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Iran in Perspective

Victims of Iranian ‘justice’

Roya Boroumand
October 15, 2011
Newspaper article

"There is no room in revolutionary courts for defense lawyers because they keep quoting laws to play for time." - Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, the first religious judge appointed of the Islamic Revolutionary Tribunal , Kayhan, May 13, 1979

"If a lawyer comes to believe that his client is guilty, he must not contribute to the prolongation of the trial ;. . . The Bar Association [should] identify and take action against lawyers who create mischief and divert cases from their proper course." Morteza Bakhtiari , Iran's minister of justice, Jan. 15, 2011

On 10 October 2010, two German journalists from the newspaper Bild am Sonntag, who had entered Iran as tourists, were arrested while interviewing the lawyer of Sakineh Mohamadi Ashtiani, a woman whom a court in Eastern Azerbaijan Province had sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery in. The arrest of the two reporters, along with Sakineh's son and lawyer, turned out to be the climactic episode in a high-level and successful international campaign, initiated in July 2010, to stop Sakineh's stoning. Months of effort and relentless publicity saved Sakineh's life, but the blowback inside Iran that has resulted could, if ignored, harm the chances of future campaigns.

Today, Marcus Alfred Rudolf Hellwig and Jens Andreas Koch are free back in Germany, and the world's attention has moved on. Yet the Iranian lawyer, Javid Houtan Kian, languishes barely alive in a Tabriz prison, silently bearing the brunt of the Iranian judiciary's anger over its embarrassment by a successful campaign to which he contributed key information. His unnoticed fate is a discouraging signal to Iranian lawyers who must take on "the system" in order to defend their clients.

The international campaign to save Sakineh began when her two children, panicked by the imminence of their mother's execution with a shower of stones chosen to ensure a slow and painful death, resorted to an experienced and principled lawyer, Mohammad Mostafaee. The latter made sure that the world heard about Sakineh's sentence. The campaign gained momentum in the summer of 2010 by drawing support from hundreds of thousands of individuals around the world. The tireless efforts of civil society advocates, the media, intellectuals, artists, and government officials at the highest levels brought desperately needed attention to the case.

The campaign made Iranian officials predictably angry by forcing them into contradictory statements and a desperate effort to mislead public opinion into believing that Sakineh's death sentence had been imposed for murder rather than adultery. Neither the official statements and accusations nor the multiple forced and televised confessions of Sakineh and her son could change the facts that Sakineh had been sentenced to death for adultery (not murder); that the ruling had been unclear regarding even the identity of her alleged partner or partners in adultery; and that the judicial process leading to the stoning sentence had failed to meet international standards or even Iran's own legal standards regarding evidence.

Sakineh's lawyers contributed to the campaign's success by providing certain official documents that forced Iranian judicial authorities to admit the lack of evidence or witnesses in the adultery case. On 1 June 1 2011, Mohammad Javad Larijani, the secretary of the Judiciary's Human Rights Headquarters, directly addressed the issue in words that revealed the impact of the international intervention:

[The West] put the rulings of our judicial system under the microscope, so that on noticing the slightest error they could make a hue and cry. Therefore, judges must pay even greater heed to issuing faultless rulings.. . .The West believes that stoning is not a punishment but a form of torture and that, in that regard, there is no proportion between the crime and the punishment... Unfortunately, the West has succeeded in waging such a campaign on the issue of stoning that even those who have a positive view of our system have been questioning us on it. . . .However, we have to bear in mind that the verdict of stoning, be it against Sakineh Mohammadi [Ashtiani] or any other individual, becomes a subject of political attack and . . . against our system and officials. We should, therefore, act in our own wisdom in that regard... [Iranian Student News Agency, Tehran, June 1, 2011

Today, Sakineh's execution seems to be under review and less likely to be carried out. The authorities released her son after extracting a televised confession from him. Mostafaee, though forced into exile, is safe in Norway. The German journalists, initially accused of spying and sentenced to prison, returned to Germany on 20 February 2011, accompanied by the German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, who paid a one-day visit to Iran. For Hellwig and Koch, the nightmare of four months' imprisonment in the Islamic Republic has ended and perhaps forgotten. For the lawyer who was arrested for the "crime" of talking to them, it goes on.
Javid Houtan Kian is not the only lawyer in Iran who has been unfairly punished. Scores like him are regularly harassed, jailed, or forced to flee into exile for defending sensitive cases and publicizing them. The ranks of those thus treated include Ebadi, Sotoudeh, Khalil Bahramian, Dadkhah, Sadr, Soltani, Seifzadeh, Oliaiyfard Daneshju, Mohammad Seifzadeh, and the list keeps growing. But in Kian's case, the Iranian authorities have used unusually severe torture and kept him quasi-incommunicado since his arrest.

Reportedly, he has been sentenced to prison on charges of spreading antigovernment propaganda and conspiring to disrupt the internal security of the country. Information collected by human-rights groups such as Human Rights Activists in Iran and the Boroumand Foundation indicates that he suffers from serious injuries requiring hospitalization and that the Iranian authorities do not allow inquiries. Naqi Mahmudi, a lawyer who was forced to leave Iran in September 2011 after defending cultural rights activists and attempting to help Kian as well, told me that after some effort, he was allowed to see Kian for half an hour. Mahmudi noted serious weight loss, several missing teeth, and marks of cigarette burns on Kian's body. Worse, he said, Kian resorts to daily doses of painkillers and tranquilizers to calm his physical pain and mental anguish.


An arbitrary judicial process such as the one prevalent in Iran makes defendants like Sakineh even more vulnerable. Without the courage of individuals like Houtan Kian, who refuse to back down in the face of threats and violence, accurate information regarding those unfairly prosecuted or convicted will be much harder to obtain. Houtan Kian is the only among those arrested in Sakineh's case who has not appeared on television to "confess" to some crime and the Iranian authorities have made an example of him. Today, he is alone in his cell and has given up hope. The judges in Tabriz need to hear our voices calling for his release. They need to know that the world will not forget about those who help save the victims of their unjust "justice