By Edward Carney
It has been widely reported that Iran has been in the midst of a large-scale crackdown on civil and political rights in recent years. Although restrictions on free speech and political dissent have been commonplace throughout the four-decade history of the Islamic Republic, but the current situation is distinguished, in part, by a more coordinated effort to extend those restrictions to the legal defense of persons who are accused of political and religious offenses like “insulting the supreme leader” or “spreading propaganda against the regime.”
The Center for Human Rights in Iran published a report on Wednesday that emphasized the expanded targeting of human rights lawyers. It notes that in less than a year, at least three high profile lawyers have been arrested and subjected to lengthy prison sentences in connection with their defense of other political prisoners, either in the courtroom or through public communications. Furthermore, EA Worldview published an article the following day which addressed these three arrests before adding that at least five other lawyers have been arrested or successfully prosecuted during the same period, on the basis of activities including the participation in peaceful political protests that were deemed “illegal gatherings” by regime authorities.
The most recent person to be targeted in this narrowly-focused crackdown is Amirsalar Davoudi, whose sentencing was confirmed by his wife on June 1. He was subjected to four charges: “collaborating with an enemy state through interviews,” “propaganda against the state,” “insulting officials,” and “forming a group to overthrow the state.” Collectively, his sentence for all of these charges amounts to 30 years, although Iran’s existing penal code specifies that convicts are only to serve the longest of multiple, simultaneous sentences. In this case, that would amount to 15 years, but the Iranian judiciary also has a track record of ignoring its own laws and standards in order to mete out extrajudicial punishment to political detainees.
In fact, the Article 134 of the penal code effectively allows for judges to arbitrarily extend sentences beyond their maximum. As Amnesty International pointed out in March, this provision was employed in passing sentence on another of the country’s recently detained human rights lawyers. Nasrin Sotoudeh was charged last summer on seven counts including “inciting corruption and prostitution”, “openly committing a sinful act by... appearing in public without a hijab” and “disrupting public order.” Amnesty explains that “the judge, Mohammad Moghiseh, applied the maximum statutory sentence for each of her seven charges and then added another four years to her total prison term, raising it from the statutory maximum of 29 to 33 years.”
The charges relating to the hijab and the incitement to prostitution stem from Sotoudeh’s defense of women’s rights activists and specifically participants in the “Girls of Revolution Street” protest movement, which saw young women demonstrating against Iran’s forced veiling laws by removing their head coverings in public spaces and holding them in the air like banners. Arrests continue to take place in connection with that movement and the women’s rights movement more generally. Iran Human Rights reported upon one of the latest of these on Monday when it noted that Saba Kord-Afshari had been arrested in a violent raid on her parents’ home.
That report also called attention to the Iranian regime’s tendency to rely on the principle of guilt by association in passing judgement on political cases, even when the relevant associations are part of an unsubstantiated narrative manufactured by arresting authorities. In this case, Kord-Afshari’s demonstrated opposition to forced veiling led interrogators to focus on establishing connections to the exiled women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad, whose “stealthy freedom” social media campaign helped to inspire the Revolution Street protests.
The prisoner and her family have denied any such connection, but Kord-Afshari’s activism was apparently sufficient on its own for the judiciary to file a charge of “conspiracy against the system.” In addition, she is accused of spreading propaganda “through cooperation with opposition groups,” “encouraging immorality,” and “plotting to overthrow the system.” As numerous instances of political imprisonment have demonstrated in recent years, the Iranian regime regards virtually any dissent, or any connection to Western nationals, as evidence of efforts to facilitate the “soft overthrow” of the theocratic system.
This, too, is a longstanding feature of the hardline establishment. But the influence of that thinking appears to be growing in line with the crackdown on activists and the lawyers who dare to defend them. The regime’s paranoia about a culturally-mediated collapse of the existing system is seemingly on display in its efforts to withhold legal defense from various political prisoners. The recently-arrested attorneys are easily regarded as victims of the regime’s intimidation tactics, but the Iranian judiciary is also working to make the defense of political prisoners functionally impossible in many cases, even when a lawyer is willing to take on the attendant risks.
Both CHRI and EA Worldview highlighted this fact by reporting upon the growing trend of forcing political prisoners to choose their legal representation from a shortlist of attorneys who have been pre-approved by regime authorities. This practice became commonplace in late 2017, leading to international condemnation by human rights defenders. Consequently, the Judicial and Legal Affairs Committee of the Iranian parliament introduced legislation to restore the right of defendants in national security cases to choose their own lawyers. But it is highly doubtful that this measure will gain the approval of the unelected hardline bodies that enjoy veto power over all Iranian legislation.
Even if the bill manages to pass, it would specifically allow for a 20-day period of “investigation” during which detainees may be held incommunicado and without legal representation. This feature may encourage arresting authorities to further amplify the abusive practices that are commonly reported in the aftermath of arrests, particularly arrests stemming from political demonstrations.
Torturous interrogation at the hands of Iranian security forces often yields false confessions, which may in turn be presented to the nation’s revolutionary court as the only evidence in favor of conviction. Additionally, such forced confessions have frequently been aired on Iranian state media as part of an effort to defame political dissenters and manipulate public sentiment regarding politically-motivated proceedings.
The prevalence of this sort of propaganda is yet another feature of the ongoing crackdown on public dissent and political activism. The regime has worked to consolidate the dominance of its own media networks by expanding restrictions on the internet and social media while also arresting and vigorously prosecuting independent journalists alongside activists and lawyers. The case against Amirsalar Davoudi is indicative of the former trend, since the case against him is primarily based on his use of “Without Retouch,” a channel on the Telegram messaging app, to share his views about political, social, and civil rights issues.
CHRI provided information on this case on Wednesday, while another report from the same outlet highlighted one of the latest examples of the regime’s attack on the journalistic profession. It noted that a pro-reform reporter by the name of Masoud Kazemi had been sentenced to 4.5 years in prison, and was expected to serve at least two years, for “publishing falsehoods,” “insulting the supreme leader,” and “insulting officials” because he had tweeted about government corruption and questioned a presidential advisor about his possible role in political assassinations in the 1990s.
But what is particularly remarkable about the Kazemi case is not the nature of the charges or the length of the sentence, but rather the open hostility demonstrated by the judge. In a possible precursor to further crackdowns on supposed enemies of the Iranian regime, Judge Mohammad Moghiseh spoke out during Kazemi’s trial to say of fellow reformist reporters, “You people have no right to breathe; your hands should be crushed; you should be blown up with gunpowder poured into your mouth; your pens should be broken.”
The remarks prompted Kazemi’s lawyer to file a formal complaint, alleging obvious bias in the case. But all requests for a case review were denied, reinforcing the appearance of a complete disinterest in legal safeguards within the upper reaches of the Iranian judiciary.