Abdolfattah Soltani: Imprisoned Defender of Human Rights

Snapshot of activism

Abdolfattah Soltani is an Iranian human rights lawyer who has taken on Iran's most challenging and politically sensitive cases. He has served as an attorney for fellow lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, whistleblower and dissident Akbar Ganji, and murdered Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi. Along with 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and fellow human rights attorney Shirin Ebadi, he is a co-founder of Iran's Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC). The DHRC provides pro bono legal representation to prisoners of conscience, including supporting their families and promoting the discussion of rights issues.[1] The Iranian government has jailed Soltani three times: on charges related to "transferring confidential information" in 2005, at the start of Iran's post-election upheaval in 2009, and most recently while preparing to defend members of the persecuted Baha'i community in 2011.[2]  After this most recent arrest, the Iranian judiciary convicted him of co-founding the DHRC, spreading anti-regime propaganda, and endangering national security. He was initially sentenced to 18 years in prison and a 20-year ban from practicing law in March 2012, although an appeals court reduced the prison sentence to 13 years the following June.[3]

Though still imprisoned, Soltani has made international headlines on multiple occasions. In November 2013, the imprisoned human rights lawyer joined several other political prisoners on hunger strike to protest their lack of medical care.[4] Three weeks later, the International Center for Human Rights (ICHR) awarded him its annual human rights award.[5] In April 2014, Soltani was one of many political prisoners brutally attacked by Iranian security services inside Ward 350 of Tehran’s Evin Prison.

Background

Abdolfattah Soltani was born on November 2, 1953.[6] He is married to Massoumeh Dehghan, with whom he has two children: a daughter, Maede, and a son, Hamed. Maede Soltani has left Iran and now lives in Germany.[7] Soltani's work with the Defenders of Human Rights Center began when he and four other lawyers (Shirin Ebadi, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, Mohammad Seifzadeh, and Mohammad Sharif) founded the Center in 2001. According to the DHRC's website, four of the five were already facing imprisonment for "political crimes" at the time of its founding, with two going on to serve four-month sentences in Evin Prison. As a result, some of the group's early meetings were held in the prison's visitors’ hall.[8] The DHRC identifies its key activities as: providing pro bono legal defense for political prisoners, providing support to their families, publishing regular human rights reports, organizing press conferences, fostering the development of human rights groups and organizations, facilitating dialogue between intellectuals and activists, organizing free workshops, and presenting a human rights award. In 2003, France's National Consultative Commission on Human Rights awarded the DHRC its annual "Human Rights Prize of the French Republic." Abdolfattah Soltani traveled to Paris to accept the prize (presented by then-Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin) on behalf of the organization.[9] In the same year, the DHRC became a member of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights Organizations (FIDH), an international body that includes 178 organizations dedicated to the defense of human rights.[10]                                                              

The Defenders of Human Rights Center quickly established a reputation for accepting difficult and (given the pressure from Iranian security forces and the judiciary) often dangerous cases. These include some of the most politically sensitive trials in the Islamic Republic; in addition to Akbar Ganji and Zahra Kazemi, whose cases garnered considerable international attention, Soltani has also represented defendants accused of working as Israeli or American spies in relation to Iran's nuclear program. Attorneys involved in such cases, such as Soltani and fellow human rights attorneys Shirin Ebadi and Nasser Zarafshan (who also represented victims of the serial killings which targeted Iranian dissidents in the late 1990s), have often faced harassment and prosecution on politically motivated charges.”[11] Ebadi, for example, has been forced to live in exile in London since 2009, enduring jail time and banishment from the legal profession before leaving Iran.[12] Following a raid by security forces on an event held to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the United Nations' Human Rights Day, the DHRC as a whole was closed down in late 2008.[13]

On July 30, 2005, Soltani staged a sit-in at the Lawyers’ Association building in Tehran to protest a search warrant that had been issued for his home and an arrest warrant for himself. He was detained in Evin Prison for seven months, including five months in solitary confinement, on charges of "transferring classified information" in relation to the spying cases he was working on at that time.[14] While in Evin, his children were prevented from visiting him (although his wife and mother were allowed visits in the presence of a guard) and he was not given access to legal counsel until five months after his arrest, after repeated interrogation. In December 2005, the judge responsible for his case ordered him held for three more months. It was not until March 2006 that he was released on roughly $130,000 bail, a sum the Soltani family was only able to pay with the help of supporters. In July 2006, the judiciary finally convicted him and sentenced him to five years in prison, but Soltani appealed and was reportedly acquitted of all charges nearly a year later in May 2007.[15]

When protests erupted across Iran in the wake of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's allegedly fraudulent re-election in 2009, the Iranian authorities again made Soltani a target. After June 16, when four plainclothes officers arrested Soltani, there was no news of the lawyer's whereabouts for three weeks. Finally, on July 7, it was revealed that he was once again being held in Evin Prison's Ward 209, the section used for political prisoners and run by the Ministry of Intelligence as opposed to prison authorities.[16][17] After 70 days in custody, including 17 days spent in solitary confinement, he was finally released on August 26 on $100,000 bail.[18] The reasoning behind the arrest became clear on August 1, when Tehran's vice-prosecutor publicly accused the DHRC and Shirin Ebadi, Soltani's longtime colleague, of trying to foment a "velvet revolution" in Iran. Two months later, while attempting to travel to Germany in October to accept a prize awarded to him by the city of Nuremberg, Soltani’s passport was confiscated to prevent him from leaving the country. This prompted his wife Massoumeh to go and claim the award on his behalf.[19]

In March 2013, prison authorities offered Abdolfattah Soltani a brief furlough but set bail at over $1,000,000, far above both the legally prescribed amount and the Soltani family’s ability to pay. The imprisoned lawyer, declaring this amount illegal, refused.[20] In November 2013, Soltani continued his defense of human rights by joining other political prisoners in Evin Prison’s Ward 350 in a hunger strike to protest the lack of medical care provided to 30 other prisoners. Beginning on November 1, 2013 - his 60th birthday - he went on hunger strike, drinking only water and tea for ten days.[21]

Vision

As one of Iran's leading human rights lawyers, Abdolfattah Soltani and his colleagues in the DHRC have worked to represent Iran's most prominent journalists, activists, and political prisoners. Soltani's clients have included Nasrin Sotoudeh, another attorney whose imprisonment has sparked international outcry; Akbar Ganji, a former intelligence official-turned-whistleblower who revealed a systematic campaign to murder dissidents (known in Iran as the "chain murders"); and Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was arrested by Iranian authorities in 2003 and died in detention. In addition to these and other politically sensitive cases, Soltani has also been the attorney (along with Ebadi) for seven leading figures of Iran's long-persecuted Baha'i religious minority, a group collectively called Yaran-e Iran (Friends of Iran).[22]

In representing these clients, Soltani has worked on behalf of the Iranian government’s most vocal critics and the country’s most persecuted minorities. This is especially true of the Friends of Iran, prominent figures of a religious community that faces a systematic policy of exclusion and discrimination. The Baha’i faith was purposely left off the list of officially recognized religions in Iran’s post-revolutionary Constitution; its followers are barred from higher education and government employment, while their business licenses are often denied (or revoked) and their homes and cemeteries are attacked and desecrated[23] Many Baha’i have been imprisoned and even executed under the Islamic Republic, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared in a 2013 fatwa(religious edict) that the faith was “false and misguiding” and that associating with its followers was forbidden.[24] The seven Baha’i leaders defended by Soltani, whose professions ranged from developmental psychology to carpentry, were charged with spying for Israel, spreading propaganda against the regime, and “spreading corruption on Earth,” with the latter potentially carrying the death penalty.[25]

Given their prominent positions within the Baha’i community, the Friends of Iran case drew considerable international attention, with both U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights repeatedly expressing concern that their prosecution was in violation of Iran’s international treaty obligations. In a 2009 interview with the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, Abdolfattah Soltani expressed many of the same sentiments. As he explained, the Baha’i leaders were not politically active, and were being prosecuted purely on the basis of their beliefs: “There is no doubt that the circumstances which led to the arrest of the seven individuals, and [the] confrontation with the Bahá’í community, were based on certain objectives; it can be said that after, 17 months, these objectives are no longer operative… because after such a long period of time since the arrest, the case is no longer of any benefit. Therefore, given international conditions, as well as the domestic situation in Iran, keeping the Bahá’í leaders in prison is nothing but a [political] cost for the authorities. This is especially true because these individuals were not politically active, and do not represent a political front. They were only active within the realm of their beliefs.” In Soltani’s view, cases such as Friends of Iran have been detrimental to the Iranian government: “In fact, keeping the seven Bahá’í leaders in prison only increases the weight of the burden of violations of human rights on the shoulders of the authorities.”[26] Despite the efforts of Soltani and his fellow attorneys, however, the Baha’i leaders were ultimately sentenced to 20 years in prison.[27]

In representing Nasrin Sotoudeh, Zahra Kazemi, Akbar Ganji, and the Yaran-e Iran, Soltani has become acutely aware of the Iranian judiciary’s failings. In his 2012 address to the International Bar Association, Soltani spelled out what he views as the issues facing the Iranian legal system and the institutions charged with implementing it: “Sometimes an attorney, after years of experience, is faced with the unpleasant reality that [the basic] legal structure and the judiciary system of the country [are] suffering from fundamental and structural problems. In this case, the [judicial] system, in regard to discharging its most important responsibility, which is defending the rights of the public and the implementation of justice, is facing a dead end. Discrimination against women, inequality [in the] legal status [of] believers of different faiths (i.e. new Christians, Dervish[es], Baha’is and intolerance against them); widespread violations of democratic freedoms, whether [at the] personal or public level; violation[s] of [the] freedom of speech and [the] press, violation[s] of freedom [to] the right of peaceful assemblies, societies and political parties… all are part of the collection of present discriminations within the law and the judiciary process in today’s Iran.”[28] Soltani has also repeatedly criticized Iran’s status as one of the world’s leading human rights abusers.

Accomplishments

In October 2009, Abdolfattah Soltani intended to travel to Germany to receive the City of Nuremberg's International Human Rights Award. With Iran in turmoil after the disputed 2009 presidential election, and Soltani himself coming off arrest and imprisonment on charges of "acting against national security" that year, Iranian authorities confiscated his passport in order to prevent him from making the trip.[29] With Soltani unable to travel, his wife, Massoumeh Dehghan, went to Nuremberg and accepted the award in his stead. According to Soltani’s daughter Maede, the Iranian government re-imprisoned Soltani and extended his sentence in response. Mrs. Dehghan's acceptance of the award led to her temporary imprisonment as well, where Maede alleges interrogators kept her in solitary confinement for six days and forced her to make false accusations against her husband.[30] She was eventually sentenced to one year’s suspended imprisonment and a five-year ban on foreign travel.[31]

Three years later, on October 5, 2012, Soltani was awarded the International Bar Association's (IBA) Human Rights Award. According to the IBA, the award "recognizes personal endeavor in the field of law which makes an outstanding contribution to the promotion, protection, and advancement of human rights and the rule of law." With Soltani again unable to attend the ceremony himself, Maede Soltani and fellow lawyer Mahnaz Parakand accepted the award, presented at the IBA's annual conference in Dublin, Ireland, on his behalf. In his acceptance speech, which Mrs. Parakand delivered to the conference attendees, Soltani explained the challenges facing the rule of law in Iran: "Iran has a collection of bad laws, but I must say that the fundamental demand and wish of many civil and political activists in Iran is the correct implementation of even these bad laws! But the ugly truth is that the political establishment in Iran, in many cases by using a few non-independent judges, has turned the whole judicial system into a tool for implementing their own wishes. They are using these courts as a heavy hammer to suppress the legitimate and legal demand of the population."[32]

In November 2013, Abdolfattah Soltani was named the winner of the International Center for Human Rights (ICHR) human rights award. With Soltani in prison and unable to attend, Iranian-Canadian attorney Gholamhossein Raeesi accepted the award on his behalf and delivered his remarks in a ceremony held in Toronto on November 24. In his acceptance speech, Soltani wrote: “I am ashamed to say that Iran sits on international human rights bodies today, not as a free and democratic nation but as one of the countries guiltiest of violating human rights. In Iran today, religion and religious beliefs are used as tools to institute all sorts of gender, ethnic, religious, and belief-based discrimination.”[33]

Where is he now?

The Iranian government's most recent campaign against Soltani began with his arrest in 2011. In July, his wife Massoumeh was brought before Evin Prison's branch of Iran's revolutionary courts, detained, and held in solitary confinement, ostensibly because of her trip to Germany to accept her husband's human rights prize.[34] On September 10th, Massoumeh told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that security forces had broken into Soltani's office before arresting him and then searching the family home, taking documents, papers, and personal effects with them.[35] After his arrest, Soltani was again held in Evin Prison's Ward 209 and was placed in solitary confinement.[36] Soltani had still been working on political cases at the time of his arrest; a few days after he was taken to prison, one of his clients, fellow human rights lawyer and famed political prisoner Nasrin Sotoudeh, had her 11-year jail sentence reduced to 6 on appeal.[37]

Two months after his arrest, Mohammad Javad Larijani, the lead official for human rights in the Iranian judiciary, responded to a question about arresting human rights lawyers (Abdolfattah Soltani in particular) at the United Nations in New York by stating that: “No lawyer [in Iran] is in prison because he is a lawyer or he is a defender of human rights. But… Mr. Abdolfattah Soltani has relations with terrorist groups which are responsible for murdering more than 10,000 people in Iran."[38] Soltani's family responded by starting that such charges had never been filed against him; according to Massoumeh, Larijani's comments were linked to those of former Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, allegedly linked to the deaths of Zahra Kazemi in 2003 and Green Movement protestors in 2009, who had previously insinuated that Soltani was a spy. When Soltani himself heard of the charges, he declared that he would either file suit personally or do so through his attorneys.[39]

In March 2012, Soltani's family reported that the revolutionary court had sentenced the lawyer to 18 years in prison and banned him from practicing law for 20 years. While it was unclear when the court had made the ruling, the charges for which Soltani was tried included co-founding the DHRC, spreading propaganda against the system, threatening national security, and accepting an illegal prize, an apparent reference to the Nuremberg human rights prize. In a move that made it drastically more difficult for his family to visit him, Soltani was also transferred to another prison in the city of Borazjan, which is approximately 620 miles away from Tehran.[40] Three months later, in June, Soltani's daughter Maede reported that the revolutionary court had reduced her father's sentence to 13 years from the original 18 on appeal. Maede alleged that authorities had also offered her father the chance to reduce his sentence even further in exchange for his issuing a public apology and denouncing longtime legal partner Shirin Ebadi. Soltani refused the offer.[41] In November 2012, Massoumeh Dehghan was also brought before a court and sentenced to one year in prison, along with a five-year travel ban. One of the charges against her was receiving illicit funds, apparently a reference to the Nuremberg prize she accepted on her husband's behalf.[42]

In March 2013, Maede Soltani reported that her father was suffering from both hemorrhoids and anemia, requiring urgent medical care that he did not have access to in prison.[43] Despite his health concerns, authorities had denied his family's request for a temporary furlough, in spite of a deed presented as collateral and previous assurances that bail would be granted. This prevented Soltani from spending Norouz, the Persian New Year, outside of prison; the holiday often allows political prisoners in Iran a brief respite from detention.[44] Nevertheless, Soltani issued a congratulatory Norouz message to his countrymen; writing from prison, he declared: "Perhaps they can shut your eyes, ears, and mouths, but they will never be able to imprison your thoughts."[45]

In an interview with Deutsche Welle on November 2, 2013, Maede Soltani described her father’s status, saying: “Every Monday, our father is allowed a 20 minute visit with the family from behind a glass divider. In the two years he has been imprisoned, he has been present for five or six of these visits.” She explained that the Soltani family’s attempts to attend to Abdolfattah’s medical needs have met with numerous obstacles: “My mother jumps over a thousand hurdles to get a doctor’s note and goes through a mountain of paperwork. She has to tolerate a great deal of violence and insults in order to arrange a medical visit. After all of this, they claim arrangements weren’t made and they won’t let my father come to the appointment! Once or twice, they have wanted to bring my father to the hospital in handcuffs. He protested this, saying he was not a criminal. He wouldn’t even accept going in a prison uniform. Fortunately, these protests have had an effect. My father spent 41 days in the hospital, but treatment only works when you leave the hospital for a normal, stable, calm environment. My father, however, went back to prison, where he continues to face poor conditions and discomfort.”[46]

 

Learn More

Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC) (in English)

International Federation of Human Rights Organizations (in English)

DHRC Human Rights Reports (Boroumand Foundation) (in English)

Abdolfattah Soltani News (International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran) (in English)

IBA Report on Abdolfattah Soltani's Human Rights Award

Abdolfattah Soltani's Wikipedia Page (in English)

Free Abdolfattah Soltani Facebook Page (in Persian)

 



[1]About the Defenders of Human Rights Center." Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC).

[2] "Arbitrary arrest of Mr. Abdolfattah Soltani." International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). September 12, 2011.

[3]Iranian human rights lawyer jailed for 13 years.The Guardian. June 13, 2012.

[5]Iranian Imprisoned lawyer and Canadian Human Rights defender Received ICHR Prestigious Award.” International Center for Human Rights. November 26, 2013.

[7]Abdolfattah Soltani Declared a Fugitive.” Radio Farda. July 27, 2005.

[10] "What is FIDH?" International Federation for Human Rights.                                      

[11]Abdolfattah Soltani.” Human Rights Office, City of Nuremberg.

[13] Ibid.

[14]Iranian Authorities Arrest Prominent Rights Lawyer.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). July 31, 2005.

[15]Abdolfattah Soltani.” Human Rights Office, City of Nuremberg.

[17] Theodoulou, Michael. “In Iran's Evin prison, fear stalks the corridors.The National. February 27, 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20]Excessive Bail Set for Imprisoned Lawyer’s Brief Furlough.” International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI). March 6, 2013.

[21]Imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer goes on hunger strike.The Guardian.                             

[22] Saberi, Roxana. “Silenced in Iran: The Plight of Baha’i Prisoners of Conscience.The Daily Beast. June 4, 2013.

[23] Naji, Kasra. “Iran's Bahai community fear rise in persecution.” BBC News. July 3, 2010.

[24] Mamouri, Ali. “Khamenei’s Controversial Fatwas.” Iran Pulse, Al-Monitor. November 4, 2005.

[26]Interview with human rights lawyer Soltani.” Iran Press Watch. October 22, 2009.

[28]Jailed Iranian lawyer, Abdolfattah Soltani, wins 2012 IBA Human Rights Award.” International Bar Association. October 10, 2012.

[37] Dehgan, Kamali Saeed. “Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh has jail sentence reduced.” The Guardian. September 14, 2011.

[39] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[45]Abdolfattah Soltani's Message from Prison.” Jaras News Agency. March 24, 2013.

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