Nobel Peace Prize-winner and prominent Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi has condemned the ongoing trials of hundreds of people detained following the unrest that followed the country's contentious June elections. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari, Ebadi described the trials as "wizardry" and a "parody" of Iranian justice.
In the latest hearing on August 25, about 20 people were put on trial on charges of plotting a "soft coup" and masterminding the postelection unrest. Several of the defendants, including key reformist strategist Saeed Hajjarian, expressed regret for "mistakes." But Ebadi said confessions and statements made by detainees jailed without access to lawyers have no value.
RFE/RL: The fourth session of the trials of a number of prominent reformists, intellectuals, and others took place in Iran earlier this week. You’ve been closely following the proceedings. To what extent are they being held based in accordance with Iranian laws?
These trials are completely illegal based on the Islamic republic’s laws that deal with trials, interrogations, and arrests. We can describe [the trials] as a parody of justice. The trial has been announced as being public but even the families are not allowed to attend. A trial is supposed to be just, but there are so many issues behind the scenes that describing them will take hours. But let me say briefly that these trials, which are simply a show and a parody of justice, are not accepted by the Iranian people and international public opinion. They’re discrediting themselves. RFE/RL: It seems that all of the charges against the defendants -- and the entire case, which is being characterized by Iranian officials as the “Velvet Coup Case” -- are based on the confessions of prisoners who have been in prison for over two months. Can these confessions be used as evidence, and do they have any legal value?
The confessions made by a person who is in prison without access to a lawyer and [without access to] other rights that are also defined in Iranian laws are of no importance. On the other hand, there is another principle accepted by Islam and Western laws, and that is that confessions cannot be used as the only [evidence]. If a person makes confessions under appropriate circumstances, then it can lead to justice, but [it’s not enough].
Let me give you an example. An individual is arrested and [he or she] confesses in total calm in front of his lawyer, a judge, and 100 other people that he has committed a murder. Should the court just accept the confession and not investigate the possibility that the individual has made the confession to save his or her son, potentially sparing the real murderer from punishment?
Confessions are not enough to prove something, even less in a show trial where the whole case is based on the confessions of a number of prisoners who have been isolated [from the outside world] under very bad conditions, without access to a lawyer, and as it has been reported are being forced to make false confessions.
RFE/RL: One of the most well-known persons who appeared at the recent trial was key reformist strategist Saeed Hajjarian, who is paralyzed and whom his family has said did not seem to be himself. He apologized for what he described as his inaccurate analyses and asked for forgiveness.
Reformist activist Saeed Hajjarian during a hearing in Tehran on August 25.
: The show of confessions by Saeed Hajjarian, who has served the Islamic republic for 30 years and who can’t even read what they have written for him because of his disability, is unfortunately nothing but corruption of the justice system. Any judge who could give value to such confessions would achieve nothing and only discredit himself.RFE/RL: Let’s imagine that someone is charged in Iran. How should the court legally proceed in such a case?
If someone is charged with a crime, he’s first summoned to court. They explain the charges to him and the reasons for the charges. That person should defend himself. He can also have a lawyer, but he should answer the questions himself. The lawyer only sits and watches. If [the defendant's] comments and his arguments are not sufficient for the court, then a ruling is issued. The ruling varies, depending on the charges. It can be from an order for the person not to leave the country to an arrest order.
Only in the case that the crime is obvious can the proceedings be shortened and the accused arrested more quickly. After a person is ordered to be arrested, he should be informed, and if he protests against it then the court should look into it. The arrested person can have access to the news and has the right to meet with his family; he has the right to meet his lawyer.
Based on the constitution and criminal law, it is banned to subject the accused to any kind of pressure to force him into a confession. It’s not just banned but it can also lead the judge to lose his job if it is proven that he has [used such pressures]. During the trial, if it deals with press and political charges, then based on the constitution it has to be public and a jury should be present.
Unfortunately, during the past 30 years, the Islamic establishment has never been willing to define political charges; it has used the ambiguity in the law to turn any crime into "acting against national security" and to say that it isn’t a political charge, [despite the reality that] all the charges that have been brought up in revolutionary courts and in some cases in public court are all political crimes. All law scholars agree on that.RFE/RL: What other conditions should be in place that were are not being respected in the ongoing trials of reformists?
The trial should be public. Only if issues such as rape are being reviewed -- if a person has been raped and the way it happened is going to be explained in court -- then it’s better if it's held behind closed doors. But in other cases -- in the event of political issues such as the recent wizardry that they have created under the title of a trial with the goal to prove that the election was properly held -- there is no reason for the trial to be behind closed doors.
It was [purportedly] public, but it was held in such a way that they didn’t even allow the lawyers to attend. More importantly, according to Hajjarian’s daughter, he was forced to change his lawyer and a lawyer who was friends with the prosecutor was in charge of his defense.
The other issue is that we saw the defense of the lawyers at court; we saw that they defended the detainees in a way that they believe the accusations against them and they only asked for forgiveness and amnesty. None of them protested against the fact that what the court had brought [against them] is not a crime.RFE/RL: The main charge against the reformists is plotting a "velvet revolution" -- or "velvet coup," according to Iranian officials. In recent years, the issue of a velvet revolution and attempts by the opposition to stage a so-called "colored revolution" has been mentioned repeatedly by Iranian officials. You’re saying that it is not a crime according to Iranian laws?
A velvet revolution means that a number of people want to peacefully create changes in the political and social conditions of a society. This is the philosophy of political parties in the world. A political party is created and has some programs to show to its supporters and other people that it is possible to live in a better way. If a political party manages to increase the number of its supporters, then more people would vote for it at election time.
Velvet revolution is taken as the freedom to create political parties, which is considered a crime in Iran. But [staging a velvet revolution] is not officially a crime by law. These are self-created crimes that some have been charged with. The final goal of these trials is to demonstrate that the [June 12 presidential election] was valid, that [incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad] had more votes than former President Mohammad Khatami, who had 22 million votes [when he was elected president in 1997]. That's all. And I’m sorry that for proving such a simple issue such a show has been launched.RFE/RL: Two of your colleagues, human rights lawyers Abdol Fatah Soltani and Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, were arrested in the postelection crackdown. Soltani was released on bail on August 26, but Dadkhah remains in jail. What news have you received about them?
I’ve always protested against the arrests of my colleagues as I have protested against the arrests of others. My colleagues have a special situation because they’re human rights advocates and, according to the UN, human rights defenders should have immunity. Because of that, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has protested against their arrest three times already.
I’ve also been following up on their case. Both of my colleagues were arrested at their office and following their arrests a judge called them and told them: 'If you promise that you will not give anymore interviews regarding the cases of people you’re defending, don’t go to [Ebadi's] Center for Human Rights Defenders, and stop cooperating with Ebadi, then I will release you immediately and unconditionally.’
Both my colleagues have said they are not ready to give up the freedoms accorded them by law. I’m really sorry that our [justice system] has reached such a state.