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An Iranian Human Rights Lawyer’s Perspective on the Forthcoming Presidential Election

A member of the Fars Province Bar Association discusses the current political climate among legal professionals and ordinary citizens in Shiraz.

[Note: the following is a transcript of the highlights of an interview conducted by the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center on June 7, 2013 with a human rights lawyer currently practicing in the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), as to the state of the country’s upcoming presidential elections on June 14, 2013] 

 

Introduction

My name is [redacted] and I have a Master's degree in human rights. I've been a lawyer registered with the Fars Province Bar Association for eight years. For about seven years, I've defended cases against ethnic and religious minorities and political dissidents in national security cases. 

Debates and political discourse 

[As to the presidential debates,] under Article 65 of the Iranian Presidential Elections Law, all candidates are given the right to avail themselves of government television and radio services equally. Due to the four-hour duration of the debates, which tires viewers, and simultaneously the short duration afforded to candidates to answer questions and criticisms and set out their own viewpoints, it doesn't seem that these debates will significantly increase public awareness. 

Do any candidates have the support of lawyers in Iran? 

In principle, elections are a tool for civic participation in the political and social affairs that affect them. Such participation must take place in a specific context in order to be unquestionable. As long as lawyers, judges and prosecutors lack access to reliable professional organizations and NGOs, they will exist only in a rarified world isolated from society. Legal professionals can't simultaneously develop productive relations with the general population and the government until they have strong [civil society] organizations and professional associations to rely on. [In Iran today] they are isolated from the general population and yet they can't voice their concerns to the authorities. How can they get close to any of the presidential candidates in such a situation? And how can candidates even stay informed about the problems facing legal professionals, professors and scholars? Hence it is impossible to say that any one candidate represents lawyers as a group. Of course this issue reflects on the candidates as well. Until now, none of them have uttered a word about the problems faced by lawyers.  

Does this election satisfy citizens' right to participate in politics? 

The right to participate in the public and political affairs of one's country has been confirmed in Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In theory this right is based on the inherent dignity of all people. In the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, Article 8, Paragraph 3 recognizes the right of citizens to determine their political, economic, social and cultural lives and Article 6 states that the votes of the public in elections will be the foundation upon which the country will be administered. Article 114 also specifically deals with the direct election of presidents. The right to participate in political and public affairs has two elements. One is the right to vote, the other is the right to be elected. Both rights must be assured for one to say that the right to participate in political and public affairs has been satisfied.

As to the right to be elected, which is codified in Article 115 of the Constitution, I have two criticisms. First, it is stated that the president must be a "political and religious man." Generally, the word "man" is interpreted so as to mean that women are not included, which deprives them of the right to be elected. Additionally, it has been stipulated that the president must be of the official faith of the Islamic Republic, which is Twelver Shi'a Islam, as specified in Article 12 of the Constitution. It has been shown in human rights literature that both of these limitations contravene the principle of non-discrimination [in the ICCPR]. It can be argued that they even violate Articles 19 and 20 of the Constitution, because these two articles respectively recognize the equality of all people before the law without discrimination and extend all enumerated rights to everyone.

Legal questions aside, the social and cultural contexts also play a role in the realization of citizens' right to participate in public and political affairs. It's natural that the candidates who emerge in a society where political parties and unions are weak and NGOs can't function effectively don't represent much of the population, so many people have doubts about them. If the general population had some contact with the political ruling class as a result of the continuous and coordinated competition between and within political parties they could easily identify candidates and trust and support them during elections. But in the current situation one can only tenuously say which of the eight candidates represents the working class and which represents women, or lawyers, or the wealthy. Why? Because none of them have emerged from the appropriate mechanisms of a political party or other organization. This state of affairs threatens even the right to vote, because it increases the likelihood that [voters] will make an incorrect decision.

How are lawyers approaching this election?

Iranian legal professionals have always been sensitive about their political and social fates. Unfortunately, because of the current weakness of the [national and provincial] bar associations and other relevant professional organizations, their votes go unseen and their opinions always go unheard. Because of their unique expertise on various social and legal issues, legal professionals can play a role in determining the outcomes of elections. Because of the pressure that has been exerted on bar associations, especially in recent years--pressure that has taken the form of prison sentences for some lawyers--a very conservative and cautious atmosphere has taken hold in the legal community. 

What is the political atmosphere like in Shiraz?

The last week of each election in Iran is always characterized by campaign advertisements whereby the political class shows a happy face. In Shiraz, the elections haven't had the expected enthusiasm. It may be a decision on the part of the candidates, because the situation is the opposite in some other major cities in Iran.