Iran’s Corrupt Courts: Rezaian’s Former Lawyer Speaks out
Under Iranian law, people facing criminal charges have the right to choose a lawyer. But in reality, this often does not happen, particularly in cases against journalists and activists and where a defendant faces serious charges such as threatening national security or espionage. Often in these cases, Iran’s judiciary coerces the defendant, forcing the accused to appoint counsel it approves and selects. In many cases, defendants appoint lawyers of their choice only to be pressured into dismissing them.
So why, when the right to choose a lawyer is enshrined in Iran’s constitution and stipulated in the country’s Citizenship Rights Law, does this happen? What lawyers does Iran’s judiciary approve, and why?
Prominent human rights lawyer Masoud Shafii has defended 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). He has also faced dismissal and has been banned from working on some of Iran’s most important security crime cases, including the cases of three of the four Iranian-US prisoners released on January 16 — Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, former marine and games developer Amir Hekmati, and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini.
Shafii says the families of Rezaian, Hekmati and Abedini chose him as their legal counsel, but the court pressured the families into dismissing him.When I talked to him in February 2015 about the case of Jason Rezaian and the judiciary’s ban on him taking up the case, he said, “When Jason Rezaian’s family came to me for the first time, they told me that I was their first option, but that they had been told by the authorities that my license had been revoked, and that I could not take Jason’s case (or any other cases).” But Shafii insisted this was not true and that his license had never been revoked. Once he pointed that out to the family, Rezaian’s wife, Yeganeh Salehi, told Shafii that they wanted to appoint him. He says they met six or seven times to discuss the case but that soon after, Salehi informed Shafii that a young lawyer, Leila Ahsan, had contacted her and insisted that she would represent Rezaian.
“Yeganeh had previously assigned Ahsan as her own lawyer because she had the feeling that the court approved of her and that, because of this, she might be able to advance her case. But regarding Jason, both Jason and Yeganeh, and also Jason’s brother and mother, asked me.” But despite this, Shafii was blocked from defending Rezaian’s case.
“She was clearly welcomed by the judiciary. I remember at times when I was not allowed into the building of the Revolutionary Court, she stood in front of the door with Yeganeh and took her upstairs with her. That might have given a client an impression that when a lawyer cannot even enter the building, how can he defend their case?
Now that Jason Rezaian and three other Iranian-US dual nationals — all had faced charges of espionage — are free, I asked Shafii how the judiciary decided which lawyers it favored, and how this impacts on the cases. He said it was quite simple: Independent lawyers who are not afraid to speak to the media face extreme discrimination, especially if, he says, “they are not afraid to speak about the case to the media and to the public and do public advocacy when they see breach of law in the procedure.”
Iran’s judiciary also pressured clients of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and prominent lawyer Shirin Ebadi before she was forced to leave the country in 2009. One of his interrogators told the journalist Roozbeh Mir-Ebrahimi, who was arrested in autumn 2004, that if he did not dismiss Ebadi as his lawyer, he would have his prison sentence extended by five years. Ebadi agrees with Shafii’s assessment of how the judiciary deals with lawyers: “The judiciary does not like lawyers who speak to the media and raise awareness to the public regarding breaches of law.” She says these breaches are often committed by the judiciary itself, so it is understandable that that part of government would try to maintain full control over who is saying what about sensitive cases. “The judiciary tries its best to make sure these lawyers do not take up important cases,” she says. “Many of my clients were pressured by the judiciary to dismiss me. Some were afraid and did so and some (like the seven Baha’i leaders currently in prison) did not. I was told many times by the judge and the prosecutor that I could say whatever I wanted at the court. So why should I need to give interviews? My response was always that it was true that I could say whatever I wanted at the court, but the judge would never listen to my defense — he would always make his decision in advance.”
By highlighting the importance of the public knowing what is going on in the judiciary, Ebadi is pointing out one of the key flaws in the Iranian justice system: run by an elite, powerful group that rarely goes unchallenged, it values maintaining and upholding the existing establishment over honoring the rights of its people.
“When I have no hope in the judiciary, I speak to the public,” says Ebadi. “That is why the judiciary is not fond of independent lawyers — because they don’t keep silent about the injustices of the judiciary. They do not let the judiciary and the interrogators intimidate their clients and take advantage of their clients’ vulnerability or lack of knowledge about their rights.”