Six prominent Iranian lawyers and civil rights activists have been detained in Iran as they prepared to file a lawsuit against the Iranian government for a litany of failings during the coronavirus pandemic, the Center for Human Rights in Iran has said.

Arash Keykhosravi, Mehdi Mahmoudian, Mostafa Nili, Leila Heydari, Mohammad Reza Faghihi and Maryam Afrafaraz were detained in the Iranian capital on Saturday, August 14. Their phones and personal belongings were confiscated without a warrant.

The unlawful arrests took place as they were poised to sue state officials for gross mishandling of Covid-19 measures in Iran, but also amid a worsening human rights situation in the country under President Ebrahim Raisi and Chief Justice Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei.

In recent years the judiciary has also taken action to prevent independent lawyers from doing their jobs within the largely state-controlled judicial system, including dismantling the Iranian Bar Association and imprisoning free-thinking lawyers on trumped-up or fabricated charges.

CHRI says the lawyers and activists’ detention is a violation of Article 34 of the Constitution, which states it is an “indisputable right of every citizen” to seek justice by recourse to competent courts.

“Instead of addressing the skyrocketing numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths amid the lack of safe vaccines, the state focuses on crushing attempts to hold officials responsible for their calamitous pandemic response,” said executive director Hadi Ghaemi.

The regime has come under vast criticism for its mishandling of the pandemic, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s ban on importing vaccines from the US and the UK, repeated lies about the nature of Covid-19, failing to quarantine major cities and misleading the public about the prospects for domestic vaccine production.

“The Iranian government should be focused on immediately importing as many vaccines as possible,” said Ghaemi. “And the international community should urgently condemn these latest arrests and call on the government to stop trying to muzzle criticism of its policies.”

Iranian human rights lawyer Saeid Dehghan tweeted that the arrests were a sign of the state’s “growing panic” over demands for justice.

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