WASHINGTON -- "I was the lawyer of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani and I had the right to defend her," Iranian lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei says of the case that has drawn international attention. Mostafaei was defending Ashtiani, the Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery when Iranian officials jailed his wife, her brother, and his father-in-law in an apparent attempt to pressure him to back down.
In his first interview after fleeing Iran and surfacing in Turkey, Mostafaei talked to RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari, condemning the Iranian judiciary for taking his wife "hostage" and vowing that he will never surrender to Iranian authorities. He also talked about the circumstances under which he was forced to escape Iran and leave his family, including his 7-year-old daughter, behind. (Mostafaei was reportedly taken into custody by Turkish authorities and the UN's refugee agency has said he should be allowed to apply for asylum.)
RFE/RL: What were the conditions that forced you to leave Iran and how did you end up in Turkey?
Mohammad Mostafaei: On July 24, I was summoned to the prosecutor's bureau of Shahid Moghdas, which is at Evin prison. I went there at 9 a.m. and I was questioned for some three hours about my work. He finally told me, "You’re free to go." I left Evin and called my wife from somebody else's phone -- since I didn't have a phone with me -- and told her that my problem was solved and I was out. I had several meetings later, so at 5 p.m. I went to my office. I was told that several people had [already] come to arrest me. I talked to my wife, who said someone had called from the prosecutor's office and said that I had to go [to that office] or I would be arrested. It was [very serious] for me to hear that they wanted to arrest me. I waited in my office but no one came. Later, my father-in-law told me that police had arrested my wife, Fereshteh, and her brother, Farhad Halimi. When I heard that, I became determined not to give myself in and told myself that I will bear whatever will come.
After several days [officials] made it clear that they were holding my wife and [her brother] as hostages and that, until I gave myself in, they wouldn't let them go. I decided to leave Iran, and since I knew that I would be prevented from doing so, I crossed the border into Turkey and made it to the city of Van. There, I got in touch with human rights groups, who informed the Turkish Interior Ministry. I then went to Istanbul where the police [got in touch with] me and I went to the police station. Since then I’ve been in Istanbul and I’m waiting for the Turkish government to allow me to leave Turkey for another country.
RFE/RL: Have you applied for asylum?
Mostafaei: Not until [August 3] because I have my passport, which is valid, and also a visa for Schengen countries. In fact, [officials] from the Embassy of Norway came here and said they’re ready to accept me as a citizen of Norway and they even started working on needed documents. But today I was forced to apply for asylum at the UN. I filled in some forms UN officials had brought and so now this process is due to be completed.
RFE/RL: It must have been a very difficult decision for you to leave Iran while your wife is still in jail and your daughter remains in Tehran with your family?
Mostafaei: I truly didn't believe that there would be people in Iran's judiciary who know nothing about humanity. I never thought that there would be so much lawlessness in our judiciary. I never thought that they would keep my wife in jail close to two weeks over a sin she hasn't committed. She didn't have anything to do with my work. They’ve jailed her because of me. I'm never going to give myself in until our judiciary changes from the way it is now. I'm not afraid of any trial because I haven’t done anything wrong. I’ve been only helping others.
RFE/RL: Did the officials tell your family or yourself why they want to arrest you ? Did they bring any charges against you when you were interrogated?
Mostafaei: My interrogation was focused on my work: why do I help [juvenile offenders]? Why do I work as a lawyer for free? And why did I set up [a] bank account to save their lives and pay the blood money of the victims? They didn’t charge [me] with [anything] and I really don't know why an arrest warrant has been issued for me.
RFE/RL: Some of your colleagues we talked to told us they believe that the judiciary put pressure on you because of your defense of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who had been sentenced to death by stoning, and the attention her case received internationally. Do you think that’s the reason for what happened to your family?
Mostafaei: I was Sakineh Mohammadi's lawyer and I had the right to defend her. A lawyer should do all he [or she] can to save of his [or her] client from unjust punishments. It was my duty to save the life of Sakineh Mohammadi and because the judiciary didn’t help save her from being stoned, I made sure her cry of help was heard by the world so that the judiciary would come under pressure and she would escape stoning.
RFE/RL: You’ve also been representing a number of child offenders who are on death row in the Islamic Republic of Iran over crimes they committed when they were younger than 18. What is going to happen to your clients now that you’ve been forced to flee the country?
Mostafaei: I’ve represented the cases of 40 juvenile offenders in the past several years. I was able to save 18 of them [from execution]. Unfortunately, four of them were executed. The cases of the others are currently being reviewed. Some of them are facing the threat of execution and I really don’t know what to do now that I’m not there to defend them. I'm confident that if I receive independent international support, I will be able -- even from outside the country -- to defend their rights and prevent them from getting hurt.
RFE/RL: How is your situation going to affect the work of other lawyers inside Iran who are working on cases that are considered sensitive?
Mostafaei: Unfortunately, one of the goals of the judiciary, by pressuring lawyers and families, is to threaten others and prevent them from doing their job properly.
RFE/RL: Your father-in-law and brother-in-law were released after their detention, which you believe was aimed at putting pressure on you. Your wife remains in jail. What is the latest news you have about her? Is it likely that she will also be released soon?
Mostafaei: I don’t think it is likely that the judiciary will keep her [for very long]. If they do, that would be a scandal and disgrace for the judicial system [as well as] a political scandal. Why is someone being taken as a hostage? I don’t think that's worthy of the judiciary and it’s definitely not Islamic. A Muslim would not do such thing. I would like to use this occasion to call on the judiciary officials to end the illegal continued detention of my wife and release her as soon as possible. I will never give myself in unless the Turkish government decides to deport me.
RFE/RL: Is that possible? Has someone mentioned it to you?
Mostafaei: I don’t know, but because of international diplomatic issues and political games, we see this kind of thing all over the world. So it is possible that it might happen. But so far, I haven’t been told anything and they’ve promised me that it will not happen.