U.S. Report: Unfair Judicial System in Iran

Iran’s judicial system, including both civil and Islamic courts, failed to adhere to international standards of fairness in 2023, the State Department reported. Authorities often did not uphold rights guaranteed under the constitution, including access to a lawyer. One major loophole was the ability of judges to use their own interpretation of Islamic law to rule on situations not covered under existing statutes. Courts also “routinely admitted as evidence confessions made under duress or torture.” Prosecutors used vague charges, including “antirevolutionary behavior” and “corruption on earth,” to imprison political dissidents. The following are excerpts from the State Department’s annual human rights report.

Mahan Sadrat Madani was sentenced to death for moharebeh in 2022




The constitution provided for an independent judiciary, but the court system was subjected to political influence, and judges were appointed “in accordance with religious criteria.” International observers criticized the lack of independence of the country’s judicial system and maintained that trials did not adhere to international standards of fairness.


Trial Procedures

The constitution and law provided defendants the right to a fair trial, to be presumed innocent until convicted, to have access to a lawyer of their choice, and to appeal convictions in most cases that involved major penalties. These rights were frequently not upheld.

Panels of judges adjudicated trials in civil and criminal courts. Human rights activists reported trials in which authorities appeared to have determined the verdicts in advance, and defendants did not have the opportunity to confront their accusers or meet with lawyers. For journalists and defendants charged with crimes against national security, the law restricted the choice of attorneys to a government-approved list.

When statutes enacted since the founding of the Islamic Republic did not address a situation, the government advised judges to give precedence to their knowledge and interpretation of sharia (Islamic law). Under this method, judges could find a person guilty based on the judges’ own “divine knowledge.”

The constitution did not provide for the establishment or the mandate of the revolutionary courts, which were originally created after the 1979 revolution as a temporary measure to try high-level officials of the deposed monarchy, but they were institutionalized and continued to operate in parallel to the criminal justice system. Human rights groups and international observers often identified the revolutionary courts, which were generally responsible for hearing the cases of political prisoners, as routinely holding grossly unfair trials without due process, handing down predetermined verdicts, and rubberstamping executions for political purposes. These unfair practices reportedly occurred during all stages of criminal proceedings in revolutionary courts, including the initial prosecution and pretrial investigation, first instance trial, and review by higher courts.

Human rights groups and international media noted the absence of procedural safeguards in criminal trials, and courts routinely admitted as evidence confessions made under duress or torture. Often these forced confessions were broadcast on state television.

The Special Clerical Court was headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, overseen by the supreme leader, and charged with investigating alleged offenses committed by clerics and issuing rulings based on an independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources. As with the revolutionary courts, the constitution did not provide for the Special Clerical Court, which operated outside the judiciary’s purview. Clerical courts were used to prosecute clerics who expressed controversial ideas and participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities.

In January, the Kurdistan Human Rights Network reported that the Special Clerical Court of Hamedan sentenced Kurdish Sunni cleric Seyyed Seyfollah Hosseini to 17 years in prison and 74 lashes for his membership in the religious movement of the Kurdistan Quran School. Charges included inciting persons to disrupt the security of the country, for insulting the founder and leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, for disrupting public order, and for propaganda against the regime. The court also stripped Hosseini of his clerical status.


Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were numerous NGO reports of political prisoners and detainees. Although there were no official statistics regarding the number of citizens imprisoned for their political beliefs, the NGO United for Iran identified at least 1,074 prisoners of conscience in the country at year’s end.

The four most common reasons for imprisonment were “propaganda against the regime,” “disruption of public order,” “gathering and collusion with the intention of acting against national security,” and “membership in groups opposed to the regime.” The government often charged political dissidents with vague crimes, some of which carried the death penalty, such as “antirevolutionary behavior,” “corruption on earth,” “siding with global arrogance,” “waging war against God,” and “crimes against Islam.” Prosecutors sought strict penalties against government critics for minor violations.

The political crimes law defined a “political crime” as “propaganda” or “insult” against the ruling establishment, or acts committed with “the intent to reform the domestic or foreign policies of Iran,” while those with the intent to “damage the foundations of the ruling establishment” were considered national security crimes. Insulting or defaming government officials, visiting heads of state, or political representatives were considered political crimes. Courts and the Public Prosecutor’s Office retained responsibility for determining the nature of the crime.

Under the political crimes law, the accused had certain rights during arrest and imprisonment. Individuals charged with political crimes were to be held in detention facilities separate from ordinary criminals; exempt from wearing prison uniforms, not subject to rules governing repeat offenses, not subject to extradition, and exempt from solitary confinement unless judicial officials deem it necessary. They also had the right to see and correspond with immediate family regularly, and to access books, newspapers, radio, and television. Many of the law’s provisions were not implemented, however, and the government continued to arrest and charge students, journalists, lawyers, political activists, women’s rights activists, artists, and members of religious minorities with “national security” crimes. Political prisoners were also at greater risk of torture and abuse in detention and were mixed with the general prison population, increasing the chance of attacks by fellow prisoners.

The government often placed or “exiled” political prisoners to prisons in remote provinces far from their families as a means of reprisal, denied them correspondence rights and access to legal counsel, and held them in solitary confinement for long periods. The government reportedly held some detainees in prison for years on unfounded charges of sympathizing with real or alleged terrorist groups.

Lawyers who defended political prisoners or expressed support for them were often summoned to court, arrested, detained, and in some cases prosecuted for engaging in regular professional activities or advocacy. In October, the Kurdistan Human Rights Network reported that Saleh Nikbakht, lawyer of the family of Mahsa Zhina Amini, was sentenced to one year in prison for propaganda against the regime. The government imprisoned lawyers and others affiliated with the Defenders of Human Rights Center advocacy group.

The government issued travel bans on some former political prisoners, barred them from working in their occupations for years after incarceration, and imposed internal exile on some. Authorities occasionally gave political prisoners suspended sentences and released them on bail with the understanding that renewed political activity would result in their return to prison. The government did not permit international humanitarian organizations or UN representatives access to political prisoners.

In September, prison authorities beat human rights defender and journalist Narges Mohammadi for refusing to wear a hijab during a routine medical examination. She had been incarcerated at Evin and Qarchak Prisons since 2021 serving a nine-year and eight-month sentence on politically motivated “national security” charges. As a result of her legal advocacy for human rights and gender equality, campaign against the death penalty, and criticism of the regime’s use of torture and sexual violence, she had been arrested 13 times and sentenced to a total of 31 years in prison and 154 lashes as of year’s end.

In January, Mohammadi released a letter in which she expressed her willingness to testify to acts of assault, torture, and sexual assault she observed while in Evin Prison. In late April, Mohammadi submitted written comments to an online Clubhouse discussion titled “Dialogue for Saving Iran,” which led to the arrests of several participants. In May, Mohammadi participated in a sit-in protest against executions with a group of women prisoners at Evin Prison. In August, Mohammadi was sentenced to an additional year in prison for propaganda against the regime, following a complaint by the Ministry of Intelligence related to Mohammadi’s activities in prison.

In October, Mohammadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Nasser Kanaani reacted by saying, “The Nobel Peace Committee has awarded its peace prize to someone who has been found guilty of frequently violating the law and engaging in criminal acts. We condemn the move by the Nobel committee as spiteful and politically motivated.”

According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency, as of December 2, officials at Evin Prison were denying Mohammadi the right to meet with her family or contact them by telephone. According to PEN America, after her children received the Nobel Peace Prize on her behalf on December 10, the Revolutionary Court tried and charged her with an additional sentence on December 19. She was simultaneously notified that for “political and security” reasons, she would be forced to serve out her sentence outside of Tehran.

Political prisoner Fatemeh Sepehri reported that she had been sentenced to 18 additional years in prison for “propaganda against the regime,” “collaborating with hostile governments,” and “insulting the supreme leader,” among other charges. This added to her earlier sentence of one year from January. Sepehri had been jailed several times in the past decade, once after signing the “Statement of 14 Political Activists” in 2019, which called for the resignation of the supreme leader and a new constitution. She was most recently jailed during the Mahsa Zhina Amini protests of 2022. In September, Sepehri’s brother reported that authorities had prevented Sepehri from undergoing medical tests in prison that were prescribed by doctors.

As of year’s end, six environmentalists affiliated with the now defunct Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation – Niloufar Bayani, Sepideh Kashani, Sam Rajabi, Taher Ghadirian, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, and Houman Jokar – remained incarcerated in Evin Prison on various “national security” charges, which were often used to silence critics of the government.

In February, authorities announced a general amnesty that led to the release of many political prisoners, including Mohammad Rasoulof, Shapour Ehsani Rad, Zhila Karamzadeh Makvandi, Arash Ganji, Vajiheh Pari Zanganeh, Zahra Mohammadi, Mehdi Darini, Asrin Darkaleh, Reza Khandan Mahabadi, Mojgan Ilanlu, and Kamal Jafari Yazdi.

Many of the released prisoners already had served years in prison, and several had engaged in hunger strikes to protest their prolonged imprisonment and poor conditions. Former body builder Khaled Pirzadeh reported to the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran that, as a result of beatings and torture by prison agents, he suffered a fractured spine and broken leg and had lost more than half his body weight. When he was released from prison in February, he was unable to walk. Pirzadeh was arrested in 2019 after being accused of writing antigovernment slogans. He was sentenced to seven years in prison for assembly and collusion and insulting the leadership. Pirzadeh was arrested again in September as he was attempting to leave Iran and remained in prison at year’s end.

Some of those released were reportedly forced to sign a “statement of repentance” as a condition for amnesty. Some were later rearrested, including Sara Sabet Rasekh (sentenced to eight years in prison in June), Zartosht Ahmadi Ragheb (rearrested in March and sentenced to five years in prison), Ali Asghar Hasani-Rad (rearrested in August and sentenced to eight years in prison), Meysam Dehbanzadeh (sentenced to six years in prison in August), and Sakineh Parvaneh (sentenced to seven and a half years in prison in September).



The constitution allowed the government to confiscate property acquired illicitly or in a manner not in conformity with Islamic law. The government appeared to target religious minorities, journalists, and dissidents in invoking this provision.

In June, a member of the Baha’i community, Hami Bahadori, was sentenced to five years in prison for gathering and collusion, and an additional one-year sentence for spreading propaganda against the regime under the guise of preaching for Baha’is. According to the verdict, authorities also seized property belonging to him and his wife, including a computer, camera, hard drive, modem, and jewelry. According to credible reports, authorities routinely seized property of other Baha’is arrested during the year.

In July, human rights lawyer Marzieh Mohebbi reported she had been sentenced to “exclusion from Estiman,” an Islamic law concept permitting authorities to seize the property and assets of “nonbelievers.” IranWire reported that this was the first known case of the Islamic law concept being used against a political dissident.



The constitution stated that “reputation, life, property, [and] dwelling[s]” were protected from trespass, except as “provided by law.” The government routinely infringed on this right. Security forces monitored the social activities of citizens; entered homes, offices, and places of worship; monitored telephone conversations and internet communications; and opened mail without court authorization. No comprehensive data protection laws existed to provide legal safeguards to protect users’ data from misuse. The operation of domestic messaging applications was based inside the country, and content shared on these applications was susceptible to government control and surveillance. Authorities also claimed to use facial recognition technology to identify and punish violators of mandatory hijab laws.

The government routinely intimidated activists and government critics by detaining their family members as a form of reprisal. In June, security forces arrested several family members of protester Abolfazl Adinehzadeh, age 16, according to the family’s lawyer. Abolfazl’s sister, father, and uncle were arrested on June 16, and his mother and other relatives were also later arrested. The family’s lawyer said Abolfazl’s relatives were violently arrested despite not having engaged in any illegal acts. The arrests came after Abolfazl’s mother reported that authorities rebuked her for including the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” on her son’s grave.

According to IranWire, on the one-year anniversary of Mahsa Zhina Amini’s death, September 16, Amini’s father Amjad Amini was temporarily detained by authorities and prohibited from visiting his daughter’s grave or leaving his residence. On September 5, IranWire also reported that Mahsa Zhina Amini’s uncle Safa Aeli was arrested on unknown charges and taken to an undisclosed location.



The government continued to engage in acts of transnational repression to intimidate or exact reprisal against individuals outside of the country’s sovereign borders, including against members of diaspora populations such as political opponents, civil society activists, human rights defenders, and journalists.

Extraterritorial Killing, Kidnapping, Forced Returns, or Other Violence or Threats of Violence: The government was alleged to have killed or kidnapped persons and used violence and threats of violence against individuals in other countries, including to force their return to the country, for purposes of politically motivated reprisal.

In January, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed indictments of Khalid Mehdiyev, Polad Omarov, and Rafat Amirov on charges of murder-for-hire and money laundering in connection with a plot targeting U.S.-based journalist and women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad. In 2021, a New York federal court had unsealed indictments of four different Iranian intelligence officials on charges connected to a plot to kidnap Alinejad and forcibly transport her to Iran to silence her criticism of the Iranian government. The intelligence officials reportedly directed a “network” that targeted and surveilled victims in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

In February, a court sentenced Iranian-German national Jamshid Sharmahd to death on charges of corruption on earth. Sharmahd was a member of the promonarchist group Tondar (Thunder) or Kingdom Assembly of Iran, which was based outside the country. According to IranWire, NGOs, and other reporting, Ministry of Intelligence officials detained Sharmahd in 2020 while he was on a layover in the Dubai airport on his way to India. Shortly after his detention and disappearance in Dubai, a video appeared of him on Press TV, the English-language service arm of the state’s Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) channel, giving a forced confession of planning a terrorist attack in 2008. Sharmahd was accused of being responsible for a deadly 2008 bombing at a religious center in Shiraz and of plotting other attacks, which he denied.

Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: The regime employed a range of tactics to exert pressure on or exact reprisal against individuals located outside the country, including harassment, intimidation, and surveillance, according to multiple NGO sources.

In February, media outlet Iran International temporarily relocated its headquarters from London to Washington, D.C., after London’s Metropolitan Police warned the organization that their journalists were facing threats that posed “an imminent, credible and significant risk to their lives and those of their families.” In an interview with Iran state news agency IRNA in November 2022, Intelligence Minister Esmail Khatib stated the Islamic Republic recognized Iran International as “a terrorist organization” and that anyone affiliated with the channel would be pursued. In September, Iran International moved its headquarters back to London.

Also in February, Norwegian police warned that the Iranian regime had been engaging in digital surveillance of dissidents in Norway. The Head of Counterintelligence for the Norwegian Police Security Service Hanne Blomberg said Iranian authorities had been using the information obtained through cyberespionage to threaten, influence, and plot assassinations against dissidents. According to Blomberg, Iranian digital espionage involved hacking and gaining control of the mobile devices and computers of Iranians residing in Norway and infecting the devices with malware through malicious SMSs (texting) or emails.

Microsoft reported that the U.S.-sanctioned Iranian “cybersecurity” firm Emennet Pasargad was behind cyberattacks on the website of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in early January. The magazine was hit by the cyberattack after it published cartoons of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Iranian officials harshly condemned the “insulting” cartoons and vowed an “effective response.”

In March, the Washington D.C.-based National Union for Democracy in Iran reported that its website experienced a significant cyberattack after the organization unveiled a new “Maximum Support” policy focused on supporting the Iranian people.