Lawyers both inside and outside of Iran have raised the alarm over unprecedented violations of the law and defendants’ rights by Iran’s judiciary. Restrictions are also being placed on lawyers, including those involved in “national security” cases, under the tenure of chief justice Ebrahim Raisi.
Authoritarian meddling in the justice system has worsened compared to the periods overseen by the two previous judiciary heads, Sadegh Amoli Larijani and Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi, and especially since the November 2019 protests. Unacceptable treatment of defendants and the indiscriminate handing-down of long sentences or execution orders have both worsened. This is now to such an extent that a few months ago, in a rare sentence, we witnessed a prisoner’s execution by firing squad.
Lawyers who recall how security-related prisoners were treated in the 1980s consider this an effective approach. But others believe the critical situation at the macro-political level in Iran is the reason for this atrophy of the judicial system: a situation they believe is being brought about under the direct supervision of Ali Khamenei. Anyone in Raisi’s position, they consider, would presently be engaged in the same, with the same intensity.
In this report we interviewed a number of Iranian lawyers. Some of their identities are being protected for their safety.
Lawyers inside Iran who take on political and security-related cases believe that in recent months, and particularly since the events of November 2019, violations of prisoners' rights and laws as well as the obstacles they face in defending their clients have increased dramatically.
Meanwhile, the treatment of some political prisoners has been astounding. Recent months have seen such case studies as Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American prisoner denied furlough for four consecutive years, Narges Mohammadi, a jailed human rights activist who may have contracted coronavirus, and most recently, three young men who happened to be present at one of the November protests being sentenced to death, which led to millions of Twitter users demanding the order be overturned. These sentences were handed down on the same day two Kurdish prisoners, Diako Rasoulzadeh and Saber Sheikh-Abdollah, were hanged despite requesting a pardon.
According to the Iranian Human Rights Organization, the Islamic Republic has executed at least 123 people in the first six months of 2020. This figure represents a growth of more than 10 percent compared to the same period in 2019, part of which occurred during Ebrahim Raisi’s tenure judiciary head. Among those was the execution by firing squad of Hedayat Abdollahpour, a political prisoner, on May 11.
On July 14, judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili announced that the security detainee Reza Asgari had been executed a week earlier. The judiciary had accused him of spying and selling the Islamic Republic's missile information to the US. On the same day that this news was announced, Diako Rasoulzadeh and Saber Sheikh-Abdollah were executed in Orumieh Prison. On July 8, a man was reportedly hanged for drinking alcohol on six occasions.
A lawyer specializing in political and security-related cases, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told IranWire: "If during the Larijani era we were shocked every two months by one violation of the law or another, we now face such cases twice a week, and we are amazed. Since November 2019, the judicial system has become more abusive in its dealings with both defendants and the lawyers – to the extent that even conservative lawyers are now complaining."
Unjustly Accused Businessman Denied Furlough
The example of Siamak Namazi is a striking one. The US-based director of Crescent Petroleum’s strategic planning department was arrested in October 2015 and charged with "collaborating with hostile states." Namazi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and has not once been granted furlough.
On 13 July, the lawyer Mohammad Hossein Aghasi wrote on Twitter: "Siamak Namazi has given me a very polite and reasonable letter to deliver to the head of the judiciary, believing that because he [Raisi] is now reforming the system, if his case is heard in an independent court he will certainly be acquitted. The content of this letter is astonishing."
In the letter, Namazi, referring to his 10-year prison sentence, explained that he had been deprived of his rights. He refers to his right to furlough, which so far has not been granted even for a single day.
Namazi said he had previously had his leave approved in September 2019. "But after depositing the bail amount specified by the prosecutor,” he wrote, “they increased the amount of the bail more than three times, without any explanation. And then, when my relatives managed to pay the extraordinary amount, again, without any explanation, my leave was denied."
If true, the entire process would represent a violation of Iranian legal procedures – by the judiciary. In an interview with IranWire, lawyer Mohammad Oliaei-Fard pointed out the illegality of these cases: "Namazi's remarks are correct. He has not committed any crime. The absence of access to a lawyer is a violation of legal procedure. According to the criminal code, anyone arrested should have a lawyer as soon as they are arrested. He said he was not allowed to consult a lawyer during the initial hearing of his case."
According to Mohammad Oliaei-Fard, the most serious violation of the law in the case of Namazi is his deprivation of "conditional leave": "Anyone who has served half their sentence is eligible for conditional leave. The law states that security prisoners, unlike ordinary prisoners, have the right to go on leave with the consent of the prosecutor and the detention facility. In this case the Revolutionary Guards appear to be hindering this matter, because it is related to relations with the United States."
In an interview with IranWire, lawyer Mahnaz Parakand also points out: "The judge in charge of the prison determined the bail based on the length of the sentence. After this is agreed, the collateral is sent for deposit. If they raise the bail after the deposit, something completely illegal has happened. This is a way of torturing the souls of the convicts and their families.”
Parakand, too, says that under Ebrahim Raisi harsh sentences are on the increase. "Of course, during the Larijani era, a number of Sunni Muslims were executed. But neither during the period of Larijani nor Shahroudi did we hear so much news of the execution of political prisoners."
Human Rights Advocate Languishes in Coronavirus-Afflicted Prison
In a letter to the Minister of Health, Treatment and Medical Education published on July 13, the human rights activist Narges Mohammadi asked called for a doctor to investigate her condition and that of 11 other inmates of Zanjan Prison who have symptoms of Covid-19. Despite 12 women having been tested, Mohammadi wrote, no results came back: "[But] they suddenly came and separated the ward. One of the inmates was taken to hospital in critical condition and was released on bail after testing positive."
Mohammadi also wrote that by order of the Ministry of Intelligence and the judiciary, she is prohibited from buying additional food even at her own expense, is not permitted to have a book to read and does not have the right to call her children outside Iran. In the final part of her letter, she wrote: "Through my letter, I declare my legal complaint against the harsh and unbearable conditions of Zanjan Prison in the last six months and the lack of medical care."
Parakand emphasizes this part of Narges Mohammadi's letter: "This means that her complaints have not gone anywhere. The complaint process involves obtaining a registration number and filing a case by a judicial official. Now she has said in her letter that she is a plaintiff and that her letter is her legal complaint. Legally and under criminal procedure rules, a complaint can be oral or in written form. This letter is legally a valid complaint, and it is now the duty of the judicial authority to investigate and substantiate this complaint."
Article 69 of Iran’s penal code states that the prosecutor is obliged to accept written and oral complaints at all times. Article 37 of the same law even states that judicial officers are obliged to accept an oral complaint.
Narges Mohammadi's husband, Taghi Rahmani, has called the judiciary's treatment of his wife “stubborn” and “vengeful”.
"It is clear that they want to harass her,” says Mohammad Oliaei-Fard, “so they are illegally depriving her of her basic rights. In the current situation, especially because of the outbreak of the coronavirus, she should be given leave.”
Defence Lawyers Blocked and Duped
In addition to these cases, lawyers inside Iran believe that restrictions on them have increased since Ebrahim Raisi became head of the judiciary. One lawyer, who asked not to be named, said the number of lawyers willing to take on human rights-related cases had dropped as a consequence.
"They had already taken us to a point where we were content with the minimum,” they said. “But now even the minimum does not exist. They obstruct the declaration of power of attorney, and study of the case. Even when they agree to let us study the file, they give us only part of it. Sometimes the verdict is not communicated to us or the client is not notified. Or in some cases, they inform the lawyer of the hearing date, but they take the client to court sooner and issue a verdict without them present. Our barriers to appeal and the Supreme Court are increasing. In some branches, judges sit and manually receive the order and sign it. This is all catastrophic, and we have not seen catastrophe of this extent before. "
A recent example of these obstructions can be seen in the case of the three young detainees recently sentenced to death. Their chosen lawyers, including Babak Pakunia, Mustafa Nili and Hossein Taj, have repeatedly said that they were not allowed access to the case. After months of effort, they were finally able to see their clients' files on July 15. Babak Paknia then spoke of the shortcomings of the case – and the fact that the judiciary had not permitted him to make a submission. The only chance to save these people now, lawyers say, would be through “requesting pardon”.
Why the Bloodthirstiness at the Top?
This week two Kurdish political prisoners, Diako Rasoulzadeh and Saber Sheikh Abdullah, were hanged for allegedly being involved in the bombing of an armed forces parade on September 22, 2010. Mehdi Vakilnejad, Rasoulzadeh's lawyer, told Iranwire that he had not been notified of the execution, and had only learned of the transfer of the two defendants for execution through the media. Amnesty International issued a statement declaring the confessions of these detainees had been obtained through torture and ill-treatment, and therefore had no legal validity.
Mahnaz Parakand points to another issue: the current head of Iran’s judiciary was one of a group of judges that presided over the mass executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. Other senior judicial appointments made since then, she says, include “his colleagues from the 1980s who have experience in persecuting political prisoners”.
In June this year, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, the first deputy head of the judiciary, called on the head of the Prisons and Security and Training Organization to open a new chapter in this regard so that "repentance" could be properly addressed in the Islamic Republic; an issue that was prevalent in the 1960s.
Repentance and acceptance of the charge is one of the issues recommended to the defendants in the current situation; that is, when an amnesty is requested, there is a kind of acceptance of the charge and then comes forgiveness.
"In the 1980s, political prisoners who had aspirations were tortured. Many did not confess and resisted," said Parakand, "until the People’s Mojahedin of Iran itself raised the issue of tactical repentance, telling its members to repent so they would not remain in prison. Armed resistance members were repenting. We were shocked and at first could not believe it, but at the time repentance was not a difficult process.
“Currently, those involved in political or security cases are telling defendants to either remain silent or apologize. The Islamic Republic also prepares and manages public relations so that when it comes to repentance, it is taken to mean that the defendant was guilty of the accusations."
According to Mohammad Oliaei-Fard, security and political cases going through the judicial system are under the supervision of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei. In other words, even if someone else took Raisi’s place, the outcome and mishandling of cases would be the same. “Anyone in this position who opposed Ali Khamenei's views and his policy on security issues would be dismissed,” he said.
The Islamic Republic, Oliaei-Fard stresses, is trying to make sacrifices to prove its durability due to the crisis it is in. The state is well aware of the threats it faces, from economic woes to a near-terminal loss of political credibility. But it insists, as ever, on trying to maintain stability through further violence. Just as the beginning of its rule the soldiers of the Islamic Republic used street executions and mass executions to assert state power, today, Ali Khamenei’s regime uses a nexus of atrocious sentences and illegal procedures to control the crisis. Under the ashes is a fire, and it may catch alight at any moment.