Islamic Republic authorities are preparing a bizarre case against Professor Reza Eslami, who security agents arrested in May. Eslami, an associate professor at the Faculty of Law at Shahid Beheshti University, is being targeted and punished for teaching his students about the rule of law. Both confirmed and unofficial reports say, if found guilty the professor could face up to 10 years in prison. If his case goes ahead, he will be the first academic lawyer to be jailed for doing his job as a professor and teaching subjects on the curriculum.
According to the Islamic Penal Code, the official charges of "conspiracy, propaganda against the regime and disturbing the public order" can be punishable by 10 years in prison. These charges have been brought against Eslami for his work as a professor, and in particular, the rule of law part of the courses he teaches.
Professor Eslami has taught students the principles of human rights and the rule of law — principles countries put in place to prevent arbitrary and excessive restrictions on citizens and that call governments to account for adhering to or neglecting them. Internationally, the rule of law is seen as an effective measure of how law-abiding a political system or government is. So Iran’s decision to arrest someone for teaching these principles speaks volumes about the values promoted by the Islamic Republic and its officials.
Although methods of teaching the rule of law differ, as a philosophical and legal concept, it has several basic principles. The rubric includes transparency and accessibility of laws, transparency in outlining the consequences of violating these laws, equality of all citizens of a country before the law, limitation of government power, adaption of national laws to promote the fundamental principles of human rights, the commitment to pursue peaceful settlement of disputes through access to a fair trial, admissibility in court in line with the public conscience, and the compliance of domestic law with the government’s international obligations.
Rule of Law, Iran and the Case of Reza Eslami
As a means of clarifying the principles of the rule of law and the extent to which it is practiced in Iran’s ruling system, Reza Eslami's own case can be tested against it.
The first principle of the rule of law states that citizens should be able to learn about the legal consequences of breaking the law. And yet, even for a faculty member at Shahid Beheshti University Law School, previously known as the National University of Iran, it was inconceivable that teaching the rule of law, which was part of the university-approved curriculum, could be considered illegal.
The second principle states that all citizens of a country are equal before the law. However, if Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, spokesperson for the Guardian Council, a legal expert and a professor at the University of Tehran, was arrested by the security and judiciary for teaching the rule of law, could he face up to 10 years in prison? As a member of the Guardian Council, it is unlikely that he would face such a punishment, so this challenges the notion of equality in Iran.
The principle of limiting the power of the government, particularly in its use of force, appeared to be absent when security agents detained Reza Eslami at his workplace. Furthermore, Iranian law specifies that it is not legal to detain academics in while they are in an educational environment. Security and judicial agents see themselves as above the law and assert an unlimited power, contrary to the principles of the rule of law.
The fifth principle of the rule of law is conformity of the laws of the country to the fundamental principles of human rights. The arrest of Reza Eslami on the unacceptable charge of teaching the rule of law — a legal act within the Faculty of Law — is an arbitrary and extrajudicial arrest and violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the Islamic Republic of Iran is a committed signatory. In fact, in recent years, security agencies have been in the habit of bringing cases against people for practically anything they do not like. This behavior is against international law and even against the Islamic Republic of Iran’s own domestic laws.
With regard to the principle of fair access to court, Reza Eslami was detained while at his workplace and has been held since May 13, 2020, nearly three months ago, and security and judicial officials have not provided any explanation. As a lawyer, he is aware of his rights at the time of detention and may not necessarily need a lawyer, but it is his right to pursue his case outside prison with a lawyer if he so chooses. However, he has not been allowed to appoint a lawyer, and the details of the case against him have not been made public, nor have the officials reasons for his detention. This situation does not in any way constitute a fair trial.
The last principle concerns the admissibility of court rulings or evidence that will be acceptable in the wider public opinion and the conscience of citizens. But the arrest of Reza Eslami, especially for his colleagues and the Iranian legal community, has not been acceptable. Since his arrest, a significant number of Iranians in the academic community have condemned his detention and have been shocked by the idea that he could face 10 years in prison.
Reza Eslami holds a doctorate in law from McGill University in Canada and has taught human rights, minority rights, and the rule of law at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran for close to two decades. Today, his case could form part of his students’ research, a symbol of how rule of law works in the Islamic Republic, and the level of the respect the country’s rulers have for it.