Thursday, June 2.

“Haleh Sahabi's death at the hands of Iranian government security forces marks the tragic closing of yet another chapter in Iran's long struggle for democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” said the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

Arrests that have been reported to the media, include Hamid Ehrari and Hamed Montazeri. It is currently unknown whether some or all of the individuals who have been arrested have been released or are still under incarceration.