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Iran's Human Rights Lawyers Increasingly Facing Their Own Days In Court

Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh: "These charges against me are ridiculous."
Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh: "These charges against me are ridiculous."
Nasrin Sotoudeh has made a career fighting the good fight, defending numerous rights activists and others facing trumped-up charges by the Iranian regime.

Now the prominent Iranian lawyer finds herself in a similar situation. Following raids on her home and office over the weekend of August 28-29, she has been charged by the judiciary with undermining national security and disseminating propaganda against the Islamic establishment.

"These charges against me are ridiculous," Sotoudeh told RFE/RL's Radio Farda, "as are similar ones that have been brought against my clients. [Some of them] are in jail based on these charges."

Sotoudeh says that in the course of their searches, security forces removed work files, a computer, and some of her personal belongings. They informed her of the charges against her and told her she had three days to appear in court to face questioning. Sotoudeh told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran this week that, in the end, she appeared before the tax bureau.

"I was referred to the taxation bureau and while there I noticed that, in addition to my name, they are conducting special investigations into 30 human rights lawyers," Sotoudeh told the rights watchdog. She added that while human rights lawyers commonly take cases on a pro-bono basis, authorities use bogus tax charges to prosecute them.

Threatening Telephone Call

Speaking to Radio Farda earlier this week, Sotoudeh said she believes the pressure on her was related to her defense of high-profile human rights cases. She accused the authorities of seeking to make it impossible for her and other lawyers to defend political and human rights activists.

"I view my summoning and the attack on my office and home in relation to a telephone call my husband received about four months ago," she said. "[The person who called] told my husband that I should give up the case of [Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi] and to not inform the public about her case. They threatened that if I did not do so, my family and I would face trouble."

Sotoudeh appears to have joined a growing list of lawyers who have come under official pressure after defending political activists or after involvement in other sensitive cases.

In one example, two lawyers who defended dervishes, including lawyer Mostafa Daneshjou, reported they had been disbarred. In recent years, numerous lawyers say they have been summoned to court, interrogated, threatened, and harassed. Some lawyers were jailed, while several decided to leave the country. Following the unrest that followed the hotly disputed June 2009 elections, which led to thousands of arrests and the detentions of dozens of protesters, two prominent lawyers were also jailed.

Mohammad Ali Dadkhah
Leading human rights lawyer Mohammad Ali Dadkhah -- who has been jailed three times in recent years, including during the postelection crackdown, when he spent several months in solitary confinement -- has remained in Iran.

Describing the climate for legal professionals there, Dadkhah says those who take on politically charged cases lose "job security." Often, he says, they face bogus charges. They can be denied access to their clients and their files. Or clients are sentenced without lawyers' arguments in their defense taken into account.

And Dadkhah says lawyers are under constant pressure not to take such cases in the first place. In his case, Dadkhan found himself defending himself against authorities who claimed to have found guns and drugs during raids on his office.

"I don't want to say that machine guns or drugs were found in the offices of all of them," he says, "but in many cases they come under such pressure that they are deprived of the right to defend their clients freely."

Convicted Of Propaganda

Lawyer Mohammad Oliayifard, who has defended juvenile offenders and student activists, is serving a one-year prison sentence after being convicted of propaganda against the Islamic establishment. Another prominent lawyer, Mohamad Seifzadeh, is awaiting trial.

Mohammad Mostafaei speaking in Oslo on August 8
In July, Mohammad Mostafaei -- a well-known lawyer who co-defended Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, whose sentence to death by stoning led to a worldwide outcry -- left Iran for Turkey after his wife and other relatives were detained by the authorities.

The authorities recently announced that Mostafaei, who is now in Norway where he has applied for political asylum, had been charged with "financial fraud."

Mostafei, who rejects the charge against him as baseless, says human rights lawyers come under intense pressure for defending human rights cases and publicizing violations. He says the situation results from pressure by security organs and the lack of independence of Iran's judiciary.

"Currently in our country there are many authorities who violate the laws and the rights of the accused. Lawyers are the only ones to defend the accused," Mostafei says, "but their protests against such violations has angered those who cannot tolerate criticism and who are abusing their powers and imposing their personal preferences in judicial cases."

Mostafei, who defended numerous juvenile offenders on death row in Iran, believes he had no choice but to flee. He believes he faced unfair judicial proceedings but is optimistic that colleagues who remain in Iran will keep standing up for human rights.

In Tehran, Dadkhah says he's determined to keep up his fight for justice despite the increasingly difficult circumstances.

"I love this land. I was born here and I will die here," he says. "My job is to defend. Whether I'm successful or not depends on events to come. In any case, I will not give up standing up for citizens' rights and their freedom."

RFE/RL's Radio Farda broadcaster Mania Mansour contributed to this report
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    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.

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