Why Iran’s Judicial System is Stacked Against Protesters, Who Despite Constitutional Protection, Face Execution for Their Beliefs Commentary
Why Iran’s Judicial System is Stacked Against Protesters, Who Despite Constitutional Protection, Face Execution for Their Beliefs
Edited by: JURIST Staff

Article 27 of the Iranian Constitution states that protesters are permitted to gather and march so long as weapons aren’t involved, their message is not anti-Islamic, and they first obtain permission from the Interior Ministry.

But while protest may be legal in theory, practice points to a very different reality. The Interior Ministry has not granted permission for a protest in the 43 years that have passed since the formation of the Islamic Republic.

Hence, despite the Constitutional mandate, the authorities can — and do — arrest protesters. And another harsh practical reality is that despite the political nature of a protest, authorities typically prosecute protesters on more severe national security-related charges. This is an important distinction in Iran, where political prisoners are supposed to be afforded relatively decent detention conditions, as well as transparent court proceedings (in contrast to the closed proceedings for national security cases). The problem is, there isn’t a single officially recognized political prisoner in all of the Islamic Republic, so these rights are illusory at best.

And it’s not just demonstrators in the streets who face these repercussions. This reality extends to journalists, opposition party members, political activists of all stripes, lawyers, filmmakers, and advocates for women’s — and even basic human — rights. Just about anyone can be arrested and punished for the crime of acting in defiance of national security.

The latest example is Shervin Hajizadeh, a young singer who composed a protest song based on Tweets from protesters, swiftly accrued 40 million views, and was then arrested in the dead of night. And this is just the latest iteration in an extended crackdown.

Many protesters were handed death sentences after the 2019-2020 uprisings in Iran, which have since come to be known as Bloody November.

Lawyers who sounded the alarm over the government’s delay in obtaining COVID-19 vaccines were handed hefty prison sentences on charges of disrupting public opinion and threatening national security.

Three high-profile politicians have remained under house arrest without any charges of proceedings for the past 13 years after they questioned the outcomes of the 2009 elections.

Behind these harsh sentences is another grim reality of due process as far as political activists in Iran are concerned.

Article 35 of the Constitution states: “In all courts of law, the opposing parties to a dispute have the right to choose an attorney for themselves. If they cannot afford to hire an attorney, they should be provided with the means to do so.”

But in practice, political and civil activists, and many others detained on ostensible national security grounds are denied access to attorneys during pre-trial detention and while facing interrogation.

Article 48 of the Iranian Constitution states with respect to national security crimes: “in the preliminary investigation stage, the parties to a legal dispute can choose their lawyer or lawyers from among the list of official lawyers who are approved by the head of the judiciary.” Iran’s judiciary has maintained a so-called “trusted lawyers” list since 2017, and these attorneys, trusted by the Iranian authorities, are assigned broadly, while many other lawyers have been forbidden from accepting political and national security cases.

Critics have blasted the list for limiting the number of lawyers available, essentially granting those trusted by the regime with monopolies over these sensitive cases. In turn, many of these lawyers charge eyewatering prices, and given their limited options, defendants and their families have no choice but to pay.

This results in a situation where protesters seeking to air their views on justice and rights are denied effective counsel at the very time they most need to prove their innocence.

Tasnim, a news agency with close ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the military group charged with upholding Iran’s Islamic system and preventing foreign interference, announced that some 1,200 people have been arrested so far in protests over the suspicious death of Mahsa Amini at Hijab police headquarters. Dozens of these include students, journalists, and political activists. Given the realities that they will face when charged with national security infractions, I fear they will all face lengthy prison terms, or even execution.

Suggested citation: JURIST Staff, Why Iran’s Judicial System is Stacked Against protesters, Who Despite Constitutional Protection, Face Execution for Their Beliefs, JURIST – Student Commentary, October 5, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/10/why-irans-judicial-system-is-stacked-against-protestors-who-despite-constitutional-protection-face-execution-for-their-beliefs.

This article was prepared for publication by Ingrid Burke-Friedman, Features Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org

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