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Violent Aftermath: The 2009 Election and Suppression of Dissent in Iran

5.7       Violations of Iranian and International Law

The mass show trials and subsequent sentencing of election-related arrestees violated Iranian and international law, both of which require observance of basic due process, including presumption of innocence, and the right to an attorney of one’s choice, and prohibit the use of forced confessions in criminal proceedings.

The mass show trials failed to meet even the most basic requirements of a fair trial. Up to 100 defendants were “on trial” at a time. The trials consisted of the reading of a political statement by the prosecution, followed by confessions by selected defendants. Defendants were forced to appear in court without the assistance of their counsel of choice. 

5.7.1       Right to Counsel

Under Article 35 of the Iranian Constitution, citizens have a right to counsel “in all courts of law.”[665] This fundamental right is codified in Articles 128, 185 and 186 of the CCP, and Article 3 the Citizen Rights Law.[666] Although Article 128 of the CCP permits a judge to limit or prohibit a defendant’s access to a lawyer, it must be for national security reasons, and such a limitation can only last until the end of the investigation period. 

Article 14(b) of the ICCPR requires that defendants be provided “adequate time and facilities for the preparation of ... defen[s]e and to communicate with counsel of [one’s] own choosing.” Individuals have the right to counsel both at trial and at stages prior to trial.[667] In an August 13 press release regarding the mass show trials in Iran, several U.N. Human Rights Rapporteurs noted that defendants in criminal proceedings should have adequate legal counsel. The Human Rights Committee has observed that “in cases involving capital punishment, it is axiomatic that the accused must be effectively assisted by a lawyer at all stages of the proceedings.”[668]

Defendants were denied their right to counsel in violation of Iranian and international law. Beginning with the first mass show trial, defense lawyers expressed legitimate concerns about the due process rights of their clients. Most defendants were initially not represented by the lawyers of their choice. Saleh Nikbakht, the chosen defense attorney for Abtahi and several other defendants, reported that he was denied entrance to the first trial session—during which one of his clients confessed.[669] Dr. Ali Najaf Tavana, another attorney, complained both of the lack of access to clients as well as the impropriety of prosecuting such a large number of defendants with varying backgrounds who faced diverse charges.[670] A full week after the prosecution laid out its broad case and public confessions were made by many of the defendants, the lawyers for over a dozen of the defendants complained that they still had not been allowed to contact their clients or even access their case files.[671]

During his trial, Naser Abdolhosseini, who confessed to crimes that led to a death sentence, was left almost defenseless. His brother has reported:

During the trial, the court appointed lawyer did not defend my brother. He [had] only contacted my brother twice and has done nothing for his case … The statement of defense the lawyer read during the hearing was useless. The indictment against my brother did not correspond to the facts. My brother was not in Tehran during the protests and, therefore, could not have taken part in the protests or chanted slogans.[672]

5.7.2       Convictions Based on Forced Confessions

Many, if not all, of the convictions were based on confessions obtained from detainees held in custody in coercive conditions. This use of forced confessions is not innovative. Famously, Stalinist Russia broadcast over radio edited trials of dissidents. The Pahlavi regime used similar tactics before the 1979 Iranian revolution. After the revolution, confessions of many former officials, military personnel, co-revolutionary leftists and members of other dissident groups were presented to the nation, sometimes as a prelude to execution.[673] 

The use of forced confessions remains standard practice in the Iranian judicial system. Confessions are often broadcast in an effort to bolster the judiciary’s case or reputation.[674] In at least one instance, in 2004, Prosecutor Mortazavi held four journalists hostage until they agreed to publish apologies that testified to the good treatment they were afforded while in detention.[675]

However, Article 38 of the Iranian Constitution states that “any testimony, confession, or oath obtained under duress is devoid of value and credence.” In addition, Article 129 of the Criminal Code of Procedure provides that an investigating judge shall not resort to compulsion and duress when interrogating a defendant.[676] On August 3, 2009, only three days after the first trial session, reform-minded Grand Ayatollah Yousuf Saanei reiterated that “confessions taken while in captivity and under critical conditions, are religiously, legally and logically invalid and worthless.”[677] Grand Ayatollah, Hossein-Ali Montazeri, went further:

The confessions that have been extracted in prison have absolutely no religious or legal value and cannot be the basis for the death or prison punishments that have been issued … Those who are responsible for such confessions and their accomplices are religiously and legally guilty and criminal.[678]

Though both Ayatollahs are considered dissident or reform-minded clerics, they are maraji’-i taqlid, and their religiously legal judgments carry the authority of the highest rank attainable by Shi’a clerics.[679] In addition, both are experts on the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, as Ayatollah Saanei is a former member of the Guardian Council and the recently deceased Ayatollah Montazeri was instrumental in the authorship of the Constitution.[680]

As the mass show trials were proceeding, Manfred Nowak, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, pointedly declared that confessions obtained as a result of harsh interrogations or under torture are invalid in any real judicial system.[681] El Hadji Malick Sow, the Vice-Chairperson of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, emphasized that, “these confessions for alleged crimes such as threats against national security and treason must not, under any circumstances, be admitted as evidence by the Revolutionary Court.”

There is every reason to believe that the confessions used by the Judiciary to convict detainees were forced. For example, following his release, Maziar Bahari, the Canadian-Iranian journalist, stated that his confession had been obtained after brutal interrogations and torture, and that he told his interrogators what they wanted to hear.[682] He is quoted in the first indictment:

Maziar Bahari, a reporter for the Newsweek weekly magazine in New York, has this to say regarding this matter: “The foreign media were covering the issue of election fraud even before the elections. In an interview with Mr. Khatami, I also asked this question from him. After the interview I realized that a movement following the classic model for a color revolution was taking place.”[683]

Naser Abdolhosseini confessed to contacts and cooperation with the MEK on Iranian television.[684] The 22-year-old car parts salesman had been arrested on June 26, after returning from a sales trip. However, his brother claims that Abdolhosseini, a high school dropout, was not politically active. He has reported:

My brother was told that if he made televised confessions, his sentence would be reduced … and he would be released before the end of his term. They deceived him into making televised confessions, but contrary to what he was promised, they sentenced him to death. They took advantage of Naser and played with his life.[685]

After witnessing the initial trials and confessions, Mohsen Armin, a well-known pro-reform politician took preemptive action to assure that if he is arrested, any future confession would be appropriately dismissed.

There is no dark stain in my life to be ashamed of: I have never received any money from foreign forces; I have no relations with foreigners and I will not have; so far I have not received money from foreigners; I do not support a velvet revolution to overthrow the system, but I do call for the implementation of the Constitution to promote the cause of my country and consolidate the pillars of the system.[686]

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Sexual Violence, Death Penalty, Political Killings, Executions, Torture, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, Punishment, Personal Liberty, Arbitrary Detention, Travel Restrictions, Due Process, Right to an Attorney, Illegal Search and Seizure, Free Speech, Right to Protest, Protests, Political Freedom, Equality Before the Law, Discrimination, Reports