TEHRAN, Iran (WOMENSENEWS)--Recently, my work to improve women's legal representation in Iran had been going relatively well.
Last October my staff and I launched the Women's Center for Legal Counseling, a women's law center in Tehran.
Through this nongovernmental organization, with a staff of five, I have been providing free legal counseling and court representation to women involved in family disputes or criminal cases. It is the first such organization of its kind here.
Like any proud parent, I have been anxious to talk about the center with others and exchange tips and insights. So last month, when, I was invited to attend the International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security in Madrid, Spain, organized by the independent Club de Madrid, I jumped at the chance to represent the center.
But when I went to the passport division to make arrangements for the trip, I received a shock from which I have been reeling ever since.
I was told that I was barred from leaving the country. Without giving me any explanation, an officer ordered me to surrender my passport. He told me there was an injunction against me. Then he handed me a receipt acknowledging that my passport was confiscated.
After living in limbo since then, I decided on Monday to take the step of writing an open letter to President Khatami. I asked the president to explain what authority issued the injunction. I have also asked for the legal basis of the ruling.
Gender Inequity in Legal System
The center is a realization of a dream that goes back 10 years to when I was still in law school. There I became concerned about the gender inequity in Iran's legal system, where a married woman is not allowed to travel abroad without permission of her husband.
The center provides a fully trained and qualified staff of lawyers, case managers, psychologists, medical doctors and family counselors who provide a range of support services to the needy clients. It also draws additional resources from volunteer help of other NGOs.
Last January, I was able to win an appeal in the case of a death-row client A'zam Gharah-shiran, who was scheduled to be executed in a few days for allegedly killing her husband.
Under severe interrogation, Gharah-shiran admitted to killing her husband, but so far the body has not been found. I argued that it didn't make sense that she would have killed her husband, but not know where the body was. I made this argument before the president of the judiciary, Ayatollah Shahroudi, who has granted a review of the case by another court.
Gains Overshadowed by Dread
But the gains we have made in court on behalf of some women have, since my own sudden and inexplicable travel restriction, been overshadowed by a deep dread of misused authority here.
Since leaving the passport office empty handed, I have often looked at the receipt the officer gave me of the confiscated passport to assure myself that this really happened and that I'm not dreaming or making this up.
But no, this is not a dream.
I only have to remember what happened to the Iranian blogger activists to know that far worse things go on here.
Last year, the bloggers were sentenced to unnecessary and long-term jail sentences after the courts determined that their writings on the Internet had compromised the national security of the Islamic Republic.
This is part of a crackdown over the past three years on the independent press in Iran.
Recently, however, there has been good news about the bloggers--12 men and two women--who have spent months in dark jail rooms and subjected to psychological abuse. Last week 10 were acquitted of all charges. They included the two women, one of whom--Mahboubeh Abassgholizadeh--I represented.
My situation, of course, is not as extreme as that of the bloggers. I am not in jail. But for my work international access is an absolute necessity. Members of nongovernmental organizations such as myself depend on these trips as a chance to put our heads together and come up with better strategies for fighting problems such as domestic violence and legal inequities for women.
If we are barred from attending these forums, only government officials will be representing Iran's women in the international arena.
Seeking Copy of Injunction
When my passport was taken away I at first hoped to resolve the issue by asking the minister of information to look into my case.
As a practicing lawyer I knew that I had the constitutional right of due process. I asked for a copy of any injunction against me so that I could begin preparing my defense. But I have received no reply.
I can only surmise that an obscure regulation surviving from the previous regime, which in effect states that if a citizen's travel abroad compromises the nation, he or she should be barred from leaving the country.
Only after exhausting all channels in the past month have I have given up and decided to go public with my story.
Assuming that I am being held for national security reasons, I asked the president what threat the travel of a journalist, lawyer and women's right activist could pose to the interests of the nation?
Ironically, as I am physically restricted from traveling abroad, my letter is freely circulating among the local media and the international community.
Already more than a dozen Web sites and bloggers have published the letter, which is generating online discussions.
My letter may be one of the final challenges to Khatami's second term, which will end in July. He is a widely known and respected international figure. Just last week the media lenses zoomed into the face of this smiling and pleasant-looking leader as he exchanged greetings with world dignitaries and leaders at the funeral of the Pope John Paul II.
Khatami was elected by an overwhelming margin for two terms by successfully appealing to millions of the young voters who by 1997 had grown disillusioned with the Islamic Republic. One of the planks of his platform was to establish law and order.
In the last weeks of his presidency I am calling upon him to deliver on that campaign promise.
I do not know what effect, if any, my open letter to this outgoing president will have on myself.
But it is necessary for everyone to know how due process can be suspended by this legal system. Every citizen has the right to confront her accuser and defend herself, even if the accuser is the government.
Shadi Sadr is president of the Women's Center for Legal Counseling in Tehran. She is also a journalist who edits WomeninIran.net. She was honored in 2004 by Women's eNews as a 21 Leader and given the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism.
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