First, they arrested the civil and political activists. Then they arrested the lawyers representing those activists. Then, they arrested the lawyers defending the imprisoned lawyers. Then, when there were no more lawyers left to defend the civil and political activists, they took steps towards taking over the Bar Association.
This is not a scene from an Orwellian Science Fiction story! It is, in fact, a summary of real circumstances surrounding human rights activists and their lawyers during the last few years in Iran.
From the standpoint of the Iranian government, lawyers, and in particular human rights lawyers, are one of the most dangerous and rebellious social groups. In performing their professional duties, they force the judges to abide by the law and execute justice and also are reputable sources of reporting about violations of human rights in prosecution offices and prisons. For this reason, the Iranian government tries to accuse lawyers of action against national security and propaganda against the regime and, in doing so, turn human rights defending into a crime.
According to statistics provided to international organizations by Shirin Ebadi, lawyer at law and Nobel peace laureate, between June 2009 and July 2011 at least 42 lawyers were arrested and at least 7 lawyers were forced to leave the country. Mohammad Ali Dadkhah was recently sentenced to 9 years' imprisonment and a 10 year ban on practicing law. The security officials have told him that either he will give a televised interview in which he will state that he was given money by foreign governments for defending his client or he has to go to prison.
Pressuring lawyers is not limited to those who defend civil and political activists. Houtan Kian, lawyer of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a woman awaiting stoning, was detained for having done interviews with the foreign media. After suffering severe tortures, Houtan Kian was sentenced to 6 years' imprisonment. In a letter published in part by Amnesty International, he has stated that his body was burned with cigarettes and he was repeatedly beaten and broke a number of his teeth. The letter also states that the prison officials soaked him with water and left him in the cold for hours at a time.
Harassing the lawyers is not limited to their detention and sentencing. Most of the lawyers who have been detained are repeatedly questioned for having defended their clients. They are summoned and interrogated by security forces in short intervals. Many have been forced to promise not to give interviews to the media regarding the conditions of their clients. For this reason, methods of providing information regarding the conditions of the political prisoners are being blocked more and more every day. Some of the lawyers are told that they cannot accept political case files. For this reason, many prisoners of conscience are deprived of their right to a defense, prescribed by the Iranian constitution.
The lawyers' right to have access to their clients and the case file is widely violated, as well. For instance, in a trial convened on May 21 for 13 Arab political activists imprisoned for the crime of action against national security, the lawyers met their clients for the first time in court and were prevented by the security officials to study the case file prior to the hearing.
However, it appears that all the detentions and harassments did not suffice as the Iranian government has taken steps to take complete control of the Bar Association.
In the last election, from 118 requests for candidacy of the governing board, the Judiciary rejected competence of 28 individuals, nearly half of whom had human rights related experience. Five of the rejected individuals were female lawyers. The election that followed this selection process resulted in only one female being elected to the governing board which is not representative of the large number of female lawyers in Iran.
However, all such actions were not deemed enough to abate the rebellious lawyers. Presently, even the relative independence of the Bar Association in Iran is threatened. Recently, the Judiciary sent a bill to the Majlis that, if passed, will completely wipe out the Bar Association to be replaced by an organ called "The Organization for Official Lawyers," under the supervision of the judiciary. Based on the bill, all the decisions currently decided upon by the Bar Association, such as who should be given a legal license or how should the elections be carried out, will be supervised by a seven member committee comprising of lawyers selected by the judiciary.
This committee also has the power to revoke a legal license, a power currently in the hands of the Disciplinary Court of Lawyers, an independent organization. The decisions of this committee cannot be appealed or complained to. The text of this bill, kept secret for many months, has recently seeped into media, causing a lot of protests amongst the lawyers. In an article published in one Iranian newspaper, a lawyer wrote, "They are placing legal representation, both in name and action, in a subsidiary office of the judiciary." In another newspaper, another lawyer wrote, "If this bill is passed, 'people's right to a defense' will be seriously damaged."
The Iranian lawyers have protested this bill both individually and in groups. However, in their resistance to the Iranian government's removal of independence from the Bar Association, they exercise caution. The few lawyers who have complained to the bill know fully well that, if the bill is to pass, they might just be the first individuals to lose their legal license. For this reason, they express their protest with much caution and don't raise their voice.
Under such conditions, one should remind everyone that defending the lawyers in Iran is defending the right of the voiceless to have representation.