Zohreh Rastegari, wife of Mehdi Hajati, a city council representative in Shiraz, recently said on Twitter that her husband was arrested at their home by security agents to serve a one-year prison sentence after his arrest last year.
Hajati was arrested on September 25, 2018, after speaking in defence of two Baha’i activists on his Twitter account. “During the past 10 days, I tried any opportunity to release two of our detained Baha’i friends without any luck,” he said at the time, referring to detained Iranian Baha’is. “Our generation must fight against domestic injustice as well as foreign threats.”
Iran’s Baha’i community, the country’s largest religious minority, have been discriminated against and oppressed for years. They are deprived of basic rights such as pursuing higher education and other rights, such as owning private businesses, are severely curtailed and disrupted.
Hajati, born in 1979, was a reformist candidate in the 2017 Shiraz city council election. The arrest, prompted by his tweet, was met with mixed reactions; a member of parliament representing a Shiraz constituency, Bahram Parsayi, criticized the arrest and said that “A statement by a city council member should not result in such a severe reaction. This will make the situation worse and disturb the public peace. We should abide by justice in all our actions."
“There are serious crimes [taking place] in Shiraz that have been left unchecked,” Parsayi continued, “such as the destruction of ancient archaeological sites and national treasures. And yet they arrest a city councillor for a tweet which does nothing to benefit national security or public unity.”
Parsayi later added that after posting his controversial tweets, but before his arrest, Hajati had been working to prevent the destruction of archaeological sites in Shiraz due to the expansion of a religious shrine. When his arrest did come, Hajati was initially released on bail after 10 days; two days ago, however, Hajati received a text message with his final sentence of a year in Adelabad Prison in Shiraz.
Abbad Abdi, another reformist and activist, said “Mr. Hajati’s tweet was fair and humane. He asked for the fair trial of Iranian citizens, which is the right of all Iranians. He is defending law and order above any individual. But it seems there is no rationality in some government departments. This behavior is unbelievable and unacceptable under any circumstances – especially current ones.”
Hajati’s brother, Mosayeb, was interviewed by the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) about the charges against Hajati.
“The criminal charges, which were brought because [my brother] defended two Baha’i citizens,” Mosayeb Hajati said, “allege that he disturbed the public peace, is a member of opposition groups and spread propaganda against the regime. The two later charges were reviewed by the Revolutionary Court. He was cleared of being a member of opposition groups; but he was sentenced to a year in prison, and two years in exile, for spreading propaganda against the regime.”
A defense attorney and civic activist, Mehri Jafari, told IranWire that because Hajati’s sentencing had not yet been appealed, it was against the law for him to be taken to prison. “When the court issues a sentence,” Jafari added, “usually nothing happens immediately, and authorities retain the bail money until a ruling is confirmed by a higher court. It is not clear why Mr. Hajati was sent to prison so quickly in this case.”
Jafari also said that final rulings require a primary court to have handed down a sentence, a defendant to appeal it, and for the Supreme Court to confirm the first court’s ruling. “When this process is complete,” she said, “then a defendant must serve his or her sentence. In Mr. Hajati’s case, and considering the news [around his case], it seems that not every step has been taken.”
Jafari added that informing suspects of court sentences and prison summonses via text messages was also not a common practice elsewhere in the world.
“Perhaps authorities in some places will try to locate or communicate with suspects via text messages, informally, but nowhere is this used to formally convey official orders,” Jafari said. “A court ruling needs to be declared, firstly to attorneys, and through attorneys to suspects and plaintiffs. No one should be informed of a court ruling via text messages – they cannot be properly reviewed and therefore should not be able to be enforced.”
Osman Mozayan, another defence attorney, said that according to Iranian law, criminal procedures consist of two phases. Verdicts that punish someone with prison time can be appealed – and only if there is no appeals request lodged after 20 days can a sentence be considered final. “In Mr. Hajati’s case,” Mozayan said, “regardless of which court has issued the verdict and its sentence, no primary court verdict can be considered final until reviewed by an appeals court. And even if it was final, Article 490 of the Criminal Procedure of 2013 says that verdicts must be communicated to suspects in a specific way that is absent from this case. Arresting Mr. Hajati before officially declaring the verdict is therefore not in accordance with the law.”
But a dissenting view was offered by a third lawyer who spoke with IranWire. Must Barzin Khalifelu said that, in Mr. Hajati’s case, a “last resort” option was available in order to legitimately detain Hajati at the earliest possible opportunity.
“According to Article 500 of the Criminal Procedure,” Khalifelu said, “if a convicted defendants does not present himself for the enforcement of a verdict, the court may ask the defendant’s attorneys and guarantors to hand him in. A judge can also issues an arrest warrant in such circumstances. The exception to this law applies if a judge believes that a convict may be a flight risk – in which case the judge must describe his reasoning for his doubts and issue an arrest warrant.”
Khalifelu argued that these stipulations meant that there are grounds for the immediate sentencing of a person convicted by a primary court. “In general,” he said, “there is a tendency to enforce the court’s verdict soon after sentencing.”
Considering all the controversies around Mr. Hajati’s arrest, it seems that the real reason for the rush to arrest and imprison him was to stop his good work at the city council.