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Iran Under Fire for Crackdown on Women Activists

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are accusing Iran of increasing persecution and legal prosecution of women's rights activists. As VOA's Stephanie Ho reports, the two groups held a joint news conference in Washington Thursday to mark International Women's Day.

Human Rights Watch researcher Hadi Ghaemi says the situation for women in Iran is paradoxical.

"Iranian women are at the cutting edge of social activism in Iran," he said. "Although they are visible and extremely successful in every social, economic and cultural domain, Iranian law treats them as second class citizens, and discriminates against them."

He said that during the past year, the Iranian government has "substantially stepped up its persecution and prosecution of peaceful women's' rights advocates."

Last Sunday, Iranian security forces arrested 34 women's rights activists at a demonstration in Tehran. Most of them have since been released, except three women who the rights groups say are being held in solitary confinement and are on hunger strikes.

"Are we supposed to be happy that all the other women were released?" asked Fariba Davoodi Mohajer, a prominent Iranian campaigner for women's rights. "Meanwhile, there are open cases before the court for all these women. And at any moment, they might be detained again. And is this a mode to try to control all women's rights activists?"

Fariba Davoodi Mohajer is one of five defendants in a court case stemming from a demonstration last June that urged equal rights for women. Tehran says the rally was unauthorized.

"For the first time, five women were accused on charges of working against national security, undermining the basis of government and advertising against the government by speaking with foreign media," she said.

She accused Tehran of treating the women's protest as a threat to national security. She denied Iranian women's rights activists are controlled by foreign powers.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch's Ghaemi says he believes international concern over Iran's nuclear program is actually having a negative effect on efforts to promote women's rights in the country.

"Unfortunately, the saber rattling over the nuclear issue, and generally, American policies have strengthened the political fortunes of hardliners in Iran," he noted. "And Iranian civil society is paying a heavy price because Iranian government is taking advantage of the nuclear crisis to crack down on social activists and critics, and the women's' movement is an example of that today."

Over the past year, women's rights activists in Iran have been protesting against articles in Iranian law which are seen as discriminating against women.