A mysterious judicial system
The arrest and trial of human rights activist Shiva Nazar-Ahari is part of an ongoing narrative.
Last Modified: 10 Sep 2010 20:05
Shiva Nazar-Ahari one of many dissident voices being silenced by the Iranian regime

The rearrest and trial of Iranian human rights activist and journalist Shiva Nazar-Ahari adds another name and face to a long list of those targeted by the government there, charged with a list of extraordinary offences and subjected to an opaque justice system.

Hers is not an exceptional case, as the government continues to expand its crackdowns beyond the leaders of the opposition and those who follow them in protest marches. Women's rights activist are also targeted, and such is the situation for women's rights advocate and attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh, whose home and office were raided a week ago. According to Gooyanews.com, security forces seized personal effects, computers and files. Sotoudeh was ordered to report to the public prosecutor's office with her attorney, Nasim Ghanavi, who was told that she could not accompany her client during questioning. Charged with threatening national security and collusion, Sotoudeh was arrested on Sunday and taken to Evin prison.

Sotoudeh worked with Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi and has been harassed repeatedly by the government. In an interview with International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran prior to her arrest - Sotoudeh, who has been told to cease her activities, said that she had previously been called before the tax authorities.

"I was referred to the taxation bureau and while there I noticed in addition to my name, they are conducting special investigations into 30 human rights lawyers," she said, adding that the government is targeting human rights lawyers on tax charges because they take on pro-bono cases.

"The only institution capable of defending lawyers is the Bar Association, but the authorities are putting it under tremendous pressure and attempting to incorporate it into the judiciary and take away its independence."

When I interviewed exiled journalist Masih Alinejad in May on the issue of jailed journalists for a project, she told me that journalists and activists are routinely arrested, released on bail, and rearrested, just as Nazar-Ahari was. This, she told me, has the effect of keeping an individual in a prisoner's state of mind, even when out on bail.

The most grievous of the accusations levelled against Nazar-Ahari is that of being a mohareb, or enemy of God, which, under Iran's Sharia law, carries a death penalty. There has been considerable movement since the June 2009 disputed presidential elections to try anyone who protests against the government, participates in what is deemed as un-Islamic activities (such as celebrating the Persian new year festivities) or watches BBC Persian as a mohareb.

That Nazar-Ahari's case even got to court is far from standard. Leila Alikarami, a human rights lawyer who I also interviewed for the same project on the Iranian press as a Wolfson Press fellow at Cambridge University, explained that in many cases, journalists and activists are denied access to an attorney, are never in fact charged with an offence, and are locked up indefinitely. Typically, the reason given for this is that the investigation into the case against the prisoner is ongoing.

Of course, this way of doing things is not unique to the post-revolution Iran of the past 30 years. Under the Shah's rule, journalists, human rights activists or those seen as an agent of disruption were seldom granted trials, nor was it so unusual for them to die while in prison. The official line was that these prisoners, such as journalist Karimpour Shirazi, had committed suicide, but given the absence of transparency in the system, such declarations were viewed with suspicion. 

Having already spent nearly nine months in the notorious Evin prison, Nazar-Ahari denied  the charges filed against her in court on Saturday. But given how the regime chooses who to detain, arrest and try in its courts, even an acquittal, however just, could hardly be considered a victory.

Al Jazeera
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