Lacking Independence, Bar Association Remains Silent as Lawyers are Prosecuted
Legal Defense Under Siege by the Iranian Judiciary
(24 August 2011) The Iranian Central Bar Association should come to the aid of embattled lawyers subjected to harassment, unfounded criminal charges, or prison sentences for defending prisoners of conscience and advocating for human rights, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said today.
The International Bar Association and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers should also intervene to defend Iranian lawyers facing persecution, added the Campaign.
Shirin Ebadi, leading human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, provided the Campaign with a list of 42 lawyers who have faced government persecution since June 2009. In the wake of the government’s attack on lawyers, the Iranian Central Bar Association, which represents Tehran, where the majority of these persecuted lawyers practice, has yet to come to the defense of its members.
“Every profession has a guild to protect its members,” Ebadi told the Campaign. “When a film actor is detained, the Cinema Union will at least issue one or two statements objecting to the arrest; or when a reporter or a writer is arrested, their professional organization will object.”
“But how is it that over the past two years, when so many lawyers faced problems because of their professional activities, no organization has come to their defense?” said Ebadi. “Now the question is what is the use of this [Central] Bar Association? One of the main responsibilities of the association is to oversee the performance of lawyers and to protect them legally. But lawyers are the least protected professional group in Iran.”
The Iranian Central Bar Association’s failure to protest the treatment of its members and other persecuted lawyers can be attributed in part to the organization’s lack of full independence.
After the 1979 Revolution, authorities suspended the existing bar association for nearly 18 years and appointed a judicial representative to oversee the bar.
“During that time, many lawyers were disbarred in the name of ‘cleansing’ [the Bar Association]” Ebadi told the Campaign. “And when they were sure that the remaining lawyers were going to ‘fall in line,’ orders to re-open the bar association were issued. But for further assurance, they passed a law that in practice eliminated the association’s independence.”
The Law on Attorney Qualifications, enacted in 1997, gives the Judiciary authority to vet and exclude candidates from membership in the Bar Association’s Board of Directors. While the Bar’s members technically elect the board every two years, the Judiciary’s Supreme Disciplinary Court of Judges can disqualify any candidate it sees as unfit. Article 4(1) of the law says:
“The Supreme Disciplinary Court of Judges is the authority responsible for determining the qualifications of candidates for the [Bar Association’s] Board of Directors and is obligated to obtain information on the background of candidates from relevant authorities, within a maximum period of two months, to evaluate their qualifications and announce their decision. Relevant authorities who have background information about the candidate are required to provide it.”
The Supreme Disciplinary Court of Judges has repeatedly barred human rights lawyers including Shirin Ebadi, Abdolfatah Soltani, Mohammad Seifzadeh, Farideh Gheyrat and Nemat Ahmadi from running for and sitting on the board of the Iranian Central Bar Association.
In practice, the Iranian Judiciary effectively defers to the Ministry of Intelligence, which is a “relevant authority” under the Law on Attorney Qualifications that determines who is able to govern the Bar Association. The Ministry, which has increasingly tightened its grip on the Judiciary since June 2009, has a long track record of targeting government critics and activists.
According to the website of the Iranian Bar Association Union, an umbrella organization that includes the Central Bar Association, the majority of bar members object to the Judiciary’s control over their board of directors. Nonetheless, the Judiciary’s control, and Ministry of Intelligence’s de facto proxy control, over the Bar has resulted in a passive Board of Directors and a Central Bar Association that has failed to defend lawyers who have come under government attack.
Nearly all of the 42 lawyers named in Ebadi’s list have represented prisoners of conscience and have come under government attack due to their advocacy on behalf of their clients and their outspoken promotion of human rights and rule of law in Iran. Of the 42 lawyers, 32 have been subjected to judicial prosecution, and 10 have been subjected to official persecution. Of the 32 prosecuted lawyers, 8 are currently in prison, 2 have completed their prison terms, another 21 are awaiting their final sentences, and 1 who was detained and subsequently charges were dropped against him.
“The Judiciary has essentially criminalized human rights-based representation,” said Hadi Ghaemi, spokesperson for the Campaign. “The legal defense community is being attacked and purged of anyone willing to represent prisoners of conscience. The point is to intimidate and dissuade Iranian lawyers from taking these cases.”
On 9 January 2011, Nasrin Sotoudeh, defense attorney for several activists and political detainees, received 11 years in prison and a 20-year ban on practicing law and traveling outside Iran on charges of “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the regime.” She also received a $50 fine for not adhering to Islamic dress code in a videotaped speech. Sotoudeh, mother of two young children, has gone on hunger strike multiple times to protest her illegal detainment and treatment in prison.
On 9 May 2011, Branch 54 of the Appeals Court in Tehran sentenced Mohammad Seifzadeh, co-founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran who represented numerous post-election detainees, to two years in prison and a ten-year ban on practicing law for “acting against national security” by “establishing the Defenders of Human Rights Center.” Seifzadeh has been in government custody since 11 April 2011.
Mohammad Oliaifar, of the Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners in Iran, served a one-year prison sentence on the charge of “propagating against the regime,” primarily for conducting interviews with international media outlets regarding the case of one of his clients, a juvenile facing execution. He was released in April 2011.
Javid Houtan Kiyan, the court-appointed lawyer for high profile defendant Sakineh Ashtiani, a women sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, was arrested on 10 October 2011. He later received an eleven-year prison sentence on charges of “acting against national security” after he appeared in a seemingly coerced televised confession.
In June 2011 the International Bar Association (IBA), of which the Iranian Central Bar Association is a member, urged for the release of Javid Houtan Kiyan. Two years earlier, in July 2009, the IBA also expressed concern in a statement that, effectively, “bar associations in Iran are under the control of the Judiciary.” Martin Solc, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute, said Iran is violating “the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers by fundamentally disregarding the imperative to have an independent legal profession and by subjecting Iranian lawyers to ultimate control of the Judiciary.”
The Judiciary’s control over the Bar Association is also a violation of Iran’s legal obligation to respect freedom of association guaranteed by article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“The Central Bar Association has been shamefully silent as the Judiciary throws their colleagues in prison for the simple act of advocating for human rights and defending their clients,” said Ghaemi.
“It is time for the Bar to break through the Judiciary’s control and come to the aid of its members. The International Bar Association and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers should also support the Iranian Central Bar Association and intervene in Iran’s attack on lawyers.”
* Due to recently acquired information we have added to these lists and updated our original data.