The 24th of January marks the annual International Day of the Endangered Lawyer. On 24 January 1977, 4 lawyers and a co-worker were murdered in Madrid. Since 2010, this date is remembered as The Day of the Endangered Lawyer with the purpose of increasing awareness about lawyers across the globe who are being harassed, silenced, pressured, threatened, persecuted and tortured because of their profession.
The 2023 edition aims to shed some light on the challenges faced by lawyers in Afghanistan.
The fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001 prompted the reconstruction, reform and modernisation of the war-torn Afghan judicial system and the legal profession. In 2008, the Afghanistan Independent Bar Association (“AIBA”) was established. The AIBA administered the licensing and regulation of lawyers, promoted excellence and equal opportunity in the legal profession, trained future lawyers, and advanced the rule of law and social justice.
When the Afghan government fell in August 2021, two decades of progress were erased and the country’s judicial system collapsed. In November 2021, the Taliban’s Ministry of Justice issued a decree depriving the AIBA of its independence and its authority to grant licences to lawyers. Taliban forces started targeting lawyers who had previously worked on “sensitive” cases (e.g., cases involving the defence of human rights, including women’s rights, and other similar matters).
According to the AIBA, 7 lawyers have been killed since the dissolution of AIBA and 146 lawyers have been arrested or investigated.
Iran is to execute a 35-year-old mentally ill man on charges including apostasy and “insulting holy things”.
Javad Rouhi, a law graduate, is accused of burning the Quran as part of the protests triggered by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini.
Mr Rouhi has not been given a lawyer of his choice and also suffers from severe mental illness. He has been tortured so badly that he cannot speak or walk and has become incontinent.
He was sentenced to death on 3 January on three generic charges: waging war against God, corruption on Earth, and apostasy – as well as the specific charge of inciting people to fight and kill each other.
His state-selected lawyer said in court: “Javad had separated from his wife due to mental illness and unemployment; in September, he had gone to Nowshahr to meet his ex-wife and try to bring her back. He didn’t have any money, so he had slept on the street during those few days in Nowshahr before his arrest.”
The Oslo-based Iran Human Rights said: “At least 109 protesters are currently at risk of execution, death penalty charges or sentences. This is a minimum, as most families are under pressure to stay quiet; the real number is believed to be much higher.”
A group of 45 Iranian lawyers and law professors has published an open letter objecting to the deprivation of fundamental rights for defendants amid a deadly government crackdown following months of unrest over the death of a young woman while in police custody for how she was wearing a head scarf.
Signed by Mohsen Borhani, Houshang Pourbabaei, Soheila Rajabpour, Farideh Gheirat, Javad Kashani, and Ali Mojtahedzadeh, the letter, addressed to the country’s judiciary and published on January 18, emphasizes that the right to freely choose a lawyer — which many of the thousands detained during the unrest have complained about — is recognized by the constitution and failing to honor such basic rights in security and political cases presents “a legal dilemma and challenge.”
Iran has been rocked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in unrest marked by unprecedented shows of defiance by women and schoolgirls in what appears to be the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
The brutal government crackdown on public demonstrators and dissent has seen several thousand people arrested and most of them forced to use lawyers from a list approved by Iran’s judiciary chief. The lawyers on the list are court-approved and have either collaborated with the state security establishment or do not have the resources to defend their clients, according to the Center for Human Rights In Iran (CHRI).
More than 500 people have been killed in the crackdown, according to rights groups. Several thousand more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.
Some lawmakers have demanded a harsh response to the unrest, saying heavy penalties, including death sentences, are warranted for protesters.
CHRI said on January 10 that at least 44 lawyers had been arrested since September to block their ability to seek justice for arbitrarily arrested activists and protesters. Eighteen remain in detention, and the rest have been released on bail but potentially will still face charges, CHRI said in a news release.
According to HRANA, the news agency of Human Rights Activists, on January 9, 2023, lawyer Behzad Hakimizadeh was arrested in Saqqez.
The reason for his arrest and the allegations against him are still unknown.
Since the outbreak of nationwide protests, about 19400 people, including journalists, lawyers, teachers, students and civil rights activists, have been arrested. For more details and statistics on the nationwide protest across Iran, read HRANA’s comprehensive reporthere.
Crackdown Aimed at Destroying Any Chance of Fair Trials for Protesters
Detainees Forced to Use Court-Appointed Lawyers
While the Islamic Republic has been gunning down and executing street protesters, it has also been arresting defense attorneys—at least 44 since September—to block their ability to seek justice for arbitrarily arrested activists and street protesters, according to research by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
Meanwhile, detainees continue to be forced to use lawyers from a list approved by Judiciary Chief Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, a known human rights violator. This list only includes court-approved lawyers who either collaborate with the state security establishment or who do not have the resources to defend their clients.
“Due process in line with internationally recognized standards hasn’t existed in the Islamic Republic for decades,” said Ghaemi. “Yet there are still lawyers in the country who try to squeeze out any form of defense they can for their clients, or advocate for them publicly, which is why the Islamic Republic is jailing them.”
“The Islamic Republic is trying to silence dissent from every angle, including by killing or jailing those who raise their voices and completely eliminating defendants’ right to a fair trial,” he added.
“Human rights lawyers have been a lifeline and voice for activists seeking basic rights, so the authorities are trying to eliminate the last few lawyers in Iran still able and willing to take on these cases,” he said.
CHRI urges bar associations around the world to highlight individual cases of detained rights lawyers and strongly condemn their persecution, especially in international forums such as legal conferences, and to call attention to the systematic denial of due process in the Islamic Republic—including in death penalty cases where lives are at stake.
Already four young men have been hanged in brief, closed trials where independent counsel was denied, 20 are on death row, and at least 42 are facing charges that can carry the death penalty, according to research by CHRI.
Independent Lawyers Blocked from Defending Detainees, Persecuted for Advocating their Cases
“There are several groups of lawyers in Iran,” explained a lawyer in Iran who spoke to CHRI on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “First, there are independent human rights lawyers who will take cases regarding prisoners whose rights are being denied; these lawyers will speak to the media to generate public support for their clients and will refuse to cooperate with the security agencies.”
“The second kind are public defenders who represent people who cannot afford legal counsel. Some of them do their job responsibly, but others do not,” added the lawyer. “There’s a third group of so-called ‘telephone lawyers’ who have the approval of the judiciary and then there are some lawyers who closely cooperate with security officials.”
In other words, without independent counsel, itself an obligatory due process right, a fair trial is rendered impossible; public defenders either lack the experience in the defense of human rights (especially in cases of this magnitude), or are themselves in cahoots with Iran’s security agencies, and the state-appointed attorneys in Iran designated for so-called “national security” cases uniformly do the bidding of the security agencies.
An Iranian lawyer who reported on the torture of his client by security agents has been charged for saying so publicly.
The activist HRANA news agency reported on January 8 that Ali Sharifzadeh Ardakani was released on bail after being summoned to a court in Karaj to hear the charges against him.
HRANA quoted an informed source as saying the Karaj prosecutor’s complaint against the lawyer is because he said his client, Mohammad Hosseini, was tortured until he confessed to playing a part in the murder of a security officer.
Mohammad Hosseini was arrested for his part in nationwide protests triggered by the death while in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Hosseini was hanged in prison on January 7 on charges of “waging war against God.”
Ardakani said in a tweet on December 18 that during a meeting Mohammad Hosseini told him he had been tied up and tortured by agents to secure a confession that he played a role in the killing of Ruhollah Ajamian, who was part of the Basij, a volunteer militia under the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
“He was tortured with his eyes closed and his hands and feet tied. They kicked his head until he was unconscious and they injured different parts of his body with an iron rod and an electroshock weapon,” Ardakani said.
Iran’s Judiciary does not allow protesters and dissidents to choose their own lawyers during trials that could even bear the death sentence for the defendants.
According to Iran’s laws, those on trial for crimes against national security can only be represented in court by lawyers that have the “endorsement” of the chief justice himself. Almost all dissidents are accused of acting against national security among other crimes, such as insulting the Supreme Leader or unlawful assembly.
The restriction also applies to protesters who have been charged with “corruption on earth” or “waging war against God” both of which bear a death sentence. Iran’s revolutionary courts have sentenced more than 50 protesters to death on such charges since November.
Two protesters who were hanged in December, Mohsen Shekari and Majidreza Rahnavard, were both deprived of the right to choose their own lawyers. They were represented at their trials by court-appointed lawyers. The two young men, apparently, met their attorneys on the day of their trial at court where the lawyers’ role was limited to keeping up appearances of a fair trial.
Iran’s Judicial system, controlled by the Supreme Leader, oversees both judges and prosecutors, while closely coordinating with security and intelligence entities.
Families of some protesters who are on trial allege that the lawyers representing their loved ones made very little effort to present a proper defense and their only statement in court was what was dictated to them by the judiciary and security agents to ensure a pre-determined outcome. The hanging of the two young men was meant to instill fear among the people and keep them away from the protests, the families and others say.
Mashallah Karami whose son Mohammad-Mehdi Karami has been sentenced to death in Alborz Province for alleged participation in the killing of a member of the Basij militia told Etemad newspaper recently that he tried to contact his son’s court-appointed “endorsed lawyer” for a week, after his sentence was announced, to proceed with appeals but never received a response from him. “The court-appointed lawyer refused to let me have the address of his office to go there and tell him what my son has told me for using it in his defense.”
“It’s a matter of life and death for a young man. Shouldn’t the family of the accused be allowed to have their own attorney?” Karami who says his son has sworn his innocence to him said.
Nemat Ahmadi, lawyer and professor of law, told Arman-e Emruz newspaper in December that some of the “endorsed” lawyers, even when appointed by the court rather than the accused, work for extremely high fees. “We heard recently that one [such] lawyer had demanded $250,000 from the family of the accused,” he said.
Ahmadi also pointed out that one of these lawyers told the judge at a recent trial, when he was asked if he had spoken with his client, that he had met his client who was hospitalized for “half an hour” before the trial.
Many lawyers representing detained protesters in sham trials in Iran are also members of a militia linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that has been responsible for the killing of hundreds of demonstrators, a senior official from Tehran’s Bar Association said on Monday.
The IRGC and its militia, the Basij, have been the main tools at the disposal of the Iranian authorities to violently crack down on the nationwide antigovernment protests sparked by the death of Zhina (Mahsa) Amini at the hands of the morality police in Tehran in mid-September.
Iranian human rights organizations monitoring the protests say at least 512 protesters and bystanders have been killed, including 69 children, by the security forces spearheaded by the IRGC and the Basij.
Families of detained protesters – which number over 20,000 – have criticized the hasty court proceedings, accusing the appointed lawyers of not picking up their phone calls and not seriously representing their loved ones in court.
According to Iranian penal code, those detained on national security charges, as is the case with almost all the detainees from the recent protests, should be appointed a lawyer trusted by the judiciary. The Tehran’s Bar Association is the only independent organization that can appoint independent lawyers however, the judiciary has taken a decision to appoint lawyers from its own list of trustees and from another list known as “Amendment 48” to represent the detained protesters.
Amendment 48 refers to a footnote to Article 48 of the penal code which states that any person detained should have a lawyer from the time of their arrest to represent them, except in crimes related to national security. The defendant on national security charges has no right to have a lawyer for a week from the time of their arrest and only lawyers approved by the head of the judiciary can then represent them.
When asked about the criteria which the lawyers of the Amendment 48 are selected by the head of the judiciary to represent the detained protesters, Mehdi Davoudzadeh who heads a commission providing legal aid for detained protesters at Tehran Bar Association said “swear to God, we are as unaware as you are, but as far as I know they are from retired judges and lawyers from the families of Basij and veterans [Iran-Iraq war]. These lawyers are selected by the head of the judiciary himself.”
Davoudzadeh told Etemad newspaper in an interview published on Monday that his organization, representing the entire Tehran province with a population of over 14 million people, received only 20 to 30 letters from three magistrates courts to appoint lawyers.
“It appears that most of the lawyers in these courts are selected from the lawyers of the Judiciary’s Center for lawyers and in particular from the lawyers on Amendment 48 list.”
One of the magistrates asked Davoudzadeh to appoint lawyers from the judiciary trusted lists to which Davoudzadeh said he had no knowledge of who was on the list.
Iranian lawyer Saeed Sheikh has been sentenced to three years in prison as the government continues to crack down on lawyers while suppressing nationwide protests that began three months ago.
The Islamic Revolutionary Court of Tehran found Sheikh guilty of “gathering and colluding against the country’s security” and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Two years of the three-year sentence are for the first charge and one year is for the second, the activist HRANA news agency reported on December 29.
Sheikh was arrested on October 12 at a rally in front of the Iran Central Bar Association in the Iranian capital. The rally was held to protest against the violation of protesters’ rights and turned violent with the intervention of the security forces. At least three lawyers, including Sheikh, were arrested.
Two other stiff sentences have been issued to at least two other Iranian lawyers. Among them is Sina Yousefi, the vice chairman of the Lawyers’ Human Rights Commission in East Azarbaijan Province, who was sentenced to six months in prison and banned from leaving the country for two years. His mobile phone and other electronic devices were also confiscated.
At least 44 Iranian lawyers have been arrested after representing people detained during three months of nationwide protests sparked by the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.
Many reports show that the courts force detainees arrested during the recent protests to accept a public defender and then threaten the appointed lawyers. In many other cases, the lawyers of anti-government protesters said Iran’s judiciary denied them access to case material to defend their clients.
Iran has arrested at least 44 independent lawyers since ongoing antiestablishment protests erupted in September. They include lawyers who have represented protesters arrested in the violent state crackdown on the demonstrations.
Around half of the lawyers have been released on bail, while the rest are still in prison. They include Mohammad Ali Kamifiruzi, who represented jailed journalist Nilufar Hamedi, and prominent human rights lawyer Mostafa Nili, who has also been arrested in the past.
Several attorneys who took part in protests led by lawyers in Tehran and the southern city of Shiraz last month were also arrested, the Sharq daily reported.
Why It Matters: Activists say that by jailing independent lawyers, Iran is denying political detainees the right to a fair trial. Many of those arrested and charged in the ongoing crackdown on the protests have relied on state-appointed lawyers who have reportedly done little to defend them. In some cases, the lawyers have reportedly testified against their clients.
“As the people on the front line of the battle for justice, their arrests have a detrimental impact on the thousands of protesters currently behind bars, some of whom face the death penalty without any experience of the ‘laws’ and complexities of a system of injustice,” the Oslo-based Iran Human Rights NGO said in a recent report.
What’s Next: State pressure on lawyers who have taken sensitive political cases is nothing new. In recent years, Tehran has jailed prominent lawyers and human rights advocates, including Nasrin Sotoudeh and Abdolfatah Soltani. Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, meanwhile, was forced into exile. But the current crackdown on lawyers appears to be the most extensive in recent years. At least two lawyers arrested in recent months have been sentenced to prison. More lawyers are likely to be arrested and imprisoned in the weeks ahead.