Iran's civil society under assault, rights group says

DUBAI Thu Dec 13, 2012 7:01pm EST

DUBAI Dec 14 (Reuters) - Iranian civil society activists have been subjected to a "campaign of repression" in the last three years, with many killed, detained or forced to flee abroad, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Friday.

Iran's government has cracked down on political opposition members, rights activists, journalists, and lawyers ever since the mass protests that followed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's declared presidential election victory over reformist Mirhossein Mousavi, the rights group said.

"The post-2009 crackdown has profoundly affected civil society in Iran," Joe Stork, HRW's deputy Middle East director, said in a statement accompanying the report, "Why They Left: Stories of Iranian Activists in Exile".

"The images of police beating protesters mercilessly may have faded from television and computer screens, but many Iranian activists continue to make the painful choice to abandon homes and families."

The group interviewed more than 50 Iranian refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan in 2010 and 2011 about their experiences in Iran and their host countries.

Iranian officials have in the past said their government respects human rights, and that Western states who criticise its record are hypocrites seeking only political advantage.

But HRW said many of the civil activists accused by Iranian security and intelligence forces of supporting a "velvet revolution" may even have had little or no connection to the post-election protests.

It said such activists had been subjected to "extra-judicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, and widespread infringements of Iranians' rights to freedom of assembly and expression".

The group cited statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) showing that Iranians filed 18,128 new asylum applications in 2011, compared to 11,537 in 2009 and 15,185 in 2010. The largest number of new asylum applications were filed in Turkey, HRW said.

In recent weeks, several high-profile cases have drawn attention to the human rights situation in Iran, and indicated that the government is sensitive to domestic and international pressure in such cases.

Outrage over the death of blogger Sattar Beheshti in November, while in the custody of Iran's cyber police, led to criticism of the unit's actions by Iranian legislators and the dismissal of the head of the force's Tehran unit.

Imprisoned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh ended a hunger strike in December after 49 days when authorities agreed to lift a ban on her young daughter travelling abroad.

And in December, Iranian authorities suspended a death sentence against a computer programmer, Saeed Malekpour, convicted on charges of running a pornographic website, after he "repented for his actions," his lawyer said. (Reporting By Yeganeh Torbati)

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