The phone in my office rang and an old man at the end of the line said, “They’ve arrested my son. I don’t know what to do. His mother is very worried. What should I do, counsellor?” When I asked the reason for the arrest, he said: “I don’t know, but two days ago he was out of town celebrating a holiday with his friends, when government agents arrested him. He called and said he was being detained at the Intelligence Bureau in Tabriz,” referring to the provincial capital of East Azerbaijan.
It became clear to me then that the holiday he was referring to was the 13 Bedar, the thirteenth day of the new Iranian year, which often coincides with the first or second day of April. According to an old tradition, Iranians spend this day enjoying nature, so it is known as Nature’s Day. On this Nature Day two years ago, a group of activists gathered in popular spots outside of town to protest against the environmental disaster of Lake Urmia, once the biggest lake in the Middle East. It was likely that his son had been arrested there.
Several hours later I was certain this is what had happened. Two other people had called and reported that one of their family members had been arrested in the same place and were also being detained at the Intelligence Bureau.
Understandably, the family members of those arrested were concerned. They began asking me questions: “Who should we ask for information?”; “When will they be released?”; “Do we need money for bail?” I tried to calm them down and then went to Branch Four of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which handles cases like this, to gather more information. It transpired that security forces had arrested several people who had participated in the Lake Urmia protest. They had taken them to the Intelligence Bureau for 10 days on the orders of Hashemzadeh, the inspector for Branch Four.
By Iranian law, a lawyer is not permitted to interfere during preliminary investigations. Judicial authorities will often even refuse to release even minimal amounts of information to lawyers. It is one of many aspects of being a lawyer in Iran that makes the job so difficult.
Several days later, the detainees were transferred to the main prison in Tabriz. Upon discovering this, I went to the prison, where a number of the detained asked me to represent them. Preliminary investigations were now finished and the case was being sent to Branch One of the Revolutionary Court. At this point, I requested to see the case files. For the first time, I found out that my clients were accused of “gathering and conspiring to commit illegal acts against national security” and of “disrupting public order.” As is customary, the Intelligence Bureau had written the case reports in a way that made it seem as though the country really was in danger and that if my clients had been arrested even a few seconds later, national security and the Islamic Republic’s Reign of Justice would have completely collapsed. The reports also asked that the judiciary hand down stern punishments to the accused.
Unsurprisingly, the charges against my clients were unfounded – a few people gathered peacefully to protest against damages to the environment can in no way be construed as an act against national security. The same applies for the charges of conspiracy and disruption of public order. Nothing was disrupted and nobody was inconvenienced by the rally.
Regardless of this, the day of the trial arrived and the accused were brought into the court. Having read the charges against them, the judge said, “During your illegal gathering you chanted anti-regime slogans and made people feel unsafe. Was it the government that dried up Lake Urmia? The lake dried up because of the drought and God’s will. Are you protesting against God’s will?”
When it was my turn to speak I said, “Your honor, most experts believe the lake dried up because dams were built and because of other human factors, and that it is not due to God’s will. Furthermore, we’re here to talk about whether the gathering was legal and not other questions that don’t concern us.” I also argued that, by law, peaceful gatherings are not illegal rallies. The constitution allows people to gather in groups and considers it every citizen’s duty to defend the environment.
Equally, the conspiracy charge did not apply to my clients because nothing was disrupted by the protest; businesses were unharmed because it was a public holiday and the rally took place out of town. I also pointed out that slogans like “tear down the dams to fill Lake Urmia” and “the lake is thirsty and crying out” are not anti-regime slogans. I submitted my written defense to the court and the session ended. After this I tried to get my clients released on bail but the court rejected the request.
A few days later the verdict was announced. Each of my clients were sentenced to six months in prison for “gathering illegally” and “conspiracy against national security.” The Revolutionary Court decided it did not have the jurisdiction to deal with the charge of disrupting public order and sent the case to the regular courts.
Requests for their release on bail were repeatedly denied. Several weeks later, we were summoned to another trial at the lower court; this was over very quickly and nobody was allowed to speak during it. My clients were sentenced to a cash fine and to 20 lashes for “disruption of public order.” They had already spent six months in prison.
Yes, this is how the government rewards those who protect the environment – by sentencing them to six months in prison and 20 lashes.