Profiles: Iran’s Jailed Human Rights Lawyers

Since February 2018, Iran has imprisoned at least nine prominent human rights lawyers who were representing activists, dissidents or political prisoners, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran. Others have been subject to harassment or faced shorter detentions. Amnesty International called the campaign “part of an escalating crackdown to quash Iran’s civil society.” The Islamic Republic has regularly charged lawyers with vague crimes against the state, held them for arbitrary and lengthy periods before trial, and denied them access to an attorney of their choice, the State Department’s 2019 Human Rights Report concluded. Lawyers and others affiliated with the Defenders of Human Rights Center advocacy group have been subjected to “excessive sentences and punishments for engaging in regular professional activities,” it reported.

Tehran’s increasing harassment of human rights defenders has been widely condemned by international organizations. In mid-2019, a report by the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Iran accused the government of using “increasing levels of intimidation, arrest and detention for providing legal counsel to dissenting voices.” Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, warned that the courts have been colluding with intelligence agencies to prosecute lawyers “so that any last hopes for defending due process are extinguished, with the tacit approval of Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi and the Rouhani government.”

Iran’s abuse of its own judicial system has further undermined Iran’s image and standing in the international community. “Iranian authorities continue to dig a hole for their domestic and international credibility as they lock up scores of lawyers and activists for the ‘crime’ of defending citizens’ fundamental rights,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “At a time when everyday life is increasingly difficult for millions of Iranians, rights advocates should be an essential part of solving collective problems, instead of a primary target of the government’s crackdown.” The following are profiles of lawyers imprisoned or banned from practice on national security charges.

 

Amirsalar Davoudi

Davoudi is a Tehran lawyer who was born around 1990. He has represented clients charged with political or national security offenses, including Zeinab Jalalian, a Kurdish political prisoner, and Soheil Arabi, a blogger sentenced to death in 2014 for “insulting the Prophet of Islam.” (Arabi’s sentence was reduced in 2015 to seven-a-half years and mandatory religious education). Davoudi has championed freedom of speech and was known for representing human rights or political defendants for minimal cost or free of charge.

 

On November 2018, Davoudi was arrested in Tehran and charged with “propaganda against the state.” He was held in a solitary cell in Evin Prison and was denied access to Vahid Farahani, his defense attorney. From November 2018 to April 2019, Davoudi was only permitted sporadic visits from Tanaz Kolahchian, his wife and a lawyer. On April 16, Farahani reported that Davoudi faced four charges, including “forming a group to overthrow the state.” The charges were related to a channel that Davoudi created and managed on the Telegram social media app. The channel was a public forum for thousands of people to discuss legal issues, mainly related to trade unions.

On June 1, 2019, Davoudi was sentenced to 30 years in prison and 111 lashes. Article 134 of Iran’s penal code allows people charged with multiple convictions to serve sentences concurrently, with the maximum time in jail from the longest sentence; his sentence was effectively 15 years. Davoudi chose not to object to the verdict. Amnesty International condemned the harsh sentence and launched a campaign to advocate for his release. A group of exiled Iranian lawyers wrote an open letter praising Davoudi’s integrity and criticizing the decision to convict him “merely for defending victims of the judiciary and security agents.”

In November 2019, a year after his arrest, Davoudi wrote an open letter to the people of Iran reaffirming belief in free speech and the right of citizens not to be prosecuted for expressing their views. The Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) dedicated its 2019 Human Rights Award to Davoudi as well as to Nasrin Sotoudeh, Mohammad Najafi and Abdolfatah Soltani, all Iranian human rights lawyers. 

In February 2020, Davoudi went on a 10-day hunger strike after authorities denied his request for temporary release so he could see his young daughter, whom he had not seen in fifteen months. In March 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, United for Iran, an advocacy group, demanded the release of Davoudi and 18 other imprisoned lawyers.

 

Payam Derafshan

Derafshan is a Tehran lawyer who started studying law at the University of Tehran in 2000. He has taken high-profile cases of human rights activists charged with political or national security offenses, including Nasrin Sotoudeh and Mohammad Najafi, both human rights lawyers. He also represented Kavous Seyed-Emami, an Iranian-Canadian professor and environmentalist who was accused of espionage in January 2018 and died in Evin Prison less than three weeks later.

 

In May 2018, Derafshan signed a petition that challenged the judicial ban on the Telegram social media app. In August, Derafshan was arrested in the Tehran suburb of Karaj while visiting the family of Arash Keyhosravi, another human rights attorney who had also signed the petition and been detained. Derafshan was charged with “insulting judicial authorities.” In January 2020, the Islamic Revolution Court in Karaj convicted him of “insulting the Supreme Leader.” His lawyers were barred from attending the trial, Saeed Dehgan, his defense attorney, said in May 2020. “They were allowed to read a few pages of the case file after the verdict was issued, which is a violation of the law.” Derafshan was sentenced to two years in prison and banned from practicing law for an additional two years.

In May 2020, an appeals court suspended Derafshan’s sentence--which meant that it would not be enforced unless the same offence was committed again-- but it upheld the professional ban. On June 8, 2020, Derafshan was arrested again and held in Evin Prison, again without access to his lawyer. The government did not clarify whether he was detained because of new charges or the previous case.

 

Soheila Hejab

Hejab is a Kurdish lawyer and activist in the city of Shiraz who was born in 1990 in the eastern province of Kermanshah. Hejab is reportedly a supporter of Reza Pahlavi, heir to the exiled Pahlavi monarchy and founder of Farashgard, an exiled opposition group. Hejab has called for regime change as well as legal rights for defendants and ethical treatment of political prisoners.

 

In December 2018, Hejab was arrested in Shiraz and charged with “supporting an anti-state organization.” She served five months of a two-year sentence. On June 6, 2019, ten days after her release, Revolutionary Guard intelligence agents raided Hejab’s home and rearrested her. She was detained in the women’s ward of Evin Prison. Hejab claimed that she was subjected to physical abuse at Evin and was once temporarily transferred to the hospital. 

In December 2019, Hejab wrote a letter from Evin that criticized the government for denying legal rights to defendants and brutalizing demonstrators during the nationwide protests that began in November 2019. She also said that she had gone on a hunger strike but ended it after authorities falsely promised to release her. In February 2020, Hejab and 11 female political prisoners wrote an open letter calling on voters to boycott the parliamentary elections.

In March 2020, Hejab was released on bail. Five days later, a Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced her to 18 years in prison for four offenses, including “gathering and planning against national security” and “joining opposition groups to defend women’s rights.” Article 134 of Iran’s penal code allows people charged with multiple convictions to serve sentences concurrently, with the maximum time in jail from the longest sentence; Hejab’s sentence was effectively seven years and six months. On May 23, 2020, an appeals court upheld her sentence, and Hejab was transferred to Qarchak Prison outside Tehran.

Hejab reported hat she was severely beaten after her appeal. She also claimed that an interrogator repeatedly threatened to kill her. On June 16, 2020, she began another hunger strike to protest her incarceration and harassment of her family. In an audio message in June 2020, Hejab demanded that authorities release her brother from prison and transfer Zeinab Jalalian—a Kurdish political prisoner diagnosed with coronavirus—out of Qarchak. Hejab also called on Iranians to demand their rights and take action against a regime that has “committed terrible murders.”

 

Arash Keykhosravi

Keykhosravi is a Tehran lawyer who was born in Saqqez City in Kurdistan province. He has taken high-profile human rights cases of people facing political charges. In early 2018, he and Payam Derafshan represented Kavous Seyed Emami, an Iranian-Canadian professor and environmentalist who was accused of espionage in January and died in Evin prison less than three weeks later. In February 2018, the two lawyers also took the case of Mohammad Najafi, another imprisoned human rights attorney, but they were ultimately blocked from representing him. Keykhosravi has advocated transparency in elections and the ethical treatment of prisoners.

 

In May 2018, Keykhosravi and other lawyers—including Derafshan—signed a petition that challenged the judicial ban on the Telegram social media app. On August 18, Keykhosravi and Ghasem Sholeh-Saadi, a former member of parliament, were arrested during a peaceful rally outside Parliament to protest the new Caspian Sea Agreement, which reduced Iran’s shares of the Caspian Sea’s resources by nearly 50 percent. Demonstrators also protested powers granted to the Guardian Council to vet all political candidates. Keykhosravi was charged with “propaganda against the system” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”

On August 30, several dozen lawyers signed an open letter demanding the release of Keykhosravi and Sholeh-Saadi. Keykhosravi was sentenced to six years in prison in December 2018. In January 2020, a Tehran appeals court acquitted Keykhosravi of all charges.

In April 2020, Keykhosravi co-wrote a letter that demanded the release of all eligible prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter condemened the unhealthy prison conditions and the vulnerability of prisoners to the disease. In June 2020, Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that Keykhosravi was charged with “publishing falsehoods” because he criticized the arrest of Mohammad Najafi, a fellow human rights lawyer. Details about the new case against Keykhosravi, however, were unclear.

 

Mohammad Najafi

Mohammad Najafi, a lawyer and pro-democracy activist, was born around 1975 in Arak. He has protested government corruption, mistreatment of factory workers and police brutality. Najafi was arrested in 2009 for participating in the Green Movement protests and again in 2016 for wearing a shirt that commemorated the Green Movement. Najafi claimed that the authorities were “trying to grind him into oblivion” through repeated arrests and judicial harassment.

 

In December 2017, Vahid Heydari, one of Najafi’s clients, was arrested during economic protests; he died days later in Arak Prison. In January 2018, Najafi challenged the official claim that Heydari had committed suicide. A week later, Najafi was arrested and charged with eight offenses, including “organizing with the intention to disturb national security,” “propaganda against the state” and “insulting the supreme leader.” Four other human rights activists in Arak were also arrested in connection to his case. Najafi was denied access to his own attorneys. He was released on bail in April.

After his release, Najafi announced that he would continue working on Haydari's case. He was arrested again in October 2018 and sentenced to three years in prison and 74 lashes for “publishing falsehoods” and “disturbing the public state.” In December, Najafi was sentenced to an additional 14 years in prison. In January 2019, a Shazand court sentenced Najafi to two more years in prison for “disturbing public opinion” because of a letter he posted on Facebook. Addressed to Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the letter criticized government corruption and neglect of the poor.

In August 2019, Najafi was transferred to solitary confinement in Arak Prison, where he went on a hunger strike until he was returned to a general prison ward four days later. In September, Najafi protested his detention with another letter to Khameini. In November 2019, the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) dedicated its 2019 Human Rights Award to Najafi as well as to Nasrin Sotoudeh, Amir Salar Davudi and Abdolfatah Soltani, all Iranian human rights lawyers. 

In December 2019, Najafi refused to appear in court on three separate dates. He was sentenced to three years and ten months for “insulting the supreme leader” and “agitating the public consciousness.” Najafi was temporarily released in March 2020 during the Covid-19 outbreak. Advocacy groups, including United for Iran and the CCBE, have called for his release.

 

Ghasem Sholeh-Saadi 

Sholeh-Saadi is a lawyer, academic and former member of parliament, who was born in 1954. He represented the district of Shiraz from 1988 to 1996. He later worked as a professor of law and international relations at Tehran University. Sholeh-Saadi has criticized the government’s opposition to reform movements, its efforts to suppress educational freedom, and its lack of transparency.

 

Sholeh-Saadi registered as an independent candidate in the presidential election of 2001. In December 2002, he published a letter that questioned Ayatollah Khamenei’s religious credentials and accused him of undermining democracy. He was arrested in Tehran in February 2003 and charged with “insulting the authorities,” “acting against national security” and spreading propaganda against the state. He served 36 days of an 18-month sentence. Sholeh-Saadi claimed that he was released on bail because of his poor health; his wife said that he suffered a spinal injury in prison that caused paralysis in his left hand.

Sholeh-Saadi returned to teaching at Tehran University. In 2009, Sholeh-Saadi attempted to register as a presidential candidate but was disqualified by the Guardian Council. He was arrested again in April 2011. The prosecutor general said that Sholeh-Saadi was arrested because he had not fulfilled his 2003 sentence. In August, his wife reported that he developed shingles but was denied proper medical attention. In October, Sholeh Saadi was sentenced to another year for “insulting the supreme leader” through his letters and statements. The court banned him from teaching or practicing law for ten years.

Sholeh-Saadi was released in August 2012. He registered as a candidate for president in the 2013 election; he later said that he had been warned against talking with foreign media. In February 2016, the Supreme Disciplinary Court for Judges barred Sholeh-Saadi and two-dozen other lawyers from running in elections for the Iranian Bar Association’s board of directors. Sholeh-Saadi criticized the decision but did not appeal it. “Once the Supreme Disciplinary Court for Judges issues a decision,” he said, “there’s basically no hope.” In 2017, Sholeh-Saadi again registered as a presidential candidate.

On August 18, 2018, Sholeh-Saadi was arrested during a peaceful rally outside Parliament. The rally was to protest the new Caspian Sea Agreement, which reduced Iran’s shares of the Caspian Sea’s resources by nearly 50 percent. Demonstrators also protested the power of the Guardian Council to vet  political candidates. Arash Keykhosravi, another human rights attorney, was arrested along with Sholeh-Saadi.

On August 30, several dozen lawyers signed a letter demanding the release of Sholeh-Saadi and Keykhosravi. In December 2018, Sholeh-Saadi was sentenced to six years in prison. In January 2020, a Tehran appeals court acquitted Sholeh Saadi of all charges.

 

Abdolfattah Soltani

Abdolfattah Soltani is a Tehran lawyer and co-founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Center who was born in 1953. He has provided legal and financial support to political prisoners. He has taken high-profile cases of people charged with political crimes, including Akbar Ganji, a journalist imprisoned from 2001 to 2005 for implicating government officials in the murder of dissidents, and Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was arrested in June 2003 for photographing detainees’ families outside Evin Prison and died 18 days later. Soltani has championed defendants’ rights and challenged the persecution of the Baha’i minority.

 

In July 2005, Soltani was charged with “transferring classified information” related to an ongoing case in which his clients  were charged with giving nuclear secrets to the United States and Israel. Mohammad Dadkhah, Soltani’s lawyer, claimed that his arrest was instead retaliation for his investigation into Kazemi’s death. Soltani was denied  access to his attorney for five months. He was released on bail in March 2006. Four months later, he was sentenced to five years in prison. An appeals court acquitted him in May 2007 but confiscated his passport.

Four days after the mid-2009 presidential election, Soltani was again detained for 70 days. He spent 17 days in solitary confinement. In July, he was offered a temporary furlough to attend his sister’s funeral but rejected it because of an order that he not speak to the media. He was released on bail in August. Soltani later claimed that he was arrested for questioning the election results and associating with Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel prize-winning human rights attorney and co-founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Center.  

 In October 2009, Soltani won the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award for fighting for human rights “with admirable courage and at high personal risk.” Soltani’s wife accepted the award on his behalf because he was still barred from travel abroad.

Soltani was arrested again in September 2011 on charges of “spreading propaganda against the system,” “setting up an illegal opposition group,” “gathering and colluding with intent to harm national security” and “accepting an illegal prize and illegal earnings.” The charges were connected to his founding of the Defenders of Human Rights Center and the Nuremberg award. In March 2012, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison and was barred from practicing law for 20 years. In June, an appeals court reduced the sentence to 13 years.

Soltani received the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Award in October, 2012. In November 2013, he went on a hunger strike to protest poor medical treatment for prisoners. Soltani’s family reported that he had severe coronary and digestive problems in 2013 and was hospitalized for 41 days. In June 2014, 100 lawyers wrote an open letter to Sadeq Larijani, head of the judiciary, demanding a new trial for Soltani. In January 2016, he received a 21-day medical furlough but was sent back to Evin Prison before full recovery; he was hospitalized again in May for heart issues. Soltani’s family has repeatedly petitioned for better medical treatment and medical furloughs.

In September 2016, the Defenders of Human Rights Center reported that Soltani’s sentence was reduced to 10 years, with a two-year ban on practicing law after his release. Article 134 of Iran’s penal code stipulates that anyone convicted of multiple offenses must serve only the maximum sentence for the biggest offense. In August 2018, Soltani was given a temporary furlough for the funeral of his daughter. He returned to prison on October 28 but was released on parole one month later. 

In November 2019, the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) dedicated its 2019 Human Rights Award to Soltani as well as Nasrin Sotoudeh, Mohammad Najafi, Amir Salar Davoudi, all Iranian human rights lawyers. 

 

Nasrin Sotoudeh

Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was born in 1963, is one of the most prominent human rights lawyers in Iran and a vocal critic of its judicial process, treatment of women and death penalty. She has represented Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi as well as women’s rights activists, victims of domestic abuseminors on death row, journalists and Kurdish rights activists.

 

Before the 2009 presidential election, Sotoudeh was an active member of the Iranian Women’s Coalition, which demanded gender equality in the law. After the post-election protests, Sotoudeh represented the families of demonstrators killed by government forces. She was arrested after a raid on her home in September 2010. She was charged with “propaganda against the system” as well as “acting against national security.”  In January 2011, she received an 11-year prison sentence that was later reduced to six years after international outcry from the United Nations and international human rights groups. Sotoudeh was given early release in September 2013.

In 2013, Sotoudeh co-founded the Campaign for Step By Step Abolition of the Death Penalty, known by the Farsi acronym LEGAM. LEGAM was established to advocate legislation that would abolish capital punishment. In early 2018, she took the case of Narges Hosseini, an activist arrested for protesting the law requiring hijab, or head covering, who refused to attend her own trial. Hosseini “objects to the forced hijab and considers it her legal right to express her protest,” Sotoudeh said. “She is not prepared to say she is sorry.”

On June 4, 2018, Sotoudeh criticized Iran’s Criminal Procedures Regulations, which forces defendants facing security charges to select a lawyer from a list pre-approved by the judiciary. “A number of lawyers have said they are ready to hold a protest sit-in if necessary,” Sotoudeh said. On June 13, 2018, she was again arrested. According to Sotoudeh’s husband, government agents did not explain the charges but informed her that she had been sentenced to five years in prison. In August 2018, Payam Derafshan, Sotoudeh’s lawyer, reported that the five-year sentence was based on a charge of “espionage in hiding” issued in absentia in 2015. The subsequent charges against her included “membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center, the LEGAM group (against capital punishment), and the National Peace Council,” as well as “encouraging people to corruption and prostitution.” The “corruption and prostitution” charge may have been connected to Sotoudeh’s defense of Hosseini.

Sotoudeh refused to appear at her trial in December 2018 to protest the state’s refusal to let her use her own attorney. On March 11, 2019, she was convicted of seven offenses and sentenced to 148 lashes and 33 years in addition to the earlier five-year sentence. Under Article 134 of Iran’s penal code, a person convicted of multiple offenses can serve the maximum sentence for the biggest offense. Sotoudeh later claimed that the longest sentence was twelve years for “encouraging…  corruption and prostitution.”

The United States, United Nations, European Union and international human rights groups condemned Sotoudeh’s sentence, but she refused to appeal the case on grounds that she did not accept the legitimacy of the verdict or the judicial system. In November 2019, the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) dedicated its 2019 Human Rights Award to Sotoudeh as well as to Mohammad Najafi, Amir Salar Davoudi and Abdolfatah Soltani, all Iranian human rights lawyers. 

In March 2020, Sotoudeh wrote an open letter for International Women’s Day. She called for an end to the “systematic” violation of women’s rights in Iran and appealed to the Iranian and U.S. governments to set aside their rivalries for the sake of their female citizens. Ten days later, Sotoudeh began a hunger strike to demand freedom for all political prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic. Three activists imprisoned in Evin joined her protest. Nasrin claimed that she understood the medical risks of beginning a hunger strike during the Coronavirus outbreak and that she resorted to the protest as a “last resort.”

 

Other Lawyers:

Hoda Amid, arrested in September 2018, three days before leading a workshop on gender equality in marriage. No charges were announced, and she was released on bail in November 2018.

Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, arrested in 2012 for “spreading propaganda against the system through interviews with foreign media” and “membership in the Center for the Defenders of Human Rights,” and sentenced to 8 years and a ten-year ban on practicing law. Dadkhah was released on furlough 2013, but the court upheld his professional ban.

Farrokh Forouzan, arrested along with Payam Derafshan in August 2018 while visiting the home of Arash Keykhosravi, a detained human rights lawyer. He was charged with “insulting the leadership” and sentenced to two years. His sentence was suspended in May 2020.

Mehdi Houshman-Rahimi, sentenced in absentia in December 2018 to five years for “spreading propaganda against the system,” “insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic,” and “[making] insulting remarks during a speech on November 17, 2016.” After failing to respond to summons, he was sentenced in absentia in January 2019 to two years for “insulting the head of the judiciary” and “insulting the supreme leader.” He was permitted to remain free until the end of his appeal process.

Farhad Mohammadi, arrested in January 2019 on unannounced charges. Mohammadi is the secretary of the National Unity Party in Kurdistan and was arrested along with at least eight other Kurdish activists. He was released on bail in July 2019.  

Masood Shamsnejad, arrested in January 2019 and charged with “spreading propaganda against the system” and “membership of a Kurdish opposition party.” He was sentenced to six years in February 2019.

Zeinab Taheri, arrested in June 2018 for “inciting public opinion and mobilizing the counterrevolution against the judiciary.” She was detained a day after the execution of Mohammad Salass, her client. Taheri had promised to publish evidence proving Salass’s innocence. She was released on bail in August 2018.

 

Casey Donahue, a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, assembled this report.