Lawyers Still Languishing in Jails in Iran for Defending Dissidents Under Rouhani’s Watch
Campaign Pledges Three Years Ago to Free Political Prisoners Now Ring Hollow
Dozens of human rights lawyers who have been imprisoned for years in Iran for defending civil rights and political prisoners, remain behind bars three years after President Hassan Rouhani came to office, despite his campaign pledge to free political prisoners.
Some have been jailed since Iran’s violent crackdown that followed the widely disputed presidential election in 2009. Among the lawyers who have been freed, many remain banned from practicing law or have been forced to leave the country. Others, such as human rights lawyer Giti Pourfazel, have resigned from their profession in dismay after years of relentless persecution from the security establishment.
Abdolfattah Soltani—currently held in Evin Prison’s Ward 350 in Tehran—co-founded the banned Defenders of Human Rights Center and represented political and civil rights activists throughout his career. He was arrested on September 10, 2011 and sentenced to 18 years in prison by Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court for “propaganda against the state,” “assembly and collusion against national security” and “earning illegitimate funds” for winning the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award in 2009, and banned from practicing law for 20 years.
An Appeals Court reduced Soltani’s prison sentence to 13 years, of which he will serve 10 years based on leniencies found in Article 134 of Iran’s New Islamic Penal Code, his family told the Campaign.
The Defenders of Human Rights Center was founded in 2001 by Soltani and lawyers Shirin Ebadi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah Mohammad Seifzadeh, and Mohammad Sharif. It was shut down by the authorities in Iran in 2008 but still operates from abroad as a website.
Other than Ebadi, who left Iran in 2009, all of the founding members were arrested and imprisoned. Soltani, and the center’s spokesperson, lawyer Narges Mohammadi—who was arrested in 2015 and is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence—remain imprisoned while the other members have been freed.
Soltani’s wife Masoumeh Dehghan told the Campaign that judges and lawyers have argued for her husband’s release. “Unfortunately, there has been no change in his status even though three respected judges read his case and said the sentence against him was fundamentally unlawful,” she said. “His case was sent to the Judiciary’s head office for review three years ago but nothing has been done.”
“A number of attorneys from the Iranian Bar Association have written to the Judiciary seeking my husband’s conditional freedom under Article 58 [of the New Islamic Penal Code], but nothing has been done,” she added.
According to Article 58: “…the deciding court can issue the order of conditional release for convicts sentenced to more than ten years imprisonment after half of the sentence is served, and in other cases after one-third of the sentence is served.”
While in prison, Soltani has been suffering from serious health problems: “He is not well at all. He is suffering from back and neck pain as well as severe digestive problems,” said Dehghan. “Now he has high blood pressure, too.”
“Now I’m even more concerned for his health and the authorities know he’s not well; you can tell just by looking at his appearance,” she added. “I hope they will end this injustice and release him.”
Bans and Suspensions
“I have been banned from practicing law for 10 years even though the law says the ban cannot last for more than two years, but they don’t follow their own laws,” Seifzadeh told the Campaign. “My office and car remain under lock and key and the Defenders of Human Rights Center is still banned. I can’t do anything under these conditions,”
Seifzadeh was arrested on April 6, 2011 as he was allegedly attempting to leave Iran. He was charged with “assembly and collusion against national security” for his role in establishing the Defenders of Human Rights Center and sentenced to nine years in prison and banned from practicing law for 10 years. His prison sentence was reduced to two years upon appeal, but he was sentenced to an additional four years in prison for signing several political statements while imprisoned.
Nasrin Sotoudeh, another prominent human rights lawyer who was imprisoned from 2010 to 2013 in a case that drew international condemnation, has returned to her practice but has been blocked from taking on political cases.
“I have accepted clients under the age of 18 who have been condemned to death,” said Sotoudeh in an interview with the Campaign. “But there’s absolutely no possibility to take on political cases. Fortunately, there are still a few lawyers who work on these cases, but other lawyers like me haven’t been able to return to our previous work.”
“I haven’t been officially banned from taking on cases tried in the Revolutionary Court, but in practice there’s an unofficial suspension. The last time my license was suspended I received unofficial word that it was only because I had inquired about the case of [political activist] Kourosh Zaim in Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court,” added Sotoudeh.
In 2010, Sotoudeh was sentenced to 11 years in prison and banned for 20 years from practicing law for “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security” because of her membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center.
The Appeals Court reduced her sentence to six years in prison, and she was unexpectedly granted early conditional release in September 2013 a few days before Rouhani made his first presidential trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The Tehran prosecutor later tried to permanently revoke her law license but the Disciplinary Court for Lawyers issued a nine-month suspension instead.
Another founder of the center, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, has not returned to his practice since his release from prison in 2013. One of his relatives told the Campaign that his law license had been reinstated but he had set aside his practice to complete his PhD at Tarbiat Modares University.
Dadkhah was arrested at his office in Tehran in July 2009 and was sentenced to nine years in prison and banned from practicing law for 10 years, but was granted early release in 2013.
Massoud Shafiee, the attorney who defended the three American hikers—Josh Fattal, Sarah Shourd and Shane Bauer—who were detained in 2009 until their release in 2011, was also suspended from practicing law and banned from traveling outside Iran.
Lawyers imprisoned for representing the Gonabadi Dervishes, a persecuted Sufi spiritual community, have also experienced severe problems since their release from jail. Initially the lawyers—Hamidreza Moradi, Mostafa Daneshjou, Amir Eslami, Reza Entesari, Afshin Karampour, Farshid Yadollahi and Omid Behrouzi—saw their licenses revoked, but Eslami, Yadollahi and Behrouzi have been able to return to their practices, the Campaign has learned.
All seven were arrested in August 2011 and charged with “spreading falsehoods,” “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security” in connection with their alleged administration of the Majzooban-e Noor website, which provided news about the Dervishes. The lawyers were sentenced to prison terms ranging from four to seven years each but were granted early conditional release in 2015.
List Goes On
Lawyers Negar Haeri, Sara Sabaghian, Maryan Kianersi, Maryam Karbasi and Rosa Gharachorlou were also detained or imprisoned in recent years. The latter four were arrested after returning from a visit to Turkey in November 2010 and accused of “committing security crimes and conducting un-Islamic behavior abroad.” The accusation did not lead to their formal prosecution, but Gharachorlou was disqualified from running for the Iranian Bar Association’s Board of Directors. Gharachorlou, who taught law at the Islamic Open University in Tehran, died in 2012.
Negar Haeri was the defense attorney for her father Hamid Haeri, a political prisoner held in Rajaee Shahr Prison in the city of Karaj who was initially sentenced to death for being a Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) sympathizer, but who had his punishment reduced to 15 years in prison.
In 2009 Negar Haeri was suspended from practicing law for 10 years for representing a “monafeq” (hypocrite)—a derogatory term for members of the MEK, a banned group that advocates regime change in Iran. Two years later she was detained for nearly four months for her alleged sympathies with the MEK.
In May 2014 Haeri was arrested again and given a one-year prison sentence that was suspended for five years. (Former political prisoners freed on suspended prison sentences are monitored carefully and promptly returned to prison if caught engaging in political activities.) The following month, in June 2014, she was taken into custody and held for nearly nine months for granting interviews to foreign media. In May 2015, Haeri was arrested a fourth time and released on bail a week later.
Attorney Javid Houtan Kiyan (Kian) represented Sakineh Mohammadi, who, in a widely publicized case, was initially sentenced to death by stoning for allegedly practicing adultery. Kiyan was arrested in November 2010 at his office in the city of Tabriz, in northwest Iran, along with two German reporters who were trying to interview Mohammadi.
The Revolutionary Court in Tabriz sentenced him to seven years in prison and banned him from practicing law for five years. He was also sentenced to four years in prison in a separate trial in Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran. The Appeals Court reduced his combined sentence to six years in prison and he was eventually granted conditional release in June 2013, but his license to practice law was suspended.
Mohammad Oliaei-Fard, Mohammad Mostafaee, Mahnaz Parakand and Shadi Sadr are among the formerly imprisoned lawyers who emigrated following their release.