TEHRAN, Iran – A young Iranian activist and his lawyer said Monday that he had become the first man sentenced for participating in a campaign to change laws that discriminate against women.
Amir Yaghoub Ali, 21, said he was convicted of acting against national security and sentenced to a year in prison for his role in the "Change for Equality" campaign, launched by Iranian women activists in September 2006.
The campaign sought to collect a million signatures in support of changing laws that deny women in Iran equal rights in matters such as divorce and court testimonies.
Ali said he was detained last July while collecting signatures for the campaign in a park in northern Tehran and spent 29 days in the notorious Evin prison before being freed on $20,000 bail.
Ali's lawyer, Nasrin Sotudeh, said the country's Revolutionary Court found her client guilty and sentenced him on March 2 but didn't inform them of the verdict until May 25, because of customary legal formalities in Iran. She said under Iranian law, she has 20 days from May 25 to appeal and would "obviously do so." Ali will remain free throughout the appeals process.
"My client is innocent," she said.
Sotudeh said at least six women have been sentenced over the campaign, with punishments including jail terms and lashes. None of the sentences have been carried out, though it is unclear why, she said.
Court officials and prosecutors could not be reached for comment Monday.
Ali told The Associated Press the court sentenced him for "acting against national security by propagating against the system." But he said he believes in his actions.
"Changing discriminatory laws will benefit Iranians and will create a fairer social environment," Ali said. "Our call for change is considered by the ruling Islamic establishment as crossing the red lines. Authorities don't want to allow any changes in laws in support of women rights. That's why they seek to suppress such demands."
Iran has refused to ratify the United Nations convention on women's rights and the country's senior clerics in Qom, Iran's main center of Islamic learning, have rejected the convention as un-Islamic.
Under the strict form of Islamic law practiced in Iran, a woman needs her husband's permission to work or travel abroad. A man's court testimony is considered twice as important as a woman's. Men can keep four spouses at once — a right not granted to women.
And while Iranian men can divorce almost at will, a woman seeking a divorce must go through a long legal battle and often relinquish rights in return for divorce.
But despite being restricted from the nation's highest political posts, Iran's 35 million women enjoy greater freedoms and political rights than women in most neighboring Arab states, including the right to vote and hold public office.
Those freedoms got a boost with the 1997 election of former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, who appointed a female vice president.
Since then, other women have held positions within the government but have not been Cabinet members. And while women in Iran can run for parliament positions, they're prohibited from running for president.
Parvin Ardalan, one of the signature campaign leaders, said that along with Ali, about 50 women activists have been detained or summoned to court over the campaign.
"This is a policy of intimidation by the authorities," she said. "But we won't give up."