What you need to know about the Iranian parliament’s vote to investigate human rights lawyers

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human rights lawyers arrested What you need to know about the Iranian parliament’s vote to investigate human rights lawyers

Human rights violations are everybody’s business—whether they happen in our backyard or on the other side of the globe.

On June 28, The Center For Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported that the Iranian parliament voted to investigate the Iranian Bar Association. 

The New York-based independent, non-partisan, and non-profit organization says the vote is a ploy by the Iranian regime to persecute human rights lawyers “who serve as the last remaining hope for defendants facing politically motivated charges in the judicial system. 

The latest move is a “state campaign aimed to crush dissent, plain and simple, says the organization.

The CHRI’s Director, Hadi Ghaemi, is calling for bar associations and international human rights groups around the world—as well as by government and United Nations officials—to strongly condemn the assault on justice in Iran. 

Here’s what you need to know.

1) In January, the CHRI reported that at least 44 defense attorneys have been arrested since September 

After the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody in September 2022, it was widely reported that the Islamic Republic was gunning down and executing protestors. 

Defense attorneys were also targeted as the regime aimed to block their ability to see justice for arbitrarily arresting activists and street protestors, according to on-the-ground research by CHRI

44 defense attorneys were arrested, even violently. And more than 100 lawyers have been summoned to court. 

CHRI research has also uncovered that four lawyers have been hanged in brief, closed trials where independent counsel was denied; 20 are on death row; and at least 42 are facing charges that can carry the death penalty.

2) There are several groups of lawyers in Iran

It’s important to understand that there are several groups of lawyers in Iran. CHRI spoke to a lawyer on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

“First, there are independent human rights lawyers who will take cases regarding prisoners whose rights are being denied. These lawyers will speak to the media to generate public support for their clients and will refuse to cooperate with the security agencies.”

The lawyer who wishes to remain anonymous said the second kind are public defenders who cannot afford legal counsel. “Some of them do their job responsibly, but others do not.”

The third group of lawyers—referred to as “telephone lawyers”—who have the approval of the judiciary. “Then there are some lawyers who closely cooperate with security officials,” the lawyer added.

What this means is that without independent counsel, which is an obligatory due process right, a fair trial is rendered impossible. 

“Public defenders either lack the experience in the defense of human rights, or are themselves in cahoots with Iran’s security agencies,” says CHRI. “And the state-appointed attorneys in Iran designated for so-called ‘national security’ cases uniformly do the bidding of the security agencies. 

3) Detainees are forced to use lawyers from a list approved by the Judiciary Chief 

The list—which has to be approved by Judiciary Chief Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei—is a known human rights violator, says CHRI.

The organization reports that only includes court-approved lawyers who either collaborate with the state security establishment or who do not have the resources to defend their clients.

“Due process in line with internationally recognized standards hasn’t existed in the Islamic Republic for decades,” said Ghaemi. “Yet there are still lawyers in the country who try to squeeze out any form of defense they can for their clients, or advocate for them publicly, which is why the Islamic Republic is jailing them.”

The government has been trying to destroy the independence of the Bar Association—namely through Article 48 of the Criminal Code Procedure. This allows courts to force defendants held in cases involving politically motivated charges to choose lawyers.

“The Islamic Republic is trying to silence dissent from every angle, including by killing or jailing those who raise their voices and completely eliminating defendants’ right to a fair trial,” Ghaemi emphasized. 

4) The pre-approved lawyers are usually from religious families who are loyal to the Islamic Republic 

Mehdi Davoudzadeh, a senior member of the Iranian Bar Association, said in an interview on January 2 that prisoners charged in connection with recent protests were being assigned lawyers that are linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Basij paramilitary force.

“They are closely managed by the security agencies and are recommended to families of prisoners on trial in the [Islamic] Revolutionary Court, usually presided by Judge Abolqasem Salavati or Judge Asef Al-Hosseini,” said the lawyer, who was interviewed by CHRI on the condition of anonymity.

CHRI emphasizes that even in cases where a court-appointed lawyer does attempt to seek justice, their attempts are severely hindered by the speed at which the defendants are sentenced: 

“Lawyers are frequently given hours or even minutes to review extensive case files—or denied access to the files to begin with—and are thus simply denied adequate time to prepare a defense.”

The organization points to the case of 22-year-old Mohammad Mehdi Karami who was sentenced to death by the Islamic Revolutionary Court in just one week. The entire judicial process—from the time of his arrest to the time of his hanging on January 7, 2023—was completed in just two months.

The father of Karami had said in an interview on December 12, 2022, that he has been relentlessly calling the lawyer who was appointed by the judiciary to his son’s case. “This lawyer hasn’t even given me his office address,” he said. 

5) The Iranian Bar Association—even though it’s an independent body that doesn’t receive public funding—“is being subjected to a bogus investigation,” says Ghaemi

“It also happens to be unlawful,” Hadi Ghaemi emphasized. “This is essentially a state-sponsored persecution under the guise of a legal process.”

The Iranian Parliament’s internal regulations say that the legislative branch can only investigate government bodies or organizations that receive funding from the national budget. 

Not only should the investigation be called out by bar associations but CHRI also urges bar associations to highlight individual cases of imprisoned and detained human rights lawyers. 

Their persecution should be strongly condemned in international forums such as legal conferences. 

There should also be attention placed on the denial of due process in the Islamic Republic. “This includes death penalty cases where lives are at stake,” says CHRI. 

6) On June 27, the Islamic State passed a motion to investigate operations of bar associations

CHRI reported that a motion titled “The Request to Investigate the Operations of Bar Associations and their Union” was passed in Iran’s parliament by 158 votes in favor, 20 against and 3 abstentions on June 27, 2023.

“The investigation will enable the judiciary chief, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, and state security agencies including the Intelligence Ministry and the intelligence organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to scrutinize bar associations throughout the country as well as their central union in Tehran.”

There is more proof that parliament has granted the state unlawful powers over the legal profession: 

The state security apparatus will also be empowered with “reviewing the legal qualification” of lawyers who are members of the bar, which will enable it to pick and choose which lawyers are allowed to officially work in the country, says CHRI. 

7) The “investigation” gives security forces full access and control

The new legislation states that members of parliament and state security agencies will pursue ten avenues in the inquiry. 

This will include collecting bar association membership lists, “under the pretense of evaluating the lawyers’ legal competence,” says CHRI. 

They will examine the bar association’s budget, income, as well as its associated offices around the country. They’ll also look into the union and how the income is allocated and spent. 

“[They will also examine] how elections are held for the board of directors of the bar associations and the union. These measures are intended to strip the association of its independence, while enabling the state to control its internal affairs.”

CHRI says independent lawyers who have managed to secure representation for detained activists, protesters, dissidents, and journalists during this time have been denied access to case files and the ability to meet their clients so that they can prepare a proper defense. 

8) Independence of the bar association has actually been under attack for years

The Iranian Bar Association is one of the oldest professional institutions in Iran. 

CHRI says that according to the 1954 Bar Independence Law, the association has its own special self-regulating structure. 

The independence of the Bar Association is therefore legally recognized, and its affairs are managed based on self-disciplinary principles. It does not rely on public funds.

“But the Iranian government has been working to block access to internationally recognized standards of due process in the judicial system for decades, including arbitrarily arresting independent lawyers, some of whom have been blocked from working, and/or forced to leave the country.”

There are still lawyers in the country who try to squeeze out any form of defense they can for their clients, or advocate for them publicly, which is why the Islamic Republic is jailing them, says Ghaemi. 

“Human rights lawyers have been a lifeline and voice for activists seeking basic rights, so the authorities are trying to eliminate the last few lawyers in Iran still able and willing to take on these cases.”

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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