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Iranian attorney under diplomatic protection after release in Turkey

From Ivan Watson, CNN
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Iranian woman's lawyer released
  • European diplomats whisked Mostafaei away shortly after his release
  • He is "extremely worried" about his wife, who is being held in Iran
  • Mostafaei has fought the Iranian government over the death penalty
  • He was the attorney for the woman sentenced to be stoned to death

Istanbul, Turkey (CNN) -- A prominent Iranian human rights lawyer was under European diplomatic protection Friday after Turkish authorities released him from a detention center for illegal immigrants.

Mohammad Mostafaei had barely made it to his hotel in Istanbul before diplomatic officials rushed to the scene and announced he was not safe. They swept him away in a car for his safety.

"After six days [in detention], I'm so tired I just want to go to my hotel and take a shower," Mostafaei said to CNN. "I feel like I'm still in detention."

He has had to make difficult, life-altering decisions in recent weeks.

The lawyer has been a longtime defender of Iranian juveniles facing the death penalty. More recently, he campaigned to attract international attention to the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, the 43-year-old mother of two who was sentenced to death by stoning after she was convicted of adultery.

On July 24, as activists around the world staged protests against Ashtiani's death sentence, Mostafaei was taken in by Iranian authorities for hours of interrogation. After they released him, he said, he went into hiding.

Video: Iranian woman awaits method of execution

Around the same time, he said, Iranian security forces detained his wife and brother-in-law. The brother-in-law has been released, but Mostafaei said his wife Fereshteh is still being held in solitary confinement without charge.

"I am extremely worried about my wife and her safety," Mostafaei said in an earlier interview with CNN.

"They [the Iranian authorities] told me if you don't turn yourself in, we will not let your family go," Mostafaei added. "I made a decision, after I saw that they were still going to arrest me and mistreat me, that I must leave Iran. It was a very hard decision."

He added, "The truth is even when someone talks about Parmida and says her name, it's really hard for me to talk and I want to cry when that happens."

Like many other Iranian dissidents, Mostafaei slipped across the border from Iran to the eastern Turkish border town of Van. He blames himself for his detention, which began after he landed at the Istanbul airport from Van.

"It was my mistake. I went to the police officers inside the airport and declared myself as a refugee," he said on Friday.

According to Turkish law, refugees requesting asylum must go through a registration process with the Turkish government and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Normally it can take two years before a refugee is processed and granted asylum in another, typically Western country. But officials at the Turkish foreign ministry told CNN that in Mostafaei's case, he was likely to be granted asylum in a European country within days.

According to the refugee agency's Ankara office, around 4,100 Iranian citizens currently are registered in Turkey and awaiting asylum in third-party countries.

Metin Corabatir, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' representative in Ankara, estimates that "on a monthly basis there has been an increase of 25 to 50" Iranians requesting asylum, compared with before the Iranian government launched a crackdown on opposition activists following a controversial presidential election on June 12, 2009. Corabatir said 150 to 200 Iranians now request asylum in Turkey every month.

In his conversation on Friday with CNN, Mostafaei expressed concern for the welfare of his imprisoned wife and his daughter, whom he left behind in Iran with her grandmother. He said he also worries about clients like Ashtiani.

"Who else will do my work?" he asked.

Ashtiani, a mother of two, is reportedly still being held in Tabriz prison. Iran's judiciary could reinstate her sentence of death by stoning, execute her by other means, or possibly even grant her a reprieve, according to human rights groups.

CNN's Yesim Comert in Istanbul and Mitra Mobasherat in Atlanta contributed to this report