The Iranian legal system operates in the shadows. Many defendants—especially those accused of politically motivated offenses—do not even know what they are charged with or what evidence exists against them. They have only limited access, if any, to their lawyers, and they are subjected to torture to extract confessions which can be used against them. Trials for people facing serious charges, including those punishable by the death penalty, can last just a few short minutes. Individuals trapped in this system are in desperate need of expert and committed legal representation and dozens of them, many of whom indigent or marginalized members of society, found just that in the person of the heroic Mohammad Mostafaei. He is particularly known for his work to represent juvenile offenders sentenced to death. Among his recent clients were Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani—sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery—whose case has received world-wide media attention, and Ebrahim Hamidi, a teenager sentenced to death for supposedly sexually assaulting a man during a fight when he was just sixteen years old.
However Mr. Mostafaei has made enormous sacrifices in order to continue his courageous efforts on behalf of his clients and of justice in Iran. He has faced persistent harassment by Iranian authorities, who have evidently perceived him as a “thorn in their side” because his work publicly exposed the serious flaws in the legal system. He had already been detained briefly in June 2009 in the wake of the post-election protests. His work on behalf of Ms Ashtiani and Ebrahim Hamidi must have especially irked the Iranian authorities because of all the negative publicity the cases generated. Mohammad Mostafaei was again detained and interrogated in July 2010 and his wife and brother-in-law were arrested as he went into hiding in order to avoid further persecution by the government. Finally, he was forced to flee Iran into Turkey and has now arrived in Norway. While he is thankfully safe, his forced exile is an enormous loss to Iranians who need his help. He joins a long and growing list of prominent Iranian human rights defenders who have been hounded into exile—including women’s rights activist and anti-stoning campaigner Shadi Sadr, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.
Exiled Iranian dissidents and activists continue to speak out against human rights violations from abroad, but are sadly unable to directly engage with Iranian authorities or carry out hands-on assistance, for instance to clients struggling in the legal system. The forced exile of numbers of Iran’s best and brightest is likely one more weapon in the Iranian government’s arsenal used to neutralize any dissent or effective opposition.
The Iranian government doesn’t even stop persecuting human rights defenders after they have left the country. Since Shirin Ebadi was forced to flee last year, her husband, who remains in Iran, has been assaulted, her sister was arrested and detained for seventeen days, and other relatives harassed. State-controlled television has broadcast programs that slandered her, while authorities reportedly even broke into her safe deposit box and confiscated her Nobel Peace Prize medal.
The campaign to silence Iran’s bravest voices by any means possible is a tragedy for Iranians and for people around the world who admire the courage of Iranian human rights activists as they persevere despite unimaginable pressures and obstacles. We all hope that the Iranian authorities will make it possible for Mohammad Mostafaei to return home as soon as possible so he can continue his vital work.