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Iranian authorities are escalating their crackdown on lawyers

Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh talks to supporters outside the bar association during her daily sit-in protesting a decision banning her from law practice, in Tehran, Iran, 14 December 2014
Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh talks to supporters outside the bar association during her daily sit-in protesting a decision banning her from law practice, in Tehran, Iran, 14 December 2014

Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 13 December 2018.

Iranian authorities have escalated their crackdown on lawyers, Human Rights Watch said today. Over the past month, revolutionary courts have sentenced at least three lawyers to long prison terms for their human rights activism and security forces have arrested another one.

On December 10, 2018, the Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) reported that a revolutionary court had sentenced Qasem Sholehsadi and Arash Keykhosravi, human rights lawyers arrested during a gathering in front of parliament on August 18, to six years in prison. Mohammad Najafi, a human rights lawyer who is serving a three-year sentence for exposing torture in prison, has been sentenced to an additional 13 years for two other sets of charges, his lawyer, Payam Derafshan told Human Rights Watch. Authorities have detained Amir Salar Davoudi, another human rights lawyer, since November 20.

"Now Iran is not only arresting dissidents, human rights defenders, and labor leaders, but their lawyers as well, criminalizing their fundamental freedoms," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Lawyers should be the cornerstone of protecting the rights of the accused, but in Iran, they are just another enemy of repressive authorities."

Davoudi's lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he has not been able to meet with his client or read the charges against him. He said he believes Davoudi, who is in Evin prison, is facing charges of "propaganda against the state" and "insulting the Supreme Leader" and that authorities are also trying to charge him with "assembly and collusion to act against national security."

Judge Abolghassem Salavati at branch 15 of Tehran's revolutionary court sentenced Sholehsadi on the charge of "assembly and collusion to act against national security" to five years in prison and an additional year for "propaganda against the state." Salavati used a video message Sholehsadi posted on social media saying that he would demonstrate in front of the parliament and his peaceful gathering in front of parliament as the sole evidence against him, a source confirmed on December 11. Keykhosravi was sentenced on similar charges.

The Arak revolutionary court, in Markazi province, sentenced Najafi to 10 years in prison on the charge of "cooperating with an enemy state through transferring information and news to anti-revolutionary networks…" and to another 3 years for "propaganda against the state and insulting the Supreme Leader," Derafshan told Human Rights Watch. The court used the defendant's confession of chanting "death to the dictator" during a demonstration to charge him with "insulting the Supreme leader," though Najafi said in court that he was not referring to the Supreme Leader in his chant.

The authorities had already sentenced Najafi to prison in reprisal for his role in exposing Vahid Heydari's death in custody in January and reporting that Heydari's body bore marks of torture and other ill-treatment. On July 26, Branch 2 of Arak's criminal court sentenced Najafi to three years in prison for "disrupting public order through unconventional acts such as chanting slogans" and "publishing false information to disturb public opinion." He began serving his sentence on October 28.

On August 31, the authorities arrested Derafshan and another human rights lawyer, Farokh Forouzan, when they were visiting Keykhosravi's family. Derafshan, Forouzan, Sholehsadi, and Keykhosravi have been released temporarily on bail.

Since June, the Intelligence Ministry has arrested several human rights lawyers and activists, including the prominent human rights defender Nasrin Sotoudeh; her husband, Reza Khandan; and Farhad Meysami for their peaceful activism against compulsory hijab laws. Meysami has reportedly been on a hunger strike since August 1, and his health condition has drastically deteriorated.

Sotoudeh is facing several charges, including for her efforts to represent women who protested compulsory hijab laws and her public support of the group Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to reducing executions in Iran.

Freedoms of assembly and expressions are guaranteed under international human rights law. Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a party, recognizes the right to peaceful assembly, stating that "no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."

The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers provide that lawyers must be allowed to carry out their work "without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference." In addition, it affirms the right of lawyers to freedom of expression, also provided for in Article 19 of the ICCPR, which includes "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."

"Iran's authorities are incinerating what remains of fundamental freedoms to cover up their manifold abuses against their own citizens," Page said.

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