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In Iran, a cadre of lawyers takes the case of justice

Of Iran's 27,000 attorneys, perhaps no more than 100 take politically charged cases. They brave insults, assaults and jail.

November 27, 2007|By Borzou Daragahi | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Nasrine Sotoudeh has been thrown out of court while trying to defend clients. "They don't want lawyers in there," she said of the judges. "Lawyers know the law. They protest."
Nasrine Sotoudeh has been thrown out of court while trying to defend clients.… (Newsha Tavakolian/Polaris…)


The night before lawyer Mohammed Dadkhah was to appear in court for his first human rights case, two masked men on motorcycles pulled up alongside him as he walked home. They hurled him into one of Tehran's ubiquitous street-side drainage canals. They grabbed at the briefcase filled with papers for the next day's defense.

Dadkhah refused to let go. They punched and kicked him. They ripped off a piece of the briefcase and roared away into the night.

Panting in fear, his face scraped raw, his clothes soaking wet, Dadkhah pulled himself out of the gutter and brushed himself off. When he got home, he caught his breath and considered his options.

He was in his late 40s and had been working since 1979 as a lawyer, building up a bustling practice. His father had been a lawyer, his uncle among the greatest litigators in his native city of Esfahan and his grandfather a famous cleric and jurist.

This was 2000, and Iranian authorities had just arrested a member of the outlawed but barely tolerated Freedom Movement and ordered him to appear before the Revolutionary Court.

Dadkhah's decision to take on the case had raised eyebrows in the legal establishment. Few, if any, lawyers represented defendants in the Revolutionary Court, which handles politically charged cases.

"My worst fear was that they would kill me in an accident," he said of his decision to take the case.

With the clock ticking toward the court appearance, he contemplated his stark choice: stand up for justice or protect his family, his wife and his children.

As the United States pressures Iran over its nuclear program and its alleged support of militant groups across the Middle East, it also has decried human rights abuses in the country. The Bush administration has refused to rule out military intervention against Iran.

Inside the country, a small number of activists continue to struggle peacefully for change. They are protected by a cadre of lawyers, including 2004 Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, the first Iranian to receive the prize.

But such defenders are few: Out of 27,000 licensed lawyers here, perhaps no more than 100 take on tough politically charged cases.

These lawyers say that for now they are able to work and speak their minds, and that despite a recent reduction in political liberties, the climate here is comparable to that in other Middle Eastern countries. But they also say they have to battle not just Iran's Islamic laws but authoritarian mind-sets and powerful interests that often act with impunity.

Most agree the legal climate has improved since the first days of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when signs saying, simply, "No Lawyers" went up outside courtrooms here.

The ayatollahs who had come to power were determined to break with the past. As Shiite Islam became the rule of the land in Iran, secular lawyers not schooled in Sharia law were considered suspect and branded atheists.

Among them was Mohammed Saifzadeh, a pious native of the holy city of Qom and family friend of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. A judge in the 1970s, he says he once signed a letter to the French authorities, urging them to give Khomeini shelter after he was expelled from Iraq in 1978, a move he now says he regrets.

Saifzadeh says he wholeheartedly supported the revolution, only to be disillusioned.

"From the beginning of the revolution, I opposed the penal code, which included Islamic punishments," says Saifzadeh, his brown eyes peering out from above large rectangular eyeglasses. "I was opposed to allowing the clergy into the judiciary."

Saifzadeh was purged from his judicial post and banned from practicing law for more than 10 years. Whenever he tried to work as a legal consultant, authorities pressured employers to fire him. By the time he regained his legal accreditation in 1992, he had lost his passion for law but had found one for human rights.

Since 1997, he has taken on more than 300 human rights cases: reporters charged with writing against the system, activists alleged to be subverting national security, scholars accused of insulting Islam, members of the Bahai religious faith rejected from university for their beliefs. He was one of Ebadi's lawyers when she was charged with security crimes and locked up in prison.

Saifzadeh has been to prison nearly half a dozen times, tossed on several occasions into solitary confinement. "Two months in solitary for someone like me," he says, heaving a deep sigh, "it really changes your personality."

His wife was killed in a suspicious car accident, a hit-and-run that remains unsolved. He remarried, to a lawyer. She promised to stick to lucrative real estate and tort cases.

"We are few because the danger is great," Saifzadeh says. "Lawyers here can make a lot of money. Many of our fellow attorneys think we're just fools."

Khalil Bahramian is among those who know well the sacrifices and disappointments of taking on Iran's establishment in court.

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