The name Masoud Shafii will be familiar to anyone who has followed some of Iran’s most high profile political trials, including the cases of Kamiar and Arash Alaei, Kian Tajbakhsh and the three US hikers (Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal) arrested in Iraqi Kurdistan near the Iranian border in 2009. A celebrated human rights defender who often represents his clients pro bono, Shafii has also taken on many less publicized cases, defending people from religious minorities including the Baha’is, the unionist Reza Shahabi and the outspoken educator Rasoul Bodaghi. In many of these, the prosecutor has questioned Shafii as to why he chose to defend his clients for free, and, on one occasion, he was accused of taking money from the party the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MKO) for his legal work. After he represented the three US hikers, authorities interrogated him, arrested him and banned him from traveling outside Iran. Shafii spoke to IranWire about his experience as a human rights lawyer in Iran, and about some of the challenges he has faced.
At the start of the Islamic Revolution, certain authority figures argued there was no difference between a lawyer and the person he or she defends. Do you think after more than 30 years, this kind of thinking still exists amongst members of the Iranian authorities?
For some lawyers — and I have the pleasure of being among them – the situation hasn’t improved. For example, in a case involving workers and teachers it was assumed that I was being paid by the MKO (the People's Mujahedin of Iran). For cases involving the Baha’is, I’m always asked why I defend them if I’m not a Baha’i myself.
Why did you choose to represent the three American hikers arrested in 2009?
At the start of the process, the families of the American hikers went to talk with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, which introduced five lawyers to the families and, from among these, the families chose me. I think their reason for choosing me was that I was independent and not a member of any association. I think they were afraid that if they chose a lawyer from the Center for Human Rights Defenders or a similar center or association, their situation might worsen. I don’t think this rationale was necessarily right, but that was the conclusion they came to. When I studied their case, I came to the realization that not only were they not spies — and I joked with them, telling them they’re an embarrassment to the spy community! — but that they hadn’t even necessarily crossed the border into Iran. At the time, it was unclear where the border actually was.
What was the political relevance of the case?
I assume the Iranian authorities were planning to release the hikers in exchange for the release of certain Iranian prisoners in the United States, but the US didn’t accept. This is because the prisoners the Iranian government was asking to be released weren’t in the same situation – they’d been convicted, whereas the hikers had only been accused. By using public advocacy, and making sure I was transparent when I interviewed my clients and prepared their defences, I tried to not let anyone take advantage of the case. I requested that the court release Sarah [Shourd] on bail since she’d been suffering from an illness for a year. The court accepted my request and issued a bail of $500,000. But Sarah’s family wasn’t able to pay and the US government didn’t agree to pay either. However, the Sultan of Oman did agree to pay it. A couple of Omani delegates arrived, paid the bail money, and Sarah was released. In fact, her trial was held after she left Iran. Joshua and Shane were present during the trial but Sarah was in the States. She sent her defense from there and I defended her in court.
As part of my defense for them, I argued that the United States wasn’t an enemy state in a legal sense. Our only enemy at the time was Iraq. Even at present, though, Iraq can’t be considered an enemy country. Even Israel isn’t an enemy country in a legal sense. I also argued that, in this case, there hadn’t actually been any trespassing across a border. Eventually, the court agreed to issue a bail (also of $500,000) for the two other hikers. Their case is still not legally closed though. Having said that, we all know that the hikers won’t be going back to Iran, and that the authorities won’t follow up on their case.
Do you think that, when the Sepah [The Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution] arrested the hikers, they wanted to pressure the US into releasing Iranian prisoners in the United States? Do you know who these people are and what crimes they committed?
Well, firstly, so far no official source has confirmed that the Sepah arrested the hikers. It was announced in the news that Iranian border guards arrested them. But there were signs the Sepah had been involved. Shahrzad Mirgholikhan [an Iranian citizen arrested in December 2007 after entering the United States, who spent five years in US detention between 2007 and 2012 on charges of exporting unlawful military equipment, including 3000 night vision goggles to Iran from Austria] was one of the prisoners Iran wanted to be released in exchange for the release of the American hikers. When Sarah was released from prison, Shahrzad’s twin daughters wrote a letter to President Obama asking for their mother’s release and gave it to Sarah to give to him. The United States didn’t accept this request though.
Did you have any problems after the hikers were released and left Iran?
Yes. Immediately after the hikers left Iran, about five or six intelligence agents raided my house and office. They searched through all my belongings and took all my files, documents and my laptop with them. They had an order to transfer me to Ward 209 of Evin Prison. I protested against the transfer, which was illegal. After several hours of interrogation, they finally released me. I was due to leave Iran three days afterwards to visit relatives, including my daughter and son, who live in the United States and Canada. I told the judicial authorities that if I was banned from traveling, they should at least let me know in advance so that I could save the money on my airplane ticket. They said there wouldn’t be any problems. But when I got to the airport, my passport was confiscated. No one has ever told me why I’m banned from travelling.
While in custody, what they did they ask?
They asked questions like: “Why did I accept the American hikers’ case?” to which I answered that the family of the hikers chose me. They asked me about the countries I had visited. I told them that my wife takes part in conferences around the world and I accompany her. They asked me why I work for free for some of my clients. They also asked me why I take up human rights cases and don’t deal with ordinary cases. I told them I wasn’t interested in brokering.
Have you faced other issues?
For more than three or four years, I’ve been banned from practicing law. By this, I don’t mean that my work licence was officially revoked or that an official verdict banned me from practicing. Rather, I’m barred from working in practice. For example, some time ago, the family of Amir Hekmati, an Iranian-American accused of spying by the Iranian government, contacted me and asked me to take up his case. However, when Judge Salavati — the judge in Amir’s case — threatened them and said their situation would become even worse if I did take the case, they withdrew their power of attorney. The same happened with numerous other cases, including Saeed Abedini’s case, an Iranian-American Christian pastor imprisoned in Iran since summer 2012. His wife and parents contacted me and asked me to take up his case, but they too withdrew their power of attorney. Altogether I’ve had about 30 cases in which the families have approached me and I’ve agreed to take on their cases and then they’ve changed their mind. Some explicitly said that Judge Salavati had said if I or any other lawyer that gives media interviews take up their cases, their situation would worsen. In practice, I haven’t had a case for three to four years and that’s caused me financial problems. My wife is a hospital matron and even though she’s retired, she has to work in our current situation so we can pay our bills. Many lawyers who take up human rights cases face the same problems, especially the ones who’ve been officially banned from work.
Aside from that, a few other things have happened to me. For example, my car was stolen and my car engine number was changed. Thieves don’t do things like that. Two motorcyclists threw acid on my car. On paper, I’m a lawyer, but a lawyer no one dares to talk to. Even my secretary and a couple of lawyers who used to work in my offices don’t dare to come to my office anymore. Perhaps I shouldn’t blame them. They’re afraid; they want to live their lives.