The lawyer representing a group of Iranian journalists, a businessman and a retired charity worker has told IranWire that his clients have been denied legal counsel, handed down arbitrary sentences and forced to confess without any clear legal remit.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards arrested the journalists, Afarin Chitsaz, Ehsan Mazandarani, Saman Safarzai, and Isa Saharkhiz, in early November 2015, along with Davoud Asadi, who is not a journalist but whose brother Hooshang Asadi worked in journalism before leaving Iran to live in France. All were accused of being part of an "infiltration network” that was colluding with hostile Western governments.
In February, Mohammad Baquer Namazi, the father of jailed Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, was arrested and accused of similar crimes, months after his son was jailed on suspected espionage charges.
In April 2016, Branch 28 of the lower Revolutionary Court presided over by Judge Mohammad Moghiseh issued its verdict against four of the journalists. Afrin Chitsaz, a columnist for the newspaper Iran, which has links with the Rouhani administration, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Ehsan Mazandarani, managing editor of the newspaper Farhikhtegan, received a sentence of seven years. Saman Safarzai, a reporter for the monthly Andisheh Pouya, and Davoud Asadi, were each given five years. The judge listed their charges, which include spreading propaganda against the regime, conspiracy and insulting authorities, in broad terms, but he supplied little evidence for the charges, such as specifying what articles or reports produced by the journalists contained the offending material. Only the news site Rooz Online was cited as being one of the key publications involved.
“The main reason given for their arrest is that they were sending news and information to news agencies and media outside Iran,” Mahmoud Alizadeh Tabatabai, the lawyer representing Mazandarani, Asadi and Saharkhiz, told IranWire. He added that much of the content that led to the sentencing of his clients was published on Rooz Online, a website registered in France and run by exiled Iranian journalists. The site publishes in both Persian and English.
The trial of Isa Saharkhiz, the only of the journalists who is yet to receive his verdict, has been delayed, but according to Tasmin News Agency, his trial dates have now been set for June 7 and June 12.
Not a Journalist but Guilty Anyway
One of the five sentenced, Davoud Asadi, is not even a journalist. Yet he has received a five-year prison sentence, found guilty of receiving money for allegedly carrying out “spying activities” through his brother, who works as a journalist in France. Speaking about his client’s case, Tabatabai said, “All throughout the interrogations and investigations Asadi maintained that his brother was sending money for their father and had only sent an amount to a separate account for him to buy a rug. He insisted that he knew nothing about anything else.”
In a conversation with BBC Persian, Davoud Asadi’s father said his son was not a journalist or a political activist, and he believed he had been arrested only because of his brother Hooshang, whom authorities could not arrest because he now lives in Iran. Tabatabai has appealed against Davoud Asadi’s verdict.
Tabatabai also represented Ehsan Mazandarani, who was sentenced to seven years in jail, but he is not handling the journalist’s appeal case. “Mazandarani was charged with two counts,” Tabatabai said. “Insulting the supreme leader and conspiracy against national security. For the first charge he got two years and for the second five years. According to the law he must serve only the longer sentence. The main reason for the charges against him was his connection to foreign-based networks.”
A Single Act, but Multiple Charges
Tabatabai adds that the journalists were originally charged with only “propaganda against the regime,” but due to a conflict between the prosecutor and the examining magistrate, the journalists were eventually charged with multiple offenses for the same act.
“The examining magistrate was a knowledgeable person,” Tabatabai said. “He said all the charges could be reduced to ‘propaganda against the regime,’ which is punishable by three months to a year in prison. But the prosecutor did not agree with him. The case was then sent to Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court, which applied multiple charges to the same single act, from insulting the supreme leader to insulting authorities, conspiracy, spreading lies, and so on.”
According to Tabatabai, the case of Isa Saharkhiz is a good example of this tactic, which is used to give extra long prison sentences to individuals deemed to be dangerous to national security. “Mr. Saharkhiz has three cases in three courts — one at Branch 1058 for insulting authorities, the former president [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] and the judiciary chief. The second case is at Branch 1057 for spreading lies, and the third at Branch 28 for conspiracy against national security, insulting the Supreme Leader, propaganda against the regime and other charges.”
Following his arrest, Isa Saharkhiz went on a hunger strike, and has since been hospitalized after his physical condition deteriorated.
The heaviest sentence was imposed on Afarin Chitsaz, the only one who has been accused specifically of having connections with foreign governments beyond the more vague accusations of infiltration. “I have no information about the case of Ms. Chitsaz because I was not her attorney,” Alizadeh Tabatabai said. “But my colleagues tell me she was charged with conspiracy against national security and cooperation with foreign governments. She got five years for each offense but according to Article 134 of the penal code she must serve only five years.”
“My Daughter Was Beaten”
On April 29, in an interview with BBC Persian, Chitsaz’s mother Maryam Azadpour said her daughter “was beaten with a bottle of water to make her confess while she was blindfolded.” I asked Alizadeh Tabatabai whether, to his knowledge, any of his other clients had been treated this way.
“Interrogation is not an exact science,” he said. “It is possible that the interrogator might get angry during the interrogations and land a blow, like the one that Afarin Chitsaz says happened. But in these cases, I have no evidence that torture has been used to extract confessions. But of course pressure must have been applied. These were traditional interrogators.”
The jailed journalists will now wait for the appeals court, but the court has refused to release them on bail until their trial date. “We asked for it at the lower court,” says Tabatabai. “But the decision is at the discretion of the judge and he did not agree to it. None of the cases have been sent to the appeals court yet. The appeals were filed just recently. We are waiting for the branches to be set so that we can talk to the judge and perhaps convince him to release them on bail. But unfortunately in such cases the bailiffs put pressure on the judicial system.”
Tabatabai: Not an Approved Lawyer
Human rights organizations including Reporters Without Borders have expressed concerns about the incarceration of the journalists, and about prison conditions in Iran. In addition, human rights defenders have raised the cases of two jailed Iranian-Americans, Siamak Namazi and his father Mohammad Baquer Namazi. The Namazi family has asked Alizadeh Tabatabai to represent the two, but judicial authorities have repeatedly turned him down.
Based on an amendment to Article 48 of the Islamic Republic Criminal Code, during the investigative phase of cases related to matters of national security, only lawyers on an approved list drawn up by the Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani are allowed to represent the accused. So far, Larijani has not yet published his list for this year. As a result, Alizadeh Tabatabai has not been allowed to see his clients.
“I had the power of attorney both for Baquer through his wife and from Siamak himself but they rejected my requests. They told me I had not been approved by the Judiciary Chief — but the list has not been published,” Tabatabai said. “Of course Mrs. Namazi visits both of them. Until a couple of weeks ago she used to come to my office and tell me about their conditions. There are still at Ward 2A [controlled by the Revolutionary Guards]. They are not in solitary confinement but still, it is a prison, and prison is not a happy place. Mrs. Namazi told me that during the visits her husband had insisted that they are treating him well. This made her angry. She told her husband: ‘What do you mean? If this is such a good place then I should come here, too.’ Since then I have had no new information about them.”
Tabatabai’s account of the current climate in Iran’s jails and courts suggests a renewed hostility toward individuals with links outside Iran, whether they work as journalists or promote business opportunities. Once again, those sections of Iranian society hoping for a more open Iran following last year’s nuclear deal will be bitterly disappointed. Meanwhile, as the journalists and Davoud Asadi start their prison sentences, it remains to be seen what will happen to the Namazis and prominent journalists Isa Saharkhiz.