Iran seeks to further clamp down on ‘obstacle’ of human rights lawyers

Iran seeks to further clamp down on ‘obstacle’ of human rights lawyers

A group of lawyers and their family members protest outside the Iranian Bar Association in Tehran in December 2014. Among them is Nasrin Sotoudeh (bottom row, fourth from right), who is now serving a long prison sentence. (HRANA)

The Iranian judiciary is seeking to further tighten its grip on the legal system by looking to replace the Iranian Bar Association with a group of government-appointed officials. 

If the proposed bill passes through parliament, the Iranian Bar Association will have finally lost a battle to maintain independence that it has been fighting ever since gaining independence in 1954, and especially since the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Iran’s lawyers, particularly those who take on contentious cases involving human rights issues including religious freedom, are under intense pressure and scrutiny, and several are currently serving long jail sentences for shining a light on rights violations.

Among them is Amirsalar Davoudi, whose clients include the Iranian Christian convert Nasser Navard Gol-Tapeh, alongside whom Mr Davoudi is now incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin Prison.

Article18 spoke with Dr Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, co-founder of the Norway-based NGO Iran Human Rights, to better understand the potential ramifications of the new bill, which was presented to parliament at the end of the last Iranian calendar year in March.

What is behind the Iranian judiciary’s attempt to modify the Iranian Bar Association?

Dr Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam (Twitter)

“We should keep in mind that while the Islamic Republic is among the most repressive regimes in the world, the current Iranian constitution provides some degree of due process and rule of law. During the last two decades, the Iranian authorities have been facing increasing reactions, especially from the international community, for their violations of human rights. These reactions have increased the political cost of their violations and have prevented then from going even further in their crackdown of dissidents. This is the reason why they don’t execute people after their arrest on the streets, as they used to do in early 1980s. 

“Independent lawyers, like those who are in prison now, have always played an important role in directing the attention towards serious human rights violations and have been considered as obstacles by the authorities. So the Islamic Republic has always wanted to get rid of these lawyers but has not managed to do so, because at the same time they want to show the international community that there is a civil society and some degree of rule of law in the country, and in that way ease the pressure.

“A win-win situation for them would be having only lawyers who are loyal to the system, so that they don’t need to deny people lawyers [of their own choosing], as they often do now. So the current charter is a result of a long project which has been delayed due to opposition from lawyers and the legal community.”

Several lawyers supporting social and political activists have been sent to jail. What impact would this charter have upon such lawyers?

“The Iranian Bar Association has been one of the only semi-independent associations existing in Iran. It is also the only part of the Iranian legal system which has managed to keep some of its independence. The authorities have for many years tried to control it completely but have always met with resistance from the lawyers. 

“With the new charter they would move the authority of issuing lawyers’ right to practise from the Bar Association to the judiciary, making the Bar Association less relevant and promoting only lawyers who are loyal to the system. 

“In this way, they won’t need to harass, persecute and jail the lawyers who will mainly be loyal to the system. This will pave the way for an even harder crackdown on activists and dissidents, and human rights violations will be less costly for the authorities.”

For the last four decades, the judges of the Islamic Republic have condemned thousands of people to prison and death just for their beliefs, including Baha’is, environmentalists, political activists and Christians. What impact would the passing of this bill have upon people in such cases?

“It will make it easier for the authorities to put pressure on independent lawyers by not extending their license to practise as lawyers – rather than putting them in jail, which has higher political costs.”

In your opinion, why have the judiciary decided to push for this change now?

“They have tried to do so for so many years but haven’t managed it. The Islamic Republic has entered a new phase. They feel more threatened by the increasing public anger towards the system. They know that they will have to use even more violence against the people in order to keep power. Under these circumstances, their tolerance for any criticism is lower than ever. 

“On the other hand, the new head of the judiciary is known for his blunt brutality – he played a key role in the mass execution of several thousand political prisoners in 1988 – so it is both out of necessity and also because they have the right people in the right positions to do so.”


Judge Mohammad Moghiseh last year increased the bail of five Christian converts tenfold after they insisted on choosing their own lawyer. (Photo: Fars/Ali Khara)

Iran’s failure to ensure everyone is allowed a fair trial has been highlighted on numerous occasions by rights groups, as well as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman.

In his most recent report, Mr Rehman noted that prisoners charged with national-security crimes – such as all current Christian prisoners of conscience – are only permitted to choose a lawyer from a list approved by the head of the judiciary, in line with article 48 of the Iranian Code of Criminal Procedure. 

Mr Rehman’s report said article 48 “undermines the independence of the legal profession” and is a “serious impediment to due process and the right to a fair trial”.

Article18 has reported several instances of Christians being denied access to a lawyer of their choosing – most recently in the case of Mary Mohammadi, while last year five Christian converts from the northern city of Rasht had their bail increased tenfold when they insisted on choosing their own lawyer. They are now serving five-year prison sentences.