Iranian lawyers and human rights activists are voicing outrage over a list published by the Islamic Republic’s judiciary of “authorized” attorneys who are now the only ones allowed to defend people charged with political and national security crimes.
Prominent attorney Amir Ra’eisian tweeted June 3 that several lawyers have been told that they are “absolutely banned” from taking on cases involving political and national security charges.
Although judiciary officials maintain that defendants only have to choose from the list for their representation in the preliminary stages of an investigation, scores of lawyers are saying they have been prevented from representing people accused of political and national security crimes at all stages of the legal process.
Ra’eisian said only twenty attorneys in Tehran made the list out of 2,000 members of Tehran’s Bar Association.
“Meanwhile, a number of lawyers, including myself, have been verbally informed that they are absolutely forbidden to defend people suspected of political crimes,” he added.
Judicial offices in several Iranian cities reportedly received the lists of approved lawyers in their jurisdiction in January this year.
Attorney Ali Mojtahedzadeh tweeted that there were “lots of doubts over the implementation of justice at political trials,” which are now practically “confirmed as true” by the publication of the list.
The legal justification for the list is based on Article 48 of Iran’s Criminal Procedures Regulations, which came into effect nearly two years ago.
Article 48 stipulates that people have the right to a meeting with a lawyer as soon as they are detained, however the “Note to Article 48” makes exceptions, stipulating, “In cases of crimes against internal or external security---during the investigation phase, the parties to the dispute are to select their attorneys from a list approved by the head of the judiciary.”
In a letter dated April 16, 2016, the Iranian Bar Association called upon the head of the judiciary Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, to remove the “unfair” Note to Article 48, but received no response.
In a February 17 Op-ed piece in the Iranian daily Vaqaye Etefaqiyeh, renowned attorney Saleh Nikbakht wrote, “[The Note to 48] has curbed lawyers’ independence and debilitated the foundations of fairness from the very beginning of the investigation process. This misstep will lead to nowhere, cost dearly, and raise questions about Iran’s judicial system.”
Many other prominent attorneys, including human rights activist and former political prisoner Nasrin Sotoudeh have joined in condemning the list for violating defendants’ right to choose their own representation.
“It’s like telling someone they can get an operation from only three surgeons selected by us, not any of the thousands of other doctors in the city,” Ms. Sotoudeh told New York based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), adding, “The judiciary chief’s [Sadeq Larijani’s] ill-conceived action is a dangerous precedent.”
However, the head of Tehran’s Justice Department Gholamhossein Esmaeieli has insisted that the Note on Article 48 actually expands defendants’ rights.
“Prior to the ratification of the Note on Article 48, suspects were totally deprived of access to an attorney at the preliminary stages of an investigation, whereas the Note has paved the way for them to pick a lawyer from the list of attorneys authorized by the head of the judiciary.”
In a procedure described as illegal by Iranian lawyers and civil rights activists, suspects detained by agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) and the Intelligence Ministry are deprived of access to lawyers while they are temporarily held in custody.
The Note to Article 48 in Action
There are several known cases of the Note to Article 48 being used to deny due process to people held on politically motivated charges in Iran, including lawyers.
A lawyer who has been detained and is facing eight charges for accusing police in the city of Arak of covering up the real cause of death of his client in custody has been denied access to the counsel of his choice
Several human rights lawyers have been imprisoned in Iran for practicing law, including Abdolfattah Soltani, who is currently serving a 13-year sentence for the charges of “being awarded the  Nuremberg International Human Rights Award,” “giving interviews to the media about his clients’ cases,” and “co-founding the Defenders of Human Rights Center.”
On January 18, 2018, a website devoted to news about Iran’s Sufi Gonabadi minority faith reported that judicial authorities in the city of Yazd denied four detained Gonabadi Dervishes access to their lawyer, citing the Note to Article 48.
Lawyers as Political Stooges
Two other Iranian human rights lawyers, Hossein Ahmadiniaz and Mohammad Moghimi, told CHRI that they were prevented from representing defendants accused of national security charges because of the Note to Article 48.
“Easy access to a lawyer is one of the pillars of justice,” Ahmadiniaz said. “How can a lawyer handpicked and approved by the security establishment defend a suspect accused of political crimes?” he added. “On one side, you have a person accused of political and national security crimes, and on the other side there are representatives of the IRGC and the Intelligence Ministry who show up in Revolutionary Courts run by their own people. On top of all that, you want to force suspects to hire one of your own state lawyers? Well, that’s not fair.”
Moghimi said he was prevented from representing someone facing charges for participating in the recent anti-establishment protests that swept the country in December and January, and told it was because he wasn’t on the list, but officials refused to provide him with a copy of the list.
“What they want is someone who listens to them and won’t stand in their way,” said Moghimi. “That’s a betrayal of the law. It will make lawyers more cautious and cause them to fear doing many things that could leave them off certain lists.”