Ahmadinejad reelection uncertain.
The day before two of his young clients were to be hanged, lawyer Mohamad Mostafaei went to a Justice Ministry office here to request a stay of execution.
Mr. Mostafaei's errand should have been routine, if solemn: He represents 30 of the 135 criminals under the age of 18 on Iran's death row. Instead, he says, he was detained and grilled for an hour and a half, part of Iran's widening crackdown on human-rights activists.
"Anything can happen to you at any time," said Mr. Mostafaei, 34 years old.
Mr. Mostafaei and others want Iran to ban juvenile executions altogether by changing the age of maturity to 18, where it stood before the 1979 Islamic revolution.
However, their stay of execution isn't much of a guarantee. Earlier this month another of Mr. Mostafaei's clients, a young woman named Delara Darabi, was hanged in violation of a two-month stay she had obtained.
Word of Ms. Darabi's fate came when the executioner let her phone her family. "Oh mother, I see the hangman's noose in front of me," she said, according to Mr. Mostafaei.
Mr. Mostafaei began his human-rights advocacy by volunteering with Rahi, an NGO that doled out free legal advice to women prisoners. He sought clients by reading crime stories in local papers.
Today he runs a private law practice. Along a narrow, tree-lined street in central Tehran, a bronze plaque with the words "The Protectors" marks his office.
"We defend and protect victims whom the law does not protect," he said recently, sitting at his desk there.
Mr. Mostafaei's reputation grew after he won a case five years ago involving a teenage girl, Nazanin Fatehi, who faced execution for stabbing and killing a man who she said was trying to rape her. Nazanin was 15 years old at the time of the stabbing.
As for Mr. Mostafaei, he is responding to the pressure with unconventional means of advocacy. He recruited Iranian movie stars to campaign for his cause, although in November the judiciary subpoenaed the stars and warned them to stay away from publicly campaigning against juvenile executions.
He also runs a blog that tracks human-rights cases. And this past summer, Mr. Mostafaei made a documentary about juveniles on death row. The film opens with the voice of Behnam Zareh, a former client of his, who was convicted of murder at age 15 after killing another boy in a fight over a bird.
"I want to stay alive. Please, please I want to stay alive," the young man says. The recording is his final phone conversation with Mr. Mostafaei before being hanged last August.
Mr. Ahmadinejad dismisses claims that human rights have deteriorated. "I have not been informed that anybody has spent time in prison for criticizing the president, who is the No. 1 executive of the country, after all, or has been subjected to persecution of any sort. It's really very free," he said last September at a press conference at the United Nations General Assembly.
As recently as five years ago, under President Mohammad Khatami, Iran was relatively progressive in the Islamic world, as embodied in its expanding array of human-rights groups, charities and other so-called nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. Between 1997 and 2005, as many as 7,000 such domestic groups worked in areas as diverse as women's issues, children's cancer, transvestites' rights and environmental policy.
When Mr. Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, he set out to limit their activity. The Ministry of Interior created a special office to supervise them. The government also set new restrictions on United Nations activities regarding NGOs, requiring them to work only with groups recommended by the government.
In interviews, nearly two-dozen NGOs said they must now get the government's OK for every activity, from naming board members to holding fund-raisers.
"The regime has made it clear that it does not like NGOs and it's very afraid of us," said Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient whose own organization, Iran's Center for the Defense of Human Rights, was shut down in January.
Ahmadinejad has come under inspection from other sectors of Iran also.
A moderate think tank led by Iran's former top nuclear negotiator accused President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of distorting facts about the country's nuclear program to depict himself as a hero and improve his chances in the upcoming election.
It is rare for an Iranian think tank to criticize the president in such a direct manner, indicating the high stakes ahead of the June 12 election.
"It's deploring that some historical facts have deliberately been distorted in the past four years," the group said in a statement issued Friday.
The 2003 deal with Britain, France and Germany was aimed at easing Western fears that Iran was seeking to build nuclear weapons — a charge that Tehran has denied.
The think tank said Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved the deal, which it said was "wise" because it was temporary and saved Iran from U.N. punishment.
n contrast, the group said Ahmadinejad's hard-line policy has prompted the U.N. to impose three rounds of financial sanctions on Iran for failing to suspend uranium enrichment — a process that can produce fuel for a nuclear reactor or material for a bomb.
Iran first began enriching uranium under Ahmadinejad's leadership in Feb. 2006 and produced nuclear fuel for the first time in April of that year.
The think tank said Ahmadinejad's decision to dismiss the U.N. sanctions as "worthless" and "torn bits of paper" has only brought greater harm to Iran.
Rowhani has invited Ahmadinejad to debate Iran's nuclear policy, but the president has not yet responded.