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Iranian students protest the verdicts against them over the recent protests in Iran on June 17.

A recent crackdown on students in Iran has come under criticism by university professors and others who hold President Hassan Rohani responsible for the pressure and are calling on him to take action.

More than 100 students were reportedly detained during protests over the economy in late December and early January that evolved into demonstrations against the establishment that included chants targeting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Some of the detainees reportedly never took part in the protests, which spread to some 80 cities.

Two of the detained students, Sina Darvish Omran and Ali Mozaffari, were subsequently sentenced to eight-year prison terms after being convicted on charges including acting against national security, Iranian media and rights activists have reported.

Omran and Mozaffari, who were reportedly arrested by the Intelligence Ministry in December 2017 and held in solitary confinement, also face two-year bans from political and social-media activities.

At least three other students have been reportedly sentenced to prison, with their terms ranging from six months to one year and including bans on leaving the country.

More than 100 university professors have signed a letter to Rohani criticizing the recent arrests and sentences, stating that the crackdown had created concerns that "some are trying to silence dissenting voices in the universities."

"It seems that most of the detainees are individuals involved in legal activities, and perhaps some had criticized your government's work on campuses," the letter published on July 16 by Iranian news sites said.

"We want you to act upon your promises to defend the rights of the people, support a [safe] space for students for criticism, and protect [them]," the letter said.

The signatories called for a "secure" environment at universities, rather than a "securitized" one.

Earlier this month, more than 60 university groups across the country criticized pressure against students, calling in a joint statement for the release of student detainees, an end to their prosecution, and clarification of the role of the Intelligence Ministry, whose head is chosen by the president.

"Not only does the 'moderate' government of Hassan Rohani not react to the arrests, but the footprint of its Intelligence Ministry is seen in the arrests and the sentences," the statement said.

Students at several Iranian universities have protested the pressure against them in recent weeks, according to media reports and social media.

A video posted online on June 28 shows students at Tabriz University of Medical Sciences singing a protest song while holding signs such as one that read, "Students don't belong in jail."

The students are wearing mouth-covering masks, apparently to highlight the attempts to silence critics.

Rohani, who earned the '"relative moderate" moniker upon becoming president in 2013, has faced increased demands in his second term to resist pressure from hard-line conservatives who oppose his campaign promises to give Iranians more rights and lessen state interference in their lives.

Iranian political prisoner Arash Sadeghi (file photo)

Only a tiny fraction of Iran's lawyers -- 20 so far -- will be allowed to defend citizens accused by the country's secretive, labyrinthine judicial authorities of political crimes, according to local media and legal sources who report seeing the list and a hard-line news agency's report confirming its existence.

The dramatic curb on a defendant's right to representation is already being seen in watchdog circles as a fresh threat to Iranians deemed enemies of the clerically dominated leadership.

The defense attorneys on the list, from a possible pool of thousands, have reportedly been approved by the hard-line Judiciary to take on clients in so-called Article 48 and Article 302 cases -- national security but also political and media offenses as described in the 3-year-old Criminal Code -- during the investigative stage of proceedings.

There was no explanation of the criteria that were used by the Judiciary -- which routinely prosecutes peaceful demonstrators, dual nationals with ties to academic institutions abroad, and government critics -- nor was it clear why it took more than four years from the code's passage, and nearly three years from its implementation, to produce the list.

Article 48 requires those charged with "crimes against internal or external security, and in cases involving organized crime, where Article 302 of this code is applicable" -- a reference to jailable offenses or "political and media crimes" -- "during the investigation phase, the parties to the dispute are to select their attorneys from a list approved by the head of the Judiciary."

There are no prominent human rights lawyers on the list, or even individuals with independently acknowledged records defending detainees in such politically charged cases.

Lawyer Amir Raeisian said in a tweet that authorities had "verbally" informed him and "some colleagues" that they were disallowed from representing such cases not only in the investigative stage but also "in court," which would go well beyond Article 48's wording.

Raeisian has defended political detainees that include activist Arash Sadeghi and award-winning filmmaker Keyvan Karimi.

Lawyer Seyed Ali Mojtahedzadeh was among those pointing out that one of the Judiciary-approved lawyers, Abdolreza Mohabati, acted as a deputy prosecutor during the much-maligned mass trials held for people detained during mass protests that followed the disputed 2009 reelection of conservative President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The court sessions and televised confessions resulted overwhelmingly in convictions and were widely dismissed by rights groups and other critics as "show trials."

Nasrin Sotoudeh (file photo)
Nasrin Sotoudeh (file photo)

Tehran-based human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda in a telephone interview that political detainees in Iran will be “completely” denied of the right to defense as a result of the list.

Sotoudeh, who has been pressured and jailed in the past for taking up sensitive cases, said defense lawyers have been the only hope of "independent" and "honest" defense for many of those facing politically charged accusations.

“The plaintiff in political cases is either the Intelligence Ministry or the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, meaning it’s either a security body or a military one -- and both create fear and intimidation for the defendants," said Sotoudeh.

The list puts defendants entirely in the hands of the establishment, Sotoudeh said: “The defendant will be surrounded by elements and bodies of the state; the plaintiff, the judge, and the lawyer are all approved by the state."

Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher Tara Sepehrifar said the list is just the latest example of the Iranian Judiciary’s interference with detainees‘ rights.

“The right to access a lawyer of your choosing is one of the most important safeguards against abuses in detention. Yet like other rights, Iran’s Judiciary is busy eroding laws designed to protect Iranian citizens,” Sepehrifar wrote on June 5.

An unnamed judiciary source was quoted by the hard-line Tasnim news agency on June 4 as saying the list that was being circulated was only for Tehran and that similar lists would be issued for other provinces.

Meanwhile, the head of the Tehran’s provincial Justice Department, Gholam Hossein Esmaili, was quoted by Iranian media as saying the list was not “final” but was issued to prevent a delay in the processing of judicial cases.

Radio Farda broadcaster Elahe Ravanshad contributed to this report.

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About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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