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The Cost of Defending The Rule of Law - Four Decades of Persecution of Lawyers in Iran

February 26, 2019

“[150 years ago] the country’s problems came down to one thing: a lack of law. Now the country’s problems come down to the ‘law’ itself.”

-Lawyer Qasem Sho’leh Sa’di, November 2016

 

Today, on the occasion of Iran’s Lawyers’ Day and the 65th anniversary of the passage of a law for the independence of Iranian lawyers,[1] Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC) launches its new project, The Cost of Defending the Rule of Law: Four Decades of Persecution of Lawyers in Iran. By featuring cases of prosecution of members of the legal profession in a broader context, ABC begins to link scattered, individual accounts with a broader campaign by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s officials to undermine the rule of law, the independence of lawyers, and the rights of defendants. The absence of significant changes in laws and judicial practices in Iran is not due to any lack of strong opposition to discriminatory and punitive laws or to weak support for reforms. This timeline is a window on four decades of efforts by Iranian lawyers to defend the rule of law and the rights of their clients, to perform their own professional duties, as well as the state’s systematic policy of silencing such lawyers, thereby hindering a key force for reform.  

The past forty years have seen a radical reversal of a modernization trend in Iran’s justice system that began with the 1906 Constitutional movement, which led to the creation of the first judiciary.[2] In the middle part of the 20th century Iranian lawyers saw appreciable gains in their legal situation. On February 26, 1954, the Law for the Independence of Lawyers, introduced during Mohammad Mosadeq’s tenure as Prime Minister, was signed into law, granting great independence to the Bar Association by affording lawyers immunity from prosecution for their work.[3]

Following the victory of the Revolution on February 11, 1979, members of the legal profession, some of whom were supporters of the revolution, insisted that the new order respect the rule of law. On February 27, 1979, the Bar Association published an open letter declaring “strong belief in and allegiance to the principles of freedom, defense of rights, and the establishment of the people’s absolute right to govern” and the need for the newly-open political space to facilitate “the revival of the complete powers of the courts and of a strong and independent judiciary.”[4]

Starting with the founding referendum,[5] the revolutionary tribunals, and the writing of the constitution[6] and ranging through the bill to introduce lex talionis (qesas)sentencing for homicide cases,[7] the timeline sheds light on the stories of Iranian legal professionals who have fiercely contested post-revolutionary laws and practices and sought justice and the repercussions they have faced for doing so. Massive politically motivated purges[8][9] (including 141 lawyers in 1983 alone), the closure of the Bar Association, bans from courtrooms and practicing law, threats,[10] detentions, and imprisonment[11] have succeeded in silencing many lawyers, [12] but they have also motivated many others to fight for the rule of law and their clients.

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“There is no room in Revolutionary Courts for defense lawyers because they keep quoting laws to play for time, and this tries the patience of the people.”
- Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, first Sharia judge and chief justice of the Revolutionary Courts, 1979

“If a defense attorney is at the service of the truth, it is a very good thing, but if a defense attorney is at the service of the defendant - the defendant being right or wrong - this is against the principles of Islam.”
-Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, founding head of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary, 1981

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For anyone who has dealt with the Iranian justice system in the forty years after the 1979 revolution, which replaced the monarchy with a first-of-its-kind theocracy, these words from Khalkhali and Beheshti - two prominent figures in the system mandated by founder Ayatollah Khomeini - have proven themselves more than rhetoric. They are emblematic of the new regime’s fundamental aversion to the rule of law; one at odds with the fundamental rights of citizens, the right to defense, and the principle of judicial independence. One group in particular has born the brunt of this vision: lawyers, professionals tasked with upholding the rule of law and defending citizens against injustice. The much-needed attention to their cases, however, has been neither systematic nor consistent.

Today, on Iran’s Lawyers’ Day, ABC is bringing the stories of their struggles to light in a new way. By creating this timeline, ABC is responding to a need that the 2018 protests have made urgent: 11 lawyers have been arbitrarily detained by Iran’s judiciary in 2018 alone. Mohammad Najafi, who attempted to follow up on the case of a suspicious death in custody of a young man arrested in connection with widespread protests in early 2018, and Nasrin Sotudeh, who took on the cases of women who protested the mandatory hijab, are just two of them. Even the lawyers of lawyers have not been safe: Payam Darafshan, the lawyer who took on both Najafi and Sotudeh’s case, was arrested in connection with his work. By giving their causes and their persecution the attention they deserve, civil society, the international community, and the media will make the state’s effort to undermine lawyers’ struggle for change and their independence more difficult. 

Access the Timeline

 

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[1] https://www.iranrights.org/fa/library/document/3530
[2] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/2016
[3] February 2019 Deustche Welle interview with Shirin Ebadi https://www.dw.com/fa-ir/opinion/a-47337899
[4] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/251
[5] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/1552
[6] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/1551
[7] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/1548
[8] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/1555
[9] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/179
[10] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/3412
[11] https://www.iranrights.org/library/document/21
[12] https://www.iranrights.org/newsletter/issue/36/human-rights-day-reflecting-on-the-dire-circumstances-of-lawyers-in-iran