Given Rezaian’s status as a dual citizen of the United States and Iran, this case has helped to bring international attention to the arbitrary and abusive nature of the Iranian legal system. Indeed, many followers of the case have long since come to the conclusion that Rezaian was targeted by the regime simply on the basis of his American citizenship, either to send a symbolic message or to secure him as leverage for future negotiations.
In April, after nine months in detention, it was finally announced that Rezaian was to be charged with espionage on behalf of the US, propaganda against the system, collaborating with hostile governments, and collecting and disseminating information about internal and foreign policy. Thus far, no evidence has been presented to support these allegations, and many of those who knew Rezaian consider the accusations of espionage to be laughable.
But Iran’s long tradition of political imprisonment points to the serious danger of Rezaian being convicted of these crimes even in absence of conclusive evidence. Indeed, his arrest, detention, and interrogation have already highlighted some of the abuses of legal authorities. Much of Rezaian’s 10 months in detention was spent in solitary confinement, and early in that detention his location was not known to his family or to the media.
During that detention, Rezaian was constantly interrogated without being informed of the charges against him – a situation that suggests that the defendant had been targeted before authorities built a case against him or even identified a crime to prosecute.
Once charges were announced, Rezaian’s family’s first choice of lawyer was blocked by the authorities, and subsequently the second choice defense attorney was permitted to visit with her client only once, for a limited period of time, to prepare for the trial.
Such obstruction of the legal process is commonplace in the Iranian judiciary. While Rezaian’s case makes it more relevant to a Western audience, there is no shortage of similar examples from among Iranian citizens and especially domestic political prisoners. Indeed, the Human Rights Activists News Network reported on two such cases in just the past few days.
On Saturday, HRANA reported that Ali Moezzi, a frequent political prisoner most recently arrested for attending the funeral of another political prisoners who had been executed, was facing additional charges of propaganda from within Karaj prison, which would extend his sentence beyond his anticipated June release date. Last week, Moezzi’s lawyer attempted to visit the court where his client is being charged, but was obstructed by authorities and prevented from so much as reviewing the case.
Similarly, HRANA reported on Monday that children’s rights activist Saeid Shirzad was transferred to Iran’s revolutionary court to answer to charges of propaganda and acting against national security. Only after this transfer did Shirzad learn that his lawyer would not be permitted to be present to the session, during which an additional charge of “disrupting public order by chanting unusual slogans” was added to the case against him.
These recent cases indicate that the denial of adequate legal defense is a current trend in the Iranian courts. And a look at historical cases demonstrates that that trend is longstanding and that the mere obstruction of attorneys is often not the full extent of the regime’s suppression. Sometimes lawyers themselves face charges stemming from the defense of their clients.
Elliot Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations pointed out on Wednesday that this week marks seven years since the imprisonment of the seven members of the informal leadership of the Baha’i religious community in Iran. In discussing the broader trends of institutionalized persecution of the Baha’i, Abrams also pointed out that in 2011, seven members of the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education were charged with conspiracy for providing education to Baha’is who had been deprived of it by the state.
“They fought the charges, but their lawyer was then himself sentenced to 13 years in prison,” Abrams reports.
Baha’is and their defenders are subject to particularly vigorous repression by the regime, but Rezaian and his attorney face their own perils as a result of Rezaian’s identity as both an American and a journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists regularly ranks Iran as one of the worst jailers of journalists in the world, and this trend is also highlighted by a range of contemporary examples.
IranWire reports that reformist journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi was released from prison on Tuesday after serving a five year sentence, only to immediately be sent into six years of exile in the northwestern Iranian city of Gonabad. Zeidabadi is also subject to a lifelong ban on political activities and the practice of journalism, all of this stemming only from his political views and his alleged participation in the Green Movement protests following the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential elections.