An international human rights group said Sunday that the two main Iranian opposition leaders and their wives are in grave danger after security forces apparently abducted them from their homes, where they were under house arrest.
The claim by the group, International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, indicates a serious escalation in the Iranian government's effort to silence the opposition movement that grew out of protests over the disputed presidential election in June 2009.
Iranian security killed three demonstrators in a harsh crackdown on two days of protests this month that coincided with popular revolts across the region against autocratic regimes, bringing down longtime rulers in Egypt and Tunisia.
One of the missing reformist leaders is Mir Hossein Mousavi, who ran for president in the 2009 election against the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was declared the winner despite widespread charges of irregularities. The other is Mahdi Karroubi, an ex-speaker of the Iranian parliament who also ran on a pro-reform platform in the election.
The two had been under house arrest since calling for the Feb. 14 rally in solidarity with the uprising in Egypt, and Iranian security forces patrolled the streets in front of their houses and kept visitors and relatives from entering.
The New York-based human rights group said in a statement Sunday that a neighbor and a witness reported that the security personnel at both houses are gone, and there was no sign that the leaders or their wives were still in their homes.
The group quoted an unnamed source as saying the two leaders and their wives had been taken to a "safe house" in the Tehran area.
The group said that in the Iranian context, a "safe house" is often a place where detainees are mistreated by Revolutionary Guard forces as a way to extract confessions without any judiciary oversight.
"The Campaign finds it deeply disturbing that Mousavi and Karroubi have reportedly been removed to such a facility," the statement said.
In a stormy Feb. 15 session of the Iranian parliament, members clamored for the two to be put to death. Aaron Rhodes, a spokesman for the rights group, said their disappearance under these circumstances means they are in danger.
"Given the lynch mob-like calls for their execution by numerous Iranian politicians and clerics, there is reason to be deeply concerned for their safety and well being," he said.
Karroubi's U.S.-based spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
Also Sunday, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called for the release of the two opposition leaders, but he did not refer to their apparent abduction.
Khatami, a reformist, has also come under attack from hard-liners but remains popular in Iran. He was president from 1997 to 2005.
A statement on Khatami's website Sunday quoted him as saying he hopes the opposition leaders will be released soon.
"Why should people like Mousavi and Karroubi be placed under house arrest?" said Khatami on his site. He said he also hoped for "the creation of a safe and free climate."
Activists and opposition members have demanded Mousavi and Karroubi be released, vowing to stage demonstrations every Tuesday until they are freed.