CHRI – Two years after the prominent human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh was arrested and imprisoned in Tehran, the Iranian judiciary’s ongoing persecution of independent lawyers under manufactured charges is laying bare the state’s disregard for international standards of law and due process.
“The crackdown is part of a decades-long campaign of muzzling individuals who challenge repressive state laws and policies,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“The courts are colluding with intelligence agencies to go after the lawyers so that any last hopes for defending due process in Iran is extinguished, with the tacit approval of Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi and the Rouhani government,” Ghaemi added.
At least five human rights attorneys are currently imprisoned in Iran under trumped-up charges, including one who is currently being held incommunicado.
They are among a group of at least nine known cases of attorneys that have been arrested or charged in the last two years.
Rights Attorneys Jailed Under Lengthy Sentences
Defense lawyer Payam Derafshan has been held incommunicado at an unknown location since being arrested without a warrant at his office in Tehran on June 8, 2020. His lawyer, Saeid Dehghan, told CHRI that the court is refusing to allow Derafshan to select his own counsel and instead ordering him to choose from a court-approved list of attorneys.
“We must conclude that independent lawyers will be paying a higher price for carrying out their duties and that obstacles for practicing law in Iran will increase,” wrote Dehghan in a June 15 statement condemning Derafshan’s arrest, which was co-signed by fellow attorneys Abuzar Nasrollahi, Arash Keykhosravi, Azita Pouladvand and Mohammad Moghimi.
In May 2020, Derafshan was denied access to counsel while being tried for the charge of “insulting the supreme leader,” for which he was sentenced to two years in prison and suspended from practicing law for an additional two years. His sentence was ultimately reduced to a one-year suspended sentence that could be reinstated at any time, according to his attorney.
In June 2020, Dehghan told CHRI that his client’s arrest has “nothing to do with this suspended sentence” and that “when the family and I inquired, we were told that this is a new case and a new charge but they haven’t said what the charge is.”
Defense lawyer Soheila Hejab has been in Gharchak Prison in the city of Varamin since May 23, 2020, where she must serve at least five years of an 18-year prison sentence before becoming eligible for parole.
Hejab was sentenced at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court on charges of “propaganda against the state,” “forming a group for women’s rights,” and “demanding a referendum for changing the constitution.”
Shortly after her arrest in May, an audio file was posted on social media sites in which Hejab is heard saying that “after being summoned to Branch 36 of the Appeals Court in Tehran for a hearing, I was violently escorted out of a courthouse by IRGC agents from its Sarallah Headquarters [in the city of Kermanshah] and taken to Gharchak Prison.”
Sources with knowledge of her case told CHRI that she started a hunger strike on June 16, 2020, to protest the prison’s inhumane living conditions.
Hejab was previously detained in Shiraz in January 2019, reportedly for “supporting an anti-state organization” (further details are not known) and sentenced to two years in prison. She was released from Adelabad Prison in Shiraz after serving five months.
Internationally renowned human rights defense attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh was detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Intelligence Organization on June 13, 2018, and nearly a year later sentenced to 38 years in prison, of which she must serve 12 years before becoming eligible for parole.
The myriad of charges she was convicted of include “encouraging prostitution” for publicly advocating against the country’s compulsory hijab law and providing counsel to women who were facing prison time for taking off their hijabs in public.
In addition to representing activists and journalists detained under politically motivated charges, Sotoudeh has publicly criticized Iranian courts’ ongoing refusals to abide by international standards of due process, by for example refusing to allow detainees to hire lawyers of their choice.
In 2010, Sotoudeh was sentenced to 11 years in prison for the charges of “acting against national security,” “collusion and propaganda against the regime,” and “membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center.” She was released in September 2013 after serving three years in prison.
Imprisoned defense attorney Mohammad Najafi is currently jailed under multiple convictions related to his peaceful defense of human rights and was recently summoned to appear at Branch 8 of the Criminal Court in the city of Arak to face new charges.
A source with knowledge of his case told CHRI that the nature of the new charges he’s facing remains unclear. “They have opened so many cases against him that he himself doesn’t know all the charges,” said the source, who like all those who spoke to CHRI for this report requested anonymity for security reasons.
“He thinks they might be in connection with the interviews he gave during his time on furlough,” added the source. “There are several cases against him in Tehran, Robat Karim, and Arak. There is a case brought against him in every city he gave a speech.”
Najafi was practicing law in Arak, central Iran, when he investigated the suspicious death of Vahid Heydari, a detained street protester who died while in the custody of the Intelligence Ministry in January 2018—a case Najafi vowed to bring to justice.
According to Najafi’s lawyer, Payam Derafshan (who is now also detained), the judiciary had opened three cases against Najafi in 2018: one by Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court and two others by Branches 101 and 102 of the Criminal Court in Arak.
In 2018, Branch 101 of the Criminal Court in Arak sentenced Najafi to three years in prison and 74 lashes for the charges of “disturbing public order,” “publishing falsehoods” and “disturbing public opinion.” He was subsequently taken to prison in Arak on October 28, 2018.
In addition, on December 10, 2018, Najafi was sentenced to one year in prison by Branch 102 of the Criminal Court in Arak for the charge of “publishing falsehoods” on social media.
Then, in April 2019, Najafi was sentenced to 13 years in prison by the Revolutionary Court in Arak, a sentence that was upheld on appeal. He was convicted of “propaganda against the state” (one year in prison), “insulting the supreme leader” (two years) and “collaborating with enemy states” (10 years). He would have to serve the highest punishment of 10 years, based on Article 134 of the Islamic Penal Code, before becoming eligible for parole.
Attorney Amirsalar Davoudi has been behind bars since November 20, 2018, and is currently held in Ward 8 of Tehran’s Evin Prison.
Davoudi, who has been the legal counsel for a number of political and civil rights activists, was sentenced at Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court to 30 years in prison and 11 lashes, banned from social activities for two years and fined 60 million tomans (14,232 USD).
Based on Article 134 of the Islamic Penal Code, he will be eligible for release after serving 15 years under the charge of forming “an illegal group,” which was a news channel for lawyers on the Telegram messaging app called “Without Retouch.”
Davoudi has represented several political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, including Zeinab Jalalian, a Kurdish political prisoner serving a life sentence who has repeatedly been denied medical treatment.
In March 2020, he was excluded from a temporary mass prisoner release at the height of Iran’s coronavirus pandemic and has never been granted furlough, according to his wife, attorney Tannaz Kolahchian.
More Attorneys Facing Prison, Banned from Practicing
At least nine lawyers, including the five who are currently in prison, have been arrested, summoned to court to face charges, and banned from practicing law in Iran since 2018. This number only reflects the cases that have been publicized.
Arash Keykhosravi, who, along with fellow lawyer Ghasem Sholeh Sa’di, was sentenced to six years in prison by Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court and later acquitted, is meanwhile facing a new charge.
A source with knowledge of his case told CHRI that Keykhosravi is again facing prison time under the charge of “publishing falsehoods” for writing an article criticizing the imprisonment of attorney Mohammad Najafi.
Keykhosravi and Sa’di, who have both represented activists facing politically motivated charges, had been arrested in August 2018 and charged with “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security” for taking part in a rally in front of parliament in Tehran to protest the signing of an accord between Caspian Sea nations, including Iran, that divides the body of water and its oil and gas resources.
Branch 34 of the Appeals Court ultimately dropped their sentences, but a source with knowledge of the case told CHRI that Keykhosravi is again facing prison time under the charge of “publishing falsehoods” for writing an article criticizing the imprisonment of attorney Mohammad Najafi.
Meanwhile, several prominent lawyers who also served prison time for doing their jobs—including Abdolfattah Soltani, who spent more than seven years behind bars for defending political prisoners, and Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, who was sentenced to nine years for the same “offense” but has been out on parole since 2013—are effectively banned from practicing law.
A source with knowledge of their cases told CHRI: “When Soltani was conditionally released from prison in 2018, he was banned from practicing law for two years. After that, his legal license was renewed but the Intelligence Ministry is not letting him practice. He only gives legal advice. Dadkhah has a nine-year prison sentence but he has been on furlough for several years and cannot practice law.”
Refusal to Abide by International Standards of Due Process
The current state crackdown on rights lawyers in Iran has been occurring amid a backdrop of two major changes to the legal process that have facilitated the authorities’ ability to convict defendants in politically motivated prosecutions on unsubstantiated charges.
While Article 35 of Iran’s constitution states “Both parties to a lawsuit have the right in all courts of law to select an attorney,” and Article 48 of the Criminal Procedures Regulations stipulates that people have the right to ask for and have a meeting with a lawyer as soon as they are detained, the “Note to Article 48” states: “In cases of crimes against internal or external security…during the investigation phase, the parties to the dispute are to select their attorneys from a list approved by the head of the judiciary.”
The Note to Article 48 also enables judicial authorities to delay an individual’s access to counsel in cases involving alleged “national security” crimes—which are typically used against activists, human rights defenders and perceived critics of the state.
In a second blow to due process, in November 2019, Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi ruled that Appeal Courts could issue verdicts without the presence of the defendants and their attorneys, effectively rendering the appeal process meaningless.
International Condemnation of Iran’s Due Process Violations
The corrosion of Iran’s justice system has persisted despite worldwide condemnation by international law groups and the UN.
“All these lawyers have been imprisoned not for committing common crimes but because they carried out their professional duties,” Karim Lahidji, a prominent Iranian human rights attorney now based in France, told CHRI in an April 2019 interview.
According to the UN’s Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, attorneys should be allowed to carry out their work “without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.”
The right of lawyers to freedom of expression is also noted in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a party, and which cites “the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights.”
In August 2019, the UN secretary general’s report on the human rights situation in Iran expressed deep concern that human rights lawyers in the country are being “targeted for defending the human rights of others, including being harassed while undertaking their activities, arrested and detained on dubious charges, and sentenced to imprisonment and flogging.”
“We object to the judiciary chief’s indefensible behavior in introducing what amounts to discriminatory rules against the right to a fair defense, and if our objections do not result in reforms, we will take further action,” Sotoudeh told CHRI in March 2018, before her current imprisonment.
“If the head of the judiciary can stop lawyers from practicing, it’s time to say goodbye to this profession,” she added.
Sotoudeh was imprisoned two months after making these comments.
Read a version of this article in Persian.