Iran's Defenders of Justice
Ordinary citizens and civil society activists are caught in the struggle to exercise their most basic rights as human beings in Iran. The right to self-determination, self-expression, the right to love who they love, pray as their spirits guide them, or to not pray at all are persistently violated. The regime regards their resistance to these violations as a political act against the nation.
Jailing human rights lawyers has always been a convenient way for the regime to continue its repression of the people. The logic is that without a caring human rights lawyer and the increased chances for severe penalties, citizens are more likely to choose the path of least resistance. The practice may also deter other lawyers from taking cases involving human rights issues and confrontations with the government authorities.
A woman who does not choose to wear the so-called “Islamic dress code” or wants to expresses her individuality with her choice of clothing can be arrested and jailed for the crime of “spreading corruption” or encouraging “prostitution.” A simple act of her existence, getting dressed in the morning, and for that matter, the entirety of a woman’s body, is suddenly politicized, and her life is at risk as she faces the likelihood of torture during interrogation, disease-infested prisons, and possible lashes. Desperate for her release, her family may retain a human rights lawyer to defend her case and release her from prison. These cases are not usually easy, but with a good lawyer, international attention, ample bail money, and a little bit of luck, the person may be spared with a reduced sentence.
But what happens when the most prominent human rights lawyers and lawyers who defend the human rights defenders are themselves behind bars? Who will stand for the people in a moment of crisis?
Unfortunately, this is an all too real struggle for civil society activists in Iran, as many human rights lawyers and prominent activists are put behind bars. In their absence, an already flawed justice system that is quick to issue punitive sentences like lashes, lengthy jail sentences, and capital punishment, can have lethal consequences for citizens at all levels of activism.
Although Iranian Noble Laureate, Shirin Ebadi, has been widely recognized for her pursuit of justice in Iran, many are not familiar with her colleagues who contributed their courage, conscience, and their acute knowledge of the law to the pursuit of justice in Iran. In 2001, Ebadi and three other prominent lawyers, Abdolfattah Soltani, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, and Mohammad Seifizadeh, established the Defenders of Human Rights Center —a de-facto hub of the most consequential human rights defenders in Iran.
All co-founders of the Defenders of Human Rights Center have, at some point or another, been arrested for taking high stake cases. Abdolfattah Soltani represented “the Bahai Seven,” the most prominent leaders of an indigenous religious group that has been banned in Iran since the Islamic revolution. Soltani paid a great price for his pursuit of justice; he was arrested and jailed at least three times and spent over seven years of his life in prison. While he was behind bars, he lost his sister, brother, and daughter. Upon his release, he was stripped of his legal license and forbidden from practicing law or engaging in politics.
Another co-founder of the Center, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah is still behind bars. Dadkhah, who represented high profile government officials such as Ebrahim Yazdi, the head of the now-banned Freedom Movement of Iran, was last summoned while he was in court, representing a client. With Dadkhah behind bars, the fate of his clients such as Pastor Yucef Nadarkhani, a convert to Christianity remains on shaky ground.
Currently, world-renowned lawyer and Sakharov prize winner, Nasrin Sotoudeh is serving a 33-year sentence in Iran’s notorious Evin prison. Sotoudeh has had many run-ins with government officials for years, but her troubles escalated as she represented Iranian women who defied the compulsory wearing of the hijab. She faces seven charges, including “inciting corruption and prostitution.”
However, even from jail, Sotoudeh continues to be a source of inspiration and courage for ordinary citizens and dissidents. Sotoudeh was involved in advocacy and defense of Vida Movahed, the hijab-defying protester whose image atop a street platform holding her white hijab on a stick became iconic. Movahed, then a 32-year-old mother of a toddler, was detained and held incommunicado for two months following her arrest, leaving her family in immense distress. It was only upon Sotoudeh’s involvement in Movahed’s case that Sotoudeh was put behind bars, and Movahed’s whereabouts were finally revealed. Movahed was able to communicate with her family and ended up with a reduced prison sentence.
Despite all the restrictions imposed on human rights defenders, Iranians continue to fight for freedom and their basic rights. Women continue to challenge the restrictions imposed on them, disenchanted Muslims continue to convert to the religions of their choice, bloggers continue to challenge the status- quo, and frustrated citizens will continue to take to the streets. Most amazingly and unexpectedly, Iranians with brilliant legal minds will continue to pursue careers of human rights, for their love of humanity and their country.