Update: According to a July 21 report by the semi-official Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), the head of the Judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, has ordered that the new regulations be suspended for six months.
(New York) - Iran's government should withdraw new regulations that severely limit the independence of the Iranian Bar Association and would give the government control over a lawyer's right to practice, Human Rights Watch said today.
Revised implementing regulations (bylaws) to the law establishing the independence of the Bar Association would give the Judiciary, whose head is appointed by the Supreme Leader and which oversees the Justice Ministry, the decisive role in approving lawyers' licensing applications. The Bar Association has exercised that right for the last 50 years, and the 1955 law establishing the bar's independence says that the law cannot be changed without the bar's approval.
"This so-called reform would allow the government to hand-pick the lawyers who are allowed to practice," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "What we see here is a naked effort to intimidate Iranian defense lawyers at a time when the government is detaining hundreds of people without charge."
On June 17, the head of the Judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, approved revisions to the bylaws of the 1955 law establishing the independence of the Iranian Bar Association. The revised bylaws take effect immediately and do not require approval by parliament or any other government body. Two provisions gravely undermine the bar's independence, giving the government the ability to deny political critics and human rights defenders the right to practice as lawyers.
According to senior Iranian lawyers, the head of the Judiciary has no power to make such changes in the bylaws without consulting the Bar Association. Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Laureate and prominent human rights defender, told Human Rights Watch that Shahroudi is "well aware" that he has no legal authority to decree these changes. "He seems to have approved this bylaw [change] under political pressure," she said.
Article 11 sets up a five-member committee to make decisions on bar membership or renewal. Three of the members will be appointed by the head of the Judiciary, while the other two, appointed by the Bar Association's board of directors, must also have the Judiciary chief's approval.
Article 17 states that the "deputy to the head of the Judiciary or an official representative of the Judiciary will be responsible for the accreditation of the licenses to practice law."
In recent years, Iranian authorities have filed what appear to be politically motivated complaints against outspoken human rights lawyers such as Ebadi and Seyyed Mohammad Seyfzadeh, and pressured the Bar Association to take action against such members. Lawyers have told Human Rights Watch that until now, the Bar Association has resisted such requests.
The Judiciary approved the bylaws' revisions less than a week after Iran's disputed June 12 presidential election, and in the midst of a government crackdown on peaceful protesters and dissidents. With media restrictions as well as the detention of hundreds of prominent activists and writers and several well-known human rights lawyers, critics have been severely hampered in their ability to voice objections to the law and its dangerous consequences.
The 1955 law that established the independence of the Bar Association also gave it an exclusive role in granting and revoking licenses to practice law without interference of the Justice Ministry. This law exists in essentially the same form today, and prohibits interference by the Judiciary in the process. According to the 1955 law, any amendments to the law or its implementing regulations must have Bar Association approval.
Nasrin Sotoodeh, a Tehran-based lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that enforcement of this law would put lawyers like herself at grave risk. If they attempt to practice law without a license, she said, they face "hefty punishments." Sotoodeh said:
"We are at risk of imprisonment. All lawyers who belong to the Bar Association have announced their readiness to submit objections and petitions to the Court of Administrative Justice [Divane Edalate Edari]. Additionally, in a meeting of human rights defenders we decided that groups of five to 10 people each day would submit petitions to annul the new bylaws to show how broad the opposition is in the legal community. The court will know that it is not just the Bar Association that is unhappy with this change."
On July 6, security officers arrested Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, a prominent human rights lawyer and founding member of the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC), at his office in Tehran. A colleague of Dadkhah told Human Rights Watch that Dadkhah's arrest came as he and other lawyer colleagues met to review the new bylaws. Dadkhah's daughter, Malihe, along with Sara Sabaghian, Bahareh Dowaloo, and Amir Raiisian, were also arrested and taken to an unknown location.
On July 4, Bahman Keshavarz, former chair of the Bar Association, wrote in the daily Etemad that:
"We can certainly expect that every lawyer who says too much or accepts undesirable clients can expect to wake up in the morning and find that his license has been revoked. Intellectuals will be punished for their thoughts, and will not be able to retain suitable counsel because all of the lawyers with the courage to work on their cases have been or will be disbarred. Blacklisted politicians will search for independent and courageous lawyers, but will not be able to find them. Even more heart-wrenching is the situation of people who confront serious judicial proceedings but will have no refuge."
The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers state that lawyers have the right to form "self-governing" professional associations to "protect their professional integrity" which shall be able to "exercise its functions without external interference." An attempt by the Nigerian government to take over that country's bar association, including the regulation of its members, was found by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights to be a violation of the basic right of freedom of association.