Accessibility links

Breaking News

Iranian Authorities Pressure Prominent Lawyer By Holding Family Members 'Hostage'

Lawyer and human right activist Mohammad Mostafaei in 2009
Lawyer and human right activist Mohammad Mostafaei in 2009
"Today I was again contacted after being interrogated, I was summoned through a telephone call. I don't know what the problem is this time. At any rate, tomorrow I have to go to the Evin prosecutor's office. Maybe they will arrest me, I don't know."

That message posted by Mohammad Mostafaei on his blog on July 23 is the last heard from the Iranian lawyer, who represents an Iranian woman whose execution by stoning was recently postponed following an international outcry.

Mostafaei is believed to have gone into hiding after an arrest warrant was issued for him, according to colleagues and activists familiar with the case.

And with no Mostafaei to be found, the Iranian authorities have resorted to taking his wife and brother-in-law "hostage" to pressure him to turn himself in, their lawyer claims.

Hassan Aghakhani tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda that his clients, Fereshteh Halimi and Farhad Halim, were arrested on the evening of July 24 in front of Mostafaei's office.

"They're being held for allegedly hiding and helping Mostafaei escape, but that's impossible," Aghakhani says. "My clients haven't even seen Mostafaei. In fact, this can be described as hostage-taking. [The authorities] have said, 'Give us Mostafaei and we'll let these two go.'"

The two are reportedly being held in Tehran's infamous Evin prison without legal counsel, while Mostafaei's 7-year-old daughter is staying with his mother-in-law.

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani
Mostafaei gave no indication on his blog why he was interrogated, but activists and colleagues say it regarded a bank account he set up to save the lives of juvenile offenders he represents. The account would help his clients' families pay "blood money" demanded by their victims' families for forgiveness, a traditional last resort for avoiding execution in Iran.

Victim Of Stoning Case

But rights activists and colleagues of Mostafaei say they believe the authorities are placing pressure on him because of his role in the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old woman who was convicted in 2006 of adultery.

Mostafaei played an important role in bringing attention to Ashtiani's case. He gave several interviews and he reportedly also helped Ashtiani's two children in their campaign to save their mother's life.

The stoning sentence against the Iranian mother was condemned internationally, and protests were held in a number of cities around the world. This month, Iran's judiciary postponed the execution on humanitarian grounds, although the verdict still stands and could be implemented in the future.

Iranian state television reported on July 25 that the prosecution and sentencing of Ashtiani, who's full name was not disclosed for legal reasons, gave "a pretext for the opposition of the Islamic republic to hold anti-Iranian rallies" in several Western countries. "U.S. and Israeli television channels," it reported, have made "a fuss" over Iranian failures to observe human rights.

Shadi Sadr, a well-known women's rights advocate who was forced to leave Iran several months ago, says she believes the regime is reacting to the "international sensitivity" by placing pressure on Mostafaei.

And Sadr, who has worked with Mostafaei on behalf of women sentenced to execution by stoning in the Islamic republic, says the reaction embodies the plight of human rights advocates in Iran in general.

She says that Mostafaei "worked within the framework of the laws of the Islamic republic, he never crossed the red lines set by the Islamic republic. This case just shows the increasing pressure on human rights activists and how red lines and limitations are becoming every day tighter and tighter."

Perils Of The Rights Defender

Mostafaei is clearly passionate about his work. Last year, he wrote on his blog how he witnessed the hanging of one of the juvenile offenders he was defending, and he was detained briefly in 2009 because of his work as a lawyer.

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner and lawyer Shirin Ebadi has faced similar tactics -- her sister and husband were reportedly arrested in Iran last year due to her human rights activities and her condemnation of the crackdown that followed Iran's 2009 presidential election.

She says Mostafaei's only crime is his defense of human rights. "Mostafaei believes punishments such as stoning are unjust," Ebadi says. "He believes it's wrong to execute individuals under the age of 18 and [Iran] needs to review its laws. That is his only sin."

Ebadi, who lives in exile abroad, says she hopes Mostafaei takes a stand against the "illegal move" by Iranian officials. "I hope he stands firm and tells everyone that his wife is a hostage, but refuses to give in to the demands of the hostage takers," she says.

Sadr echoes that wish, saying that by surrendering to the pressure Mostafaei could encourage Iranian officials to use the "hostage-taking"" tactic against other human rights advocates and political activists.

RFE/RL's Radio Farda broadcaster Roya Karimi contributed to this report
  • 16x9 Image

    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.