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Tension rises in Iran with women's rights protests

Security forces arrest dozens before a major gathering set for today.

March 08, 2007|Ramin Mostaghim | Special to The Times

TEHRAN — Uncommonly high tensions between law enforcement officials and human rights activists ahead of today's annual commemoration of International Women's Day have led to dozens of arrests here in the capital.

The commemoration of Women's Day has been a perennial rallying point for those opposed to government policies viewed by human rights activists as sexist or discriminatory.

This year, the hard-line government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad detained 33 women activists Sunday at a small protest outside the Revolutionary Court, where five women are on trial for taking part in a July 2006 demonstration against laws seen as discriminatory.

Many observers and activists suspect that the latest arrests were meant to ward off gatherings anticipated today. Iran's grass-roots political organizers, who gained momentum under the reform-minded former President Mohammad Khatami, have come under enormous pressure during Ahmadinejad's term.

The government has bolstered domestic security agencies in the face of perceived threats from the West, which opposes Iran's nuclear ambitions and its support for militant Islamic groups. That has spelled trouble for the smattering of activists pushing for social and political changes.

"They're stronger, and they've coordinated their activities and mustered their power," said one women's rights activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They're unified now. In previous years there was disunity among the security forces."

Several dozen students briefly faced off against riot and campus police officers Monday at the University of Tehran.

Authorities also have clamped down on websites and blogs promoting the main demonstration, to be held today at Baharestan Square in front of parliament.

Another activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said she expected fewer women to participate in the event this year. "It seems we won't have a large crowd," she said. "We expect a heavy crackdown."

Iranian officials have painted the activists as dupes of Western powers and the United States government, which has advocated "regime change" in Iran.

U.S.-funded Voice of America's Persian language service, broadcast into Iran via satellite, has been highlighting women's issues in the run-up to the commemoration. New York-based Human Rights Watch and London-based Amnesty International have condemned the recent arrests.

Iran's parliamentary reformists have criticized the government over women's rights, including its proposal to cap the number of women attending universities.

"Unfortunately, the new government hasn't done anything to improve the situation of women," said a statement from the Islamic Participation Front, the main reformist bloc in parliament. "On the contrary, it has created new programs to reduce women's participation in the society."

The group urged the government to "listen to voices asking for change; otherwise, the gap between the government and nation is going to widen."

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