In Defence of Justice! Hands Off the Iranian Bar Association!

–       Iran Jails and Threatens Human Rights Attorneys

–       At Least 44 Defence Attorneys Arrested Since September 2022

The Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR) notes with deep concern the latest move by the Islamic Republic dictatorship in Iran to clamp down upon dissent by launching a prosecutor investigation, on dubious grounds, into the Iranian Bar Association (IBA), targeting those legal advocates brave enough to defend those arraigned before the regime’s courts on politically motivated charges.

The IBA is one of the oldest professional institutions in Iran.  Similar to its equivalent counterpart organisations internationally, the IBA is regulated by its own professional code and internal rules of association including the 1954 Bar Association Independence Law, and is therefore recognised legally as an independent non-governmental entity.

This regime probe into the IBA is taking place in the aftermath of several months of popular protests against the dictatorship and amidst continuing turmoil in Iran, with the regime at pains to mop up any residual signs of dissent inside the country.

A motion titled “The Request to Investigate the Operations of Bar Associations and their Union” was passed in the conservative-dominated Iranian majlis (parliament) by a majority of 158-20 with 3 abstentions on Tuesday 27 June.  The greenlighted state probe empowers the Islamic Republic’s Chief Justice, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i, and regime security agencies – including the Intelligence Ministry and the parallel intelligence arm of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) – to scrutinise and pursue chapters of the IBA and associated human rights advocates throughout the country, including their principal hub in Tehran.

Such a brief is ideally suited to Mohseni-Eje’i, a former Minister of Intelligence for the regime and a notorious figure directly implicated in some of the worst human rights abuses in the dark history of the Islamic Republic – not least the National Catastrophe of 1988* when, under a veil of secrecy, thousands of imprisoned opposition activists and supporters were systematically annihilated through mass executions conducted in the space of just a few months.

*The mass execution of prisoners in the summer of 1988, the ominous 35th anniversary of which is rapidly approaching, had the effect of essentially all but wiping out any organised political opposition to the theocratic dictatorship inside the country by the beginning of the 1990s and is still keenly felt across Iranian society to this day.  The event is widely deemed by civil and human rights groups around the world to have constituted a crime against humanity.

According to “The Request to Investigate the Operations of Bar Associations and their Union”, Iranian parliamentarians and the aforementioned state security forces will have multiple avenues open for them to pursue in their “inquiry”.  These principally include:

–         Scrutinising the basis for admittance and membership of the IBA – covering entrance exams, assessments, and continued accreditation of members;

–         Collecting of IBA accreditation lists, supposedly as a means of determining members’ legal competence;

–         Examining the IBA’s accounts and budgets to assess the income and resourcing of its branches/chapters around the country as well as its central hub, and how income/resources are allocated thereafter.

–         Scrutinising the procedures for elections and internal processes for the appointment of the board of directors of the IBA chapters and central union.

While these measures ostensibly might be deemed a fairly normal act of government regulatory overview elsewhere, they are anything but such under the theocratic regime – a dictatorship with a long track record of harassment, intimidation, and persecution of defence lawyers and legal rights advocates, not to mention an even worse record when it comes to the routine failure to adhere to what are regarded internationally as basic legal norms and standards as well as the affording of any semblance of due process.

Through this passed parliamentary motion, the regime security forces will be able to compile lists and further shore-up its intelligence on the membership and activity of the IBA and, through its empowerment to review the legal qualifications and accreditations of its members, will be able to exercise control over who can officially advocate on behalf of a defendant and essentially work as a lawyer – thus rooting out any potentially “troublesome” characters as well the last line of defence for those put before the courts on political charges, who are sometimes being tried for their very lives.

Article 48 of the Islamic Republic’s Criminal Code of Procedure also enables its courts to restrict those defendants held on politically motivated grounds to choosing their legal advocate from a list approved by Chief Justice Mohseni-Eje’i.

Since the sparking of months of popular unrest following the killing in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September 2022, at least 44 lawyers and legal advocates have been detained by the regime, several violently so, and more than 100 have been arraigned before the regime’s courts on various spurious charges, according to a report by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).

Independent lawyers representing detained civil, human, and trade union rights activists; protesters; and journalists have been prevented from accessing case files and even meeting their clients rendering them unable to mount a defence against the often gravely serious charges they face.  This represents a continuation of the Islamic Republic regime’s long and shameful history of persecuting not only political dissidents, but those minded to defend them in the dictatorship’s courts.

The sentencing of prominent Iranian human rights lawyer and women’s rights defender Nasrin Sotoudeh to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes in a new case against her is an outrageous injustice, said Amnesty International on 11 March 2019.  The sentence, brings her total sentence after two grossly unfair trials to 38 years in prison. In September 2016, she had been sentenced in her absence to five years in prison in a separate case. 

For decades now, IBA members have been routinely hounded by state agencies or have found themselves on the wrong end of malicious prosecutions.  Over the years, many have been sentenced to imprisonment, tortured – even executed – or have been forced to give up their profession or flee the country.

A major irony of this situation is that Islamic Republic officials – a countless number of whom have presided over flagrant human rights abuses with complete impunity inside Iran – deem to pursue and scrutinise an independent body like the IBA, while no such mechanism to hold to account a publicly funded state organisation exists in parallel.

Amirsalar Davoudi is an Iranian human rights lawyer was sentenced to 30 years in prison and 111 lashes for his human rights work. Amnesty International calls for his immediate and unconditional release. Davoudi has been defending some of Iranian political prisoners and religious and ethnic minorities. He was also active on social media criticizing the violation of human rights in his country.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that according to the Iranian parliament’s own regulations; the legislative branch only has the remit to investigate organisations that receive funding from the state coffers and national budget – which does not extend to the IBA, an independent body that receives no public funding whatsoever. 

CODIR condemns this latest affront to human and legal rights committed by the Islamic Republic dictatorship, represented in the parliament-sanctioned probe of the Iranian Bar Association.  This is another cynical move on the part of the ruling regime, clearly designed to neutralise and take out one of the few remaining independent organisations providing a recourse and defence for those daring to defy or speak out against the dictatorship.

CODIR urges the equivalent counterpart organisations to the Iranian Bar Association around the world, as well as international human rights organisations, to also voice their unequivocal condemnation of this move by the authorities in Iran, and to demonstrate their solidarity with their embattled fellow lawyers and legal advocates in the country.

CODIR once more calls for a definitive end to these spurious prosecutions and trials on politically motivated grounds, the affording of due process as a bare minimum to anyone put before the courts in Iran, as well as the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in the country. 

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