On August 15, the BBC reported that Iran had frozen the assets of 152 former and current BBC Persian staff and contributors. BBC Persian also announced that it had obtained a court order that had been issued by the Shahid Moghaddas Courthouse based at Tehran's Evin Prison. The order, which was short and mostly uninformative, also banned the named individuals from conducting financial transactions in Iran. Furthermore, it said that if they traveled to Iran they would not be allowed to leave the country.
Not long afterward, a photograph of the specific court order against one of the individuals was made public. The charge? “Gathering and collusion to commit crimes against national security.”
The BBC’s Persian Service is banned in Iran and BBC Persian staff and their families routinely face harassment and questioning from the authorities. But this court order went a step further, and casted the widest net possible.
IranWire asked two Iranian jurists, Mohammad Olyaeifard and Musa Barzin, about the legal aspects of the order.
Talking about Shahid Moghaddas Courthouse’s handling of “security” cases, Olyaeifard said that “after receiving a complaint or a report from security agencies, the prosecutor or his representative refers the case to a branch of prosecution. The assistant prosecutor and the examining magistrate start investigations and summon or arrest the defendant.”
Freezing assets and banning individuals from financial transactions is nothing new for the Islamic Republic’s judiciary. “In the early years of the revolution, court orders that banned people from conducting transactions because of their political and social activities and background were quite common,” says Musa Barzin. “In 1979, a directive was issued freezing the assets of high-level government officials under the shah.” According to Barzin, many of those individuals are still on the banned list. In 2014, the head of Iran’s Deeds and Property Registration Organization — which must approve property and real estate transactions — announced that somewhere between 25,000 to 26,000 individuals remained on the banned list.
One Indictment against 152
In the published photograph of the court order, a “sub-number” appears after the case number. “The court handles collective cases in two ways," says Olyaeifard. “It creates either one case for each defendant or a case for all of them. The other method is to assign one number to the collective case and then assign sub-numbers to each individual. This makes it easier to manage the case.” So, according to this, it appears that the court has opened one single case for the whole “BBC 152.”
The published court order, issued on August 18, also notifies the Deeds and Property Registration Organization that the accused are banned from leaving Iran and that they cannot conduct financial transactions.
In answer to what the purpose of “banned from transactions” might be, Mohammad Olyaeifard says: “Such a court order is a preventive and precautionary measure to prevent the accused from transferring deeds to suspected ill-gotten properties.”
But can a person be banned from conducting transactions even if that person has acted against the state? Barzin’s answer is no. “The law cites specific punishments for specific crimes,” he says. “No punishment can be handed out that falls outside the provisions of the law. Second, a person can be punished if that person’s crime has been examined by a just court and he has been found guilty. It might be said that banning [people] from transactions falls under the writ of injunction, but banning from transactions is not included in the law that defines the writ of injunction.”
But there is an exception. Article 49 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution states that the government must confiscate all wealth gained through, among other activities, “the operation of centers of corruption, and other illicit means and sources.” According to Barzin, the judiciary can use this exception to freeze the properties of a person who is deemed to be working with foreign spy agencies. This seems to be what it has done in this case.
Indicted after Death
“Behind every ban on leaving Iran,” says Olyaeifard, “there is judicial case against the person, so we can definitely say that these 152 people are being prosecuted based on reports by security agencies. But at this juncture, not all of these 152 are working for the BBC. Some of them stopped working for the BBC years ago — and some have even passed away.” The fact that the case relies on outdated or inaccurate information clearly shows that it has not been well researched, and that it casts an unjustifiably wide net.
The charge of “gathering and collusion to commit crimes against national security” is familiar to Iranian journalists and is publishable by five years in prison. According to Olyaeifard, all these decisions have been taken in absentia and, therefore, they can be appealed. But to lift the ban, the accused must appear personally in court.
The case against the BBC staff also includes a provision called “supervision deadline.” This provision is used when the prosecution wants to prevent the case from “going cold.” The “supervision deadline” means that judiciary officials must review the case within the allotted time and decide if the necessary actions have been carried out or if new actions are necessary.
Authorities communicate the names of the persons whose assets have been frozen to the offices of the Deeds and Property Registration Organization. Details of the individuals are entered into the organization’s system but, interestingly enough, the original court order is not made available to the persons affected or their lawyers. In the Iranian legal system, normal courts provide copies of indictments and relevant parties. But in the Revolutionary Courts, it’s different.
“You can only learn about the ban on conducting transactions, but the families or their lawyers cannot have access to the original court order,” says Barzin, “whereas, under the current law, access to documents in the case is allowed unless the document is secret and access to it can damage the judicial process. In other words, there is no legal justification for denying the families and the lawyers access to the original court order.”
Copying by Hand and Other Oddities of the Revolutionary Court
According to Olyaeifard, this is one of the problems that lawyers face when dealing with the Revolutionary Courts. “In security cases, the judicial orders are confidential, but the Revolutionary Courts do not even give the final verdicts to the lawyers,” he says. “They just tell him to copy it by hand.” The justification, according to him, is how these courts interpret the Criminal Code of Procedure for Public and Revolutionary Courts. “The director of the court’s office is required to give copies of the verdict to lawyers of all sides in the case immediately after it is signed,” he says, “but the lawyers are told to copy it by hand, while the intention was to provide lawyers with copies. The copies are provided in civil courts even in very important criminal and financial cases. It is only the Revolutionary Courts that tell them to copy by hand and withhold the original court order.”
Mohammad Olyaeifard himself has served time in prison for working on human rights cases. “When I was convicted I told the court either give me a verdict or I will not appeal as a protest,” he says. “I was told I could only copy it by hand. So my deadline passed and I was sent to prison without having appealed the verdict.”
But that was not the end of the story. “I told Mr. Alireza Avaee, who was then the justice minister, about it,” says Olyaeifard. “He ordered Mr. Hossein Lotfi, head of the Revolutionary Courts, to act according to the law. Mr. Lotfi had a meeting with Revolutionary Court judges, including Abolghasem Salavati, Mohammad Moghiseh and Yahya Pir Abbasi, and discussed the issue of making the verdicts available to the lawyers of the defendants, but the judges refused, arguing that the enemies would exploit the verdicts and that the verdicts could be used to seek asylum.”
The trade unionist Ebrahim Madadi and the blogger Omid Reza Mirsayafi were also imprisoned without receiving their verdicts and without the right to appeal. “They would not give the verdict to Mr. Dadkhah, Mirsayafi’s lawyer,” says Olyaeifard. “Omid Reza was sent to prison and he committed suicide there.”
Within this context, the illegal and unseen court order against BBC Persian staff, past and present, should come as no surprise. The Islamic Republic judiciary has been doing this for a long time, defying the law to punish and silence journalists and activists.