Iran’s arbitrary arrests of thousands of men and women in recent weeks under the banner of “countering immoral behaviour” threaten basic rights to privacy, Human Rights Watch said today. The organisation called for the immediate release of all those detained as part of this campaign, including more than 80 people seized in a raid on a private gathering in the city of Esfahan on May 10, 2007.

“In Iran, the walls of homes are transparent and the halls of justice are opaque,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch. “This ‘morality’ campaign shows how fragile respect for privacy and personal dignity is in Iran today.”

Since early April 2007, Iranian police and militia known as basiji have launched a nationwide crackdown against people they accuse of deviating from official standards of dress or behavior. On April 14, Iran’s Supreme Court overturned murder sentences against six basiji who had killed five people in 2002 whom they considered “morally corrupt,” contributing to a climate of impunity for the militia forces.

Ismail Ahmadi Moghadam, Iran’s chief of police, told the semi-official Mehr News Agency on April 25 that “law enforcement agents detained 150,000 people” during the campaign and forced the majority of them to sign ”commitment letters,” to observe official dress codes before being released. According to Moghadam, the police referred 86 people to the judiciary for prosecution.

On May 13, Mahmoud Botshekan, the police chief for airport security, told the semi-official Iranian Labor News Agency that his agents had stopped and interrogated more than 17,000 people at Iranian airports during the past month. He said that his agents detained 850 women, releasing them only after they signed “commitment letters.” Another 130 people are being prosecuted by the judiciary, he said.

A witness to the raid in Esfahan told Human Rights Watch that, around 10 p.m. on May 10, police and basiji raided a private birthday party in an apartment building in the city. They reportedly arrested 87 persons, including four women and at least eight people who were accused of wearing the clothes of the opposite sex. The police and basiji agents led those arrested to the street, stripped many to the waist, and beat them until their backs and faces were bloody. Several reportedly suffered broken bones.

The authorities reportedly released the four women the next day, along with a child. While additional detainees have reportedly been released, an undetermined number remain in custody. A judge told family members that all those held will be charged with consumption of alcohol and hamjensgarai (homosexual conduct).

Family members have apparently not been allowed to see those detained, and they have been denied lawyers. “When the authorities break doors and bones in the name of morality, the rule of law is reduced to a mockery,” said Stork.

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