Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

As the Islamic Republic’s crackdown on nationwide protests sparked by the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini on September 16, 2022 continues, thousands of protesters have been subjected to detention, beating, torture, and summary trials and convictions in flagrant violation of due process of law. Lawyers who attempt to defend them are also intimidated, silenced, and prosecuted. While Iran marks Lawyer’s Day and the 70th anniversary of the passage of a law for the independence of the country’s Bar Association,[1] at least 48 lawyers have been arrested, and 10 sentenced, after representing protest detainees or raising awareness of detainees’ rights.
Lawyers are key players in the struggle for human rights. When defendants face a highly repressive state with formidable resources to silence citizens and advance its own narrative in the court of public opinion, and where the judiciary lacks independence and transparency, the role of lawyers is crucial. At times, it is life-saving. "How can the international community expect human rights improvements in a context where rights defenders, those who call for change, are arrested and lawyers defending them are persecuted?" said Roya Boroumand, Executive Director of Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC).
The Islamic Republic must be asked hard questions and held to account for ignoring due process of law and its international commitments regarding lawyers specifically, as developed in the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers.[2] Iran should be reminded that it must “ensure that lawyers… are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference… [and they] shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.” If Iran sees fit to persecute close to 50 lawyers in the context of the current protests, it is because it has faced no real consequences for its blatant violations of the right to defense and its attacks on the legal profession for over four decades.
The story of Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi is a case in point. Ebadi undertook to represent the family of Ezzat Ebrahimnejhad, who was shot in the head with his hands tied behind his back in a protest that followed a brutal raid on a Tehran University dormitory in July 1999.[3] In June 2000, she was herself arrested for recording incriminating statements by a Basij whistleblower, while the court accused Ebrahimnejad post mortem of having acted against national security[4] and acquitted those responsible for the dormitory attack.[5] Ebadi is one of hundreds of cases of lawyers persecuted by the Islamic Republic’s judiciary because they raised public awareness regarding courts that denied them access to clients, case files, or courtrooms, among other issues, or simply because they represented protesters pro-bono. This trend has successfully deterred many lawyers from representing clients in politically-motivated prosecutions. The lawyers who have bravely stepped forward to defend protesters are paying a hefty price.
See ABC’s Timeline: “The Cost of Defending the Rule of Law: Four Decades of Persecution of Lawyers in Iran.”
  • Ali Sharifzadeh Ardakani, who represented Mohammad Hosseini, a protester put to death on January 7, 2023, was charged with “propaganda against the regime” and interrogated at the Branch Seven Public and Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office of Karaj after Tweeting about Hosseini’s account of being tortured during interrogations and criticizing the hastiness of his execution. A judge also ordered he cease activity on Twitter and Instagram for a year.[6]
  • Sina Yousefi, the vice chairman of the Lawyers' Human Rights Commission in East Azerbaijan Province, was sentenced to six months in prison and banned from leaving the country for two years, after being arrested on October 15, 2022, the day after he announced the formation of the Commission. His electronic devices were also confiscated.[7] On his Twitter page, he described the reason for his prosecution as “performing my essential duty and defending the people’s legal rights.”[8]
  • Saeed Sheikh was arrested on October 12 at a rally in front of the Iran Central Bar Association in the Iranian capital. The rally was held to protest against the violation of protesters' rights and turned violent with the intervention of the security forces. Sheikh has been sentenced to three years in prison on the charges of "gathering and colluding against the country's security" and "propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran" by Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran.[9]
  • Mostafa Nili was arrested on November 7, 2022 at an airport while on his way to pursue legal affairs related to the protests in Sistan and Baluchistan Province. He was taken to Evin prison and judicial officials announced that a previous four-year prison sentence of his would be implemented.[10]
  • Amir Afshar Najafi has been sentenced to five months in prison on the charge of “spreading falsehoods with the intent of agitating the public mind,” and two-year bans on working as a lawyer, leaving the country, and using a cellphone, on the charge of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”[11]
  • Reza Hamzeyi, a member of the Bar Association in Qazvin province, has been sentenced to one year in prison and banned from practicing law for two years on the charge of "propaganda activity against the Islamic Republic” by Branch One of the Revolutionary Court in Qazvin.[12]
These arrests and prosecutions are a symptom of a radical 44-year-old reversal of a modernization trend in Iran’s justice system that had begun with the 1906 Constitutional movement and led to the creation of the country’s first judiciary.[13] In the mid-1950s, Iranian lawyers saw appreciable gains in their legal situation and independence. The "Bill of Independence of the Iranian Bar Association," signed into law on February 26, 1953 by then-Prime Minister Mohammad Mosadeq, ensured the Bar Association’s free elections and financial independence from the state and granted lawyers immunity from prosecution for performing their duties.[14]
In 1979, the revolutionary committees and tribunals, plain clothes pressure groups known as Hezbollahis, and the shadowy Revolutionary Council of the newly established Islamic Republic dealt a serious blow to the legal profession and to the rule of law in general. On February 27, 1979, the Bar Association published an open letter calling for an independent judiciary and the rule of law.[15] Lawyers questioned and contested the founding referendum,[16] the revolutionary tribunals, the writing of the constitution[17] and the introduction of the lex talionis (“eye for an eye”) law.[18] As a result, they faced massive, politically motivated purges[19] (141 lawyers lost their licenses in 1983 alone) and imprisonment. Many were forced into exile and the authorities closed the Bar Association for over ten years. Loss of licenses, threats,[20] detentions, and imprisonments[21]continue to date with grave consequences for defendants and the state of human rights in Iran.[22]
The rights and duties of lawyers have been clearly articulated in international human rights law. In 1990, the UN’s Eighth Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders adopted a set of Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers.[23] These Principles cite major human rights instruments that Iran’s parliament adopted decades ago, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Key parts of the Principles underscore guarantees for the functioning of lawyers and their freedom of expression and association:
Guarantees for the functioning of lawyers

16. Governments shall ensure that lawyers (a) are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference; (b) are able to travel and to consult with their clients freely both within their own country and abroad; and (c) shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.

19. No court or administrative authority before whom the right to counsel is recognized shall refuse to recognize the right of a lawyer to appear before it for his or her client unless that lawyer has been disqualified in accordance with national law and practice and in conformity with these principles.

21. It is the duty of the competent authorities to ensure lawyers access to appropriate information, files and documents in their possession or control in sufficient time to enable lawyers to provide effective legal assistance to their clients. Such access should be provided at the earliest appropriate time.

Freedom of expression and association

23. Lawyers like other citizens are entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly. In particular, they shall have the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights and to join or form local, national or international organizations and attend their meetings, without suffering professional restrictions by reason of their lawful action or their membership in a lawful organization. In exercising these rights, lawyers shall always conduct themselves in accordance with the law and the recognized standards and ethics of the legal profession.
More than three decades after their formulation, the judiciary of the Islamic Republic routinely flouts these principles. In the context of Iran, one of the world’s most active executioner states (576 in 2022 and 91 as of February 27, 2023, according to data collected by ABC), the failure to respect the independence and the rights of lawyers can have fatally grave consequences.
“The weaponization of criminal procedures to punish people for exercising their basic rights – such as those participating in or organizing demonstrations - amounts to state sanctioned killing.”
- UN human rights chief Volker Türk[24]
The Islamic Republic officials’ falsehoods and propaganda, such as those in today’s statement by Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian to the UN Human Rights Council, should not be left unaddressed. Iranian officials should not feel comfortable ignoring the security forces’ arbitrary and illegal use of force and blaming violence on “malign interference by some terrorist elements” supported by Persian media based outside Iran and foreign governments. Iran’s officials should be asked hard questions including about the total opacity of their justice system and why lawyers face prosecution and prison for performing legitimate duties.  Amir Abdollahian should not be allowed to get away with statements such as “all those arrested have been released.”[25] He should be called up to provide the names of all detainees and detailed information about the cases of those sentenced to death and the hundreds who have been summarily prosecuted and convicted.[26]
Iran’s political system is at odds with the rule of law. It has survived because it silences dissenting voices judicially and extrajudicially, both on its territory and outside it.[27] The international community must hold Iran accountable for not respecting the rights of lawyers, who play a vital role in Iran’s human rights context. “Until its decades-long assault on the legal profession’s independence is halted and reversed, Iran’s rulers will be able to deny citizens the necessary space and safety to organize, hold the state accountable, and improve their human rights situation,” said Boroumand.
[1] https://www.iranrights.org/fa/library/document/3530
[2] Adopted by the Eight Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders in 1990: https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/166/basic-principles-on-the-role-of-lawyers
[3] See the National Security High Council Report of the incident https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/3916
[4] Witness testimony of Shirin Ebadi, https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/3598; Omid Memorial entry for Ezzat Ebrahimnejad, https://www.iranrights.org/memorial/story/-5108/ezzatollah-ebrahimnejad
[5] Acquittal For Law Enforcement Officers Charged With 1999 University Dormitory Attack, July 12, 2000, https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/619/aquittal-for-law-enforcement-officers-charged-with-1999-university-dormitory-attack
[6] Radio Farda, January 14, 2023, https://www.radiofarda.com/a/32223440.html; Voice of America Persian, February 3, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQ7h7W0UdSA
[7] Vokala Press, December 13, 2022, https://vokalapress.ir/وکیل-سینا-یوسفی-به-حبس،-ممنوعیت-خروج-از/; HRANA, December 13, 2022, https://www.hra-news.org/2022/hranews/a-38323/
[8] https://twitter.com/SinaYousefilaw/status/1602296641528143873?s=20
[9] Vokala Press, December 30, 2022 https://vokalapress.ir/وکیل-سعید-شیخ-به-سه-سال-حبس-محکوم-شده-اس/
[10] Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, January 10, 2023,, https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-imprisoned-lawyer-nili-wont-attend-court-hearing-protest/32217525.html
[11] Vokala Press, January 23, 2023, https://vokalapress.ir/وکیل-امیر-افشار-نجفی-علاوه-بر-حبس،-به-دو/; Twitter account of Amir Afshar Najafi, January 22, 2023, https://twitter.com/amirafs12858883/status/1617222151316344833
[12] HRANA, December 5, 2022, https://www.hra-news.org/2022/hranews/a-38169/
[13] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/2016
[14] February 2019 Deutsche Welle interview with Shirin Ebadi,  https://www.dw.com/fa-ir/opinion/a-47337899
[15] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/251
[16]  https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/1552
[17] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/155
[18] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/1548
[19] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/1555, https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/179
[20] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/341
[21] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/21
[22] https://www.iranrights.org/newsletter/issue/36/human-rights-day-reflecting-on-the-dire-circumstances-of-lawyers-in-iran
[23] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/166/basic-principles-on-the-role-of-lawyers
[24] https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/01/respect-lives-voices-iranians-and-listen-grievances-pleads-un-human-rights
[25] https://media.un.org/en/asset/k1m/k1mcw9lu5a
[26]By November 22, the judiciary had announced that criminal complaints had been issued for 1,118 people in connection with the protests, and initial verdicts - including convictions and rulings of innocence - had been issued for 2,432 people (Javan Online, November 22, https://www.javanonline.ir/fa/news/1117645/صدور-۱۱۱۸-کیفرخواست-در-اغتشاشات-اخیر.) On December 13, Ministry of Justice authority in Tehran Province declared 400 people had been given jail sentences in connection with the protests in that province alone (IRNA, December 13, 2022, https://www.irna.ir/news/84969099/۴۰۰-اغتشاشگر-در-تهران-به-حبس-محکوم-شدند).
[27] https://www.iranrights.org/newsletter/issue/120