As Iran's hard-liners continue cracking down on reformists, they have used their control of the courts to jail scores of journalists, intellectuals, and lawyers. But the legal proceedings can be filled with irregularities, including courts acting outside their normal jurisdiction and prosecutors presenting dubious forms of evidence. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the recent sentencing of prominent lawyer Nasser Zarafshan as one example of how Iran's Judiciary has acted arbitrarily to silence liberals.
Prague, 12 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When a Tehran court sentenced lawyer Nasser Zarafshan in March to 70 lashes and five years' imprisonment, the ruling raised a storm of protest over the irregularities in the trial.
Zarafshan is a prominent member of Iran's legal community who, for the past several years, has irked the country's hard-liners by representing the families of several nationalists and writers assassinated in a series of political murders three and a half years ago.
The assassinations of political opposition leader Darioush Forouhar, his wife Parvaneh, and writers Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh and Mohammad Mokhtari in November 1998 rocked Iran because the hard-line-dominated Intelligence Ministry later said the killings were carried out by its own "rogue" agents -- raising fears of death squads targeting reformist figures.
As the legal representative of the Forouhar and Pouyandeh families, Zarafshan had challenged the Judiciary over what he said was its failure to fully investigate the assassinations. Doing so, he gave voice to the concerns of many Iranian liberals that the political killings might have been ordered by high-ranking authorities. The serial murders are widely seen as unsolved because all efforts to trace responsibility beyond the "rogue" agents was foiled by the death in prison of their alleged ringleader, who officially was said to have committed suicide.
But as Zarafshan has represented the victims' families, Iran's hard-line Judiciary has pursued him in return. In October 2000, a military court unexpectedly charged the lawyer with divulging confidential government documents to the public. The action was surprising because the court normally is responsible for trying members of the armed forces and Revolutionary Guards for infractions of the military code. Nevertheless, it ordered Zarafshan arrested and then, a month later, released him pending trial.
In February of this year, the same court -- the Judicial Organization of the Armed Forces -- gave Zarafshan a closed-door trial. But the trial was complicated by a number of proceedings which human rights groups say cast serious doubts upon the impartiality of the court and the nature of the evidence presented.
The irregularities included not only the doubtful jurisdiction of the court but also the fact that the presiding judge for the trial also was one of the court's prosecutors. There has been no public explanation from the Judiciary as to why the court was selected or why the judge in the case was also a prosecutor.
At the same time, the court accused Zarafshan not only of divulging confidential material but also of keeping weapons and alcohol in his Tehran law firm. Those items were allegedly found during a search of Zarafshan's offices while he was in detention.
Zarafshan summed up the charges against him in a recent interview with Radio Free Europe's Persian Service correspondent Amir Mosaddegh Katouzian. Zarafshan said: "The accusations [against me] are divulging confidential government materials and possession of weapons and alcoholic beverages. With reference to the weapons and alcoholic beverages, I have said repeatedly that these were planted in my work premises while I was detained, so naturally I cannot be held responsible."
The lawyer previously has denied the charges of divulging confidential documents, saying he has never discussed the contents of court files publicly.
Zarafshan also told RFE/RL that the court charged him with violating a Judiciary directive prohibiting anyone from even talking publicly about the assassinations case. He called that directive legally groundless.
"Hundreds of people talked about the serial murders case and nobody was prosecuted until after November 1999, when the head of the Judiciary issued an announcement that 'whoever talks about this case will be prosecuted.' But according to [the Islamic Republic's] law on punishment, only those who commit a crime are punishable, not those who merely talk about a crime," Zarafshan said. "I intend to appeal and defend my innocence."
International human rights groups have sharply criticized the Iranian Judiciary over Zarafshan's case, saying the irregularities in the proceedings raise serious doubts about citizens' ability to receive a fair trial.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement in March that "this conviction reflects the continued determination of key conservative rulers in Iran to silence those who use the judicial system to seek justice and end impunity." It added: "The Iranian people are left wondering where they can seek justice."
Several Iranian newspapers have also criticized the case.
Iran's daily "Bonyan" wrote on 3 April that the fact that the "prosecutor and the judge [in Zarafshan's trial] are one and the same is against the law."
The daily "Nowrouz" on 8 April quoted a member of parliament, Ali Mazroui, as saying that "to prosecute a lawyer for defending his client is unprecedented in the history of our country's judicial system." The paper also reported that the Iranian lawyer's guild, a professional legal association, has vowed to do everything possible to defend Zarafshan.
Iran's liberal press itself has been the target of a continuing hard-line crackdown in response to reformist gains in the February 2000 parliamentary elections. The backlash has seen almost all the country's reformist newspapers shut down.
Iranian dissident lawyers have accused the Judiciary of sentencing Zarafshan specifically to punish him for trying to defend the victims of political murders. Lawyer Mehrangiz Kar, herself jailed in the summer of 2000 for attending a conference in Berlin discussing reform in Iran, expressed that view in a recent interview with RFE/RL correspondent Azam Gorgin.
"Our brave colleague Zarafshan has been sentenced to five years of imprisonment and to flogging and we know why. His only crime was to defend the families of the victims of the serial murders," Kar said.
Kar, who is suffering from cancer, is currently in the United States after being released from prison following an international outcry demanding she be freed to seek life-saving medical treatment abroad.
Zarafshan's sentence comes as the latest in a string of verdicts punishing editors and lawyers seeking to look further into the November 1998 assassinations.
Journalists Akbar Ganji and Emadedine Baghi, who have written about the killings of Iranian intellectuals and political activists since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, were accused of compromising national security and sentenced to long prison terms in 2000. Shirin Ebadi, another lawyer who represented families of the November 1998 murders, was sentenced to prison in 2001.