On November 14, 2020, the Iranian judiciary’s legal deputy Mohammad Mossadegh issued a written missive to provincial judiciary heads around the country regarding the supervision of lawyers.
Describing the expansion of a “security umbrella” over practicing attorneys, the letter said a new “General Office for the Supervision of Lawyers” had been set up to receive any reports of transgressions by members of the legal profession, alongside the work already carried out by the Bar Association. Issues cited included non-observation of the mandatory hijab by female lawyers at work or on social media, or doubts about a given lawyer’s commitment to Islam, the Islamic Republic, or the principle of Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist).
This appears to be the last nail in the coffin of serious legal advocacy in the Islamic Republic of Iran. It will intimidate, silence and push some lawyers out of the profession, while forcing others to align with the state’s principles, leading to an atrophy of justice.
The first nail, in fact, dates back to the days that immediately followed the 1979 Revolution. What Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, said, pro-government officials repeated, and finally, a group of lawyers who believed in the new system took revenge on the Bar Association. Its offices were attacked and would remain closed until 1997, and the arrest and torture of non-compliant lawyers began.
One day in the winter of 1980, in the middle of a heavy snow, Batool Kayhani, the director of Iran’s Bar Association, called up his chairman to report: “They have invaded.”
Government lawyers had stormed the offices of the Bar Association and disrupted the working day, interfering with case files and shouting their support for the new regime. After Karim Anvari, then-chairman of the board, arrived, they grew quiet and agreed to leave the premises – but warned that they and others would be back.
Mr. Anvari would go on to leave Iran in 1981, a few months after the Bar Association was shut down. Like many of his colleagues, he had been arrested and tortured. Now residing in Britain, he told IranWire his recollections of that fateful day.
“Thirty or 40 thug lawyers had come to the office and were busy trashing our files,” he said. “When they saw me, they grew ashamed and left. The only thing we could do was call all the board members to my office. We decided to put 20 young, strong lawyers on duty in front of the office every day, with one of us there to supervise them. We carried on doing this for almost a month."
Every day, 20 junior lawyers, armed with sticks and batons, would stand guard in front of the Bar Association's building to protect its independence. "The attackers themselves,” Mr. Anvari says, “were lawyers, and they were later given official posts in government. One of them, named Hadavi, even joined the Guardian Council.”
The ultimate ringleader of the invading lawyers had set out their remit for them in the spring of 1979. On April 1 of that year, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had stated: “The one who should have a lawyer, the one who should be listened to, is the accuser, not the criminal. We believe that the criminal requires no trial and should be killed."
In May that year, Sadegh Khalkhali, head of the newly-formed Islamic Revolutionary Courts, took it upon himself to interpret the leader’s remarks in the most extreme manner possible. “The Revolutionary Court,” he said, “is no place for a lawyer."
This position duly became gospel across the judicial system. Karim Anvari recalls that one day during the same period, Mohammad Beheshti, the first head of the Iranian judiciary, stood before judges in Isfahan and warned them: “Do not allow these swindlers, under the guise of lawyers, into court at all.”
Lawyers Blocked and Silenced in Court
Lawyers have faced barriers to entering Iranian courtrooms ever since 1979. This continued long after the post-revolutionary period was over and indeed, new restrictions were codified in Iranian law as recently as 2014.
That year, an amendment to Article 48 of the Code of Criminal Procedure stipulated that during "preliminary investigations", only lawyers who had been hand-approved by the head of the judiciary would be allowed into the courtroom. This locked countless qualified attorneys out of observing and intervening in the most delicate early stages of a criminal investigation, during which detainees are most likely to be subjected to extreme pressure, torture and forced confessions.
Nemat Ahmadi, a lawyer based in Iran, told IranWire that the 2014 amendment has had a profound impact on how trials related to “security” and economic corruption have unfolded in Iran – one far beyond its intended scope.
“Despite the fact that the law explicitly says Article 48 should only be considered in the preliminary stage,” he said, “it is applied to the rest of the court system as well. Lawyers other than the ones who fall under Article 48 provisions must sit silent in court and, at the end of the process, speak only ‘if they have anything to say’."
More recently, however, a new judiciary circular stressed the need for surveillance of all lawyers, government-approved or not: something the establishment of the “General Office” also seems to underpin. "It will mean a kind of continuous supervision of the legal community,” Ahmadi says, "without the need for any documents. They can easily denounce a given lawyer for not having a credible commitment to Islam and can manage lawyers however they like.
“Now, they have also penetrated cyberspace. When I talk to you from the other side of the world, they can use this as an excuse to say ‘He has talked to dissident and counter-revolutionary media, so he is also a 'dissident' himself, and his license to practice should be revoked."
Barred from the Bar Association – and Vulnerable to Attack
Revoking lawyers’ licenses on the flimsy presence of non-adherence to mandatory hijab, Twelver Shia Islam, the principles of the Islamic Republic or Velayat-e Faqih are only part of the ongoing assault on the legal profession. The full welter of changes, says Ahmadi, quoting Ferdowsi, is “a story full of tears” which he believes itself contradicts the law and Constitution of Iran.
“It [the judiciary’s attack] is also against common law, such as the independence of the Bar Association, which should be self-governing. It has become a matter of giving the judiciary total freedom to disqualify anyone it wants. They can even stop board members from carrying out their duties."
Elsewhere, Article 4 of the Iranian law on obtaining a lawyer’s license to practice states that lawyers are certified to serve on the board of the Bar Association by a Disciplinary Tribunal of Judges. But a judiciary circular has stated that if a lawyer is turned down once, he or she cannot be active in other parts of the association again.
Since 1997, when the Bar Association was first reinstated, Nemat Ahmadi has been nominated for membership on the board of directors every year. Each time, his competency has been called into question. Now he and others like him can no longer be active in other parts of the Bar Association either.
Nemat Ahmadi fears that the remit of the “General Office for the Supervision of Lawyers” will be even greater than that of the Guardian Council over parliament. “Like the sword of Damocles,” he says, “they can hold it over lawyers’ heads to show they can revoke their license whenever they want, with or without having a real case.
“Right now many lawyers, including myself, are at risk of becoming the targets of a lawsuit by the public prosecutor for the articles and interviews we have given, and we could well be convicted. According to the circular, our licenses can be suspended until the final outcome is determined. They have prevented many lawyers from entering into these cases, so there will be no mention or comment about them. We, who are close to retirement age, can afford to give up our licenses – but what about the younger ones at the beginning of their careers?"
‘There is No Bar Association’
Many young lawyers, especially those who publicly claim independence and are willing to take on “political” cases, protested against the proclamation in the circular that the judiciary would be spying on lawyers’ social media accounts. But Nemat Ahmadi fears the idea of an independent Bar Association has already become meaningless to them. Article 1 of the Bar Association Independence Law states its activities should not be influenced by orders from above, but how can this be protected in the current climate?
The ousted former Bar Association chairman, Karim Anvari, has a different opinion. "There is no Bar Association,” he says. “Some people may have created a department with the same name, but the board of directors of the Bar Association should be elected, while legislators have agreed the candidates should be approved by a Disciplinary Tribunal of Judges.
“The Disciplinary Tribunal is a joke and renders it [the Bar Association] a security institution, just like SAVAK or the Ministry of Intelligence, or the intelligence division of the Revolutionary Guards. Those on the board of directors of this association now are approved by the security apparatus and do not have the mandate to support lawyers. It is impossible to work independently in such an environment. Their slightest protestation will be silenced."
Prominent lawyers such as Abdolfattah Soltani, Nasrin Sotoudeh and Nasser Zarafshan, Karim Anvari says, are delibrerately targeted so as to intimidate younger lawyers. “They want to remove lawyers like Sotoudeh, Soltani and Zarafshan so that only their servants remain," he says.
At the same time, the Iranian parliament has approved a declaration that “advocacy” falls within the category of “business” and no lawyer’s license is required for this role. In principle, it means any student with a university degree can speak on behalf of defendants in court, including those whose lives hang in the balance. This, again, was protested against by lawyers who feared that a deluge of unqualified advocates in the courtroom would lead to a further loss of independence. But Karim Anvari believes the legal profession has been treated as a “business” ever since the Islamic Revolution.
"From the very first day after the revolution,” he says, “they said a lawyer did not need a license and that anyone could choose a lawyer from any profession. Even a grocer could be a lawyer. I remember Ayatollah Khomeini had a brother named Morteza Pasandideh, who wrote a letter to me as the head of the Bar Association. He told me: 'Give a lawyer's license to the holder of this letter so that he can conduct his business like all other businesses.' This has a long history."
This devastation of the legal profession, however, has been an incremental one, with fewer and fewer people now able to stand up in defense of human rights instead of the Supreme Leader. Lawyers who defend clients on trial for “political” crimes have faced and are facing wider threats to their personal lives than ever before. They can only hope to keep arguing their cases and, with the help of the international community, not be subjected to detention, torture, imprisonment or execution themselves.
All of Society Suffers the Consequences
In the aftermath of the judiciary circular, a group of lawyers are quietly preparing a counter-argument. Article 12 of the Rules of Procedure of the Court of Administrative Justice states that the decisions of the head of the judiciary cannot be disregarded, but the circular in question had been signed by the deputy head. These lawyers believe its contents run contrary to the Constitution, and cannot be enforced.
But if their complaint is overturned and this circular remains in force, what prospect is there for legal advocacy in Iran? “As I see it,” Nemat Ahmadi says, “lawyers are divided into two groups. One group is intimidated by these rules; they lower their heads and make money. The other is not intimidated. They continue their activities and wait for their license to be revoked. Then, they’ll find another job – perhaps as Snap [taxi] drivers. Freedom is not something everyone is willing to lose or replace."
This is a diagnosis of the current position of lawyers and the legal profession. But by extension, it also embitters the prospects of civil society institutions in Iran, which are fighting for freedom and liberty instead of suffocation and impasse and every day, face the prospect of the detention center and death. Those who take to the streets to keep the spirit of protest alive in Iran are increasingly at risk of imprisonment or execution without a fair trial – or worse, with a sham trial in which the appointed defense lawyer actually acts against the defendant, as happened in the recent case of Navid Afkari.
The judiciary circular, and the establishment of the General Office for Supervision of Lawyers, has the wider aim of the disarmament of civil society, politics and journalism. As Afkari’s execution showed, the judiciary will stop at nothing to achieve this goal – even if it flies in the face of the law itself.