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Iran lawyer haunted by young man's execution

Lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh is filled with rage over the treatment of her client, 20-year-old Arash Rahmanipour, who was not defended in court and then was quietly put to death.

February 08, 2010|By Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi
  • "What makes me feel helpless, desperate and bitter is that our attempt to help our clients is doomed," said Nasrin Sotoudeh in a recent interview.
"What makes me feel helpless, desperate and bitter is that our attempt… (Newsha Tavakolian / Polaris…)

Reporting from Tehran and Beirut — The defendant met with his lawyer once for 15 minutes before he was sentenced to death and hanged.

When the lawyer complained to authorities, they ignored her. When she tried to enter the courtroom where he was being tried, they threatened her with arrest. And when she spoke out publicly at what she described as a gross miscarriage of justice, they shut off her cellphone.

"Unfortunately, despite repeated warnings, you have kept contacts with counter-revolutionary media and for two months from today your cellphone will be cut off," read a text message she received.

Now lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh boils with rage and frustration. The case of 20-year-old Arash Rahmanipour, who was executed before dawn Jan. 28, haunts her.

"We, as defense lawyers of human rights, are under so much pressure and restrictions, and the noose around us is tightening and we are insulted and threatened so much and verbally abused," Sotoudeh, 46, said during an emotional interview in her Tehran office. "What makes me feel helpless, desperate and bitter is that our attempt to help our clients is doomed and in vain."

Iranian authorities executed Rahmanipour and Mohammad-Reza Ali-Zamani, 37, both alleged to be members of an outlawed monarchist group called the Kingdom Assembly, and sentenced nine others to death in late January in what many interpreted as a warning to protesters ahead of Thursday's commemorations of the Islamic Revolution.

Opposition leaders have vowed to turn the annual celebration into an anti-government demonstration, calling on supporters to take to the streets.

Rahmanipour was arrested in April, weeks before the disputed June presidential election and the mass protests that erupted afterward. Nonetheless, he was tried during the mass court proceedings against opposition supporters last fall and sentenced to death on charges of being a mohareb, someone who takes up arms against God.

Rahmanipour was a troubled young man from a poor family in the south Tehran district of Shahpour, said Sotoudeh.

His parents were divorced or separated, and his father at one point had a substance abuse problem, she said.

The lawyer said she was not allowed to attend any of Rahmanipour's court sessions, including a televised one in August when he confessed to being a member of the Kingdom Assembly. That was the day, she said, she was threatened with arrest.

Nor was Sotoudeh allowed to see any evidence of her client's guilt. The conviction, she said, was based on a coerced confession that he had tried several years earlier to make explosives, as well as intelligence that she had no opportunity to assess or refute.

"I cannot question the intelligence agent in the court who has created the dossier for my client," she said. "Even if I could have a dialogue with the intelligence agent, it would be futile because the agent of the Intelligence Ministry is getting orders from other" security organizations.

She finally had a chance to meet her client in a room of Ward 2A of Tehran's Evin Prison in October. They had no more than 15 minutes. The distraught young man hurriedly told Sotoudeh that he had made the explosives confession after interrogators sat his pregnant sister in front of him. If he wanted his sister released, her client was told, he had to admit to whatever they asked.

He signed the confession. His sister was later released, though she suffered a late-term miscarriage.

Now Rahmanipour confided to his lawyer that he was afraid for his life. Prosecutors had inserted the word mohareb in the indictment against him, punishable by death.

Despite the assurances of his interrogators that he'd be let off with a light jail term, Rahmanipour was sentenced to death.

After the sentence was read out in court, Rahmanipour pulled himself together, Sotoudeh said. He wrote a letter to his father, Davoud, describing himself as Arash the Archer, a character from Persian legend, who stretched the string of his bow to send an arrow to the farthest distance, sacrificing himself for his nation.

Immediately after an appeals court upheld the conviction three months later, he was executed.

A reporter called her at 9 a.m. that day, a Thursday, to ask her reaction.

"I was tongue-tied," she said. "Words cannot express my shock. I could not believe it.

"The death sentence was too much. I thought at least Arash's death sentence would be appealed and he would be granted clemency. I thought they would have mercy for Arash's age."

At noon, Rahmanipour's father called Sotoudeh. To her surprise, he spoke hopefully about visiting his son that day. They had spoken Monday, and Rahmanipour had told him he'd be allowed to see his parents on Thursday.

He had no idea that his son had been executed hours earlier.

daragahi@latimes.com

Mostaghim is a special correspondent.

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