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(NewYork) – Iran’s judiciary should immediately overturn a lower court ruling against a lawyer sentenced to 18 years in prison for his human rights activities and set him free, Human Rights Watch said today. Abdolfattah Soltani, a colleague of Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi and cofounder of a banned rights group, was convicted on charges that violate his rights to freedom of expression and association protected under international law. On the same day another colleague of Soltani’s, Narges Mohammadi, learned that an appeals court had sentenced her to six years in prison on similar charges.

On March 4, 2012, Soltani was convicted and sentenced to prison on national security charges after two court sessions. According to the court’s judgment, Soltani will be barred from practicing law for 20 years after his release because “the accused has used the law as a tool and cover to commit … crimes.” The sentence also requires Soltani, a Tehran resident, to serve his term “in exile” in a prison in the town of Borazjan, more than 600 kilometers south of the capital in Bushehr province because, according to the judgment, “his presence inside a Tehran prison will cause corruption.” Authorities had previously alleged that Soltani, who had previously spent time in Evin prison, improperly provided legal advice to other prisoners.

“Soltani should not spend a minute, let alone 18 years, in a prison hundreds of kilometers away, for acts directly related to his exercise of basic human rights,” said Joe Stork,deputy Middle East director at Human RightsWatch.“The appeals court should quash this unfair sentence and free him.”

Security forces arrested Soltani on September 10 at Tehran’s revolutionary court, where he had apparently gone to review a client’s case files. He has been held since then in Evin prison’s Ward 209, which is controlled by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry. His defense team has 20 days from the date of conviction to appeal the lower court ruling to the appellate court.

Branch 26 of Tehran’s revolutionary courtconvicted Soltani of several national security charges, including “propaganda against the state,” assembly and collusion against the state, and establishing the Center for Human Rights Defenders, the nongovernmental organization that Soltani cofounded with Ebadi in 2003. The court also convicted Soltani of “receiving funds through illegitimate means” in relation to the human rights prize from the German city of Nuremberg, which he received in 2009.

Mohammadi, a former spokesperson and member of the Center for Human Rights defenders, was sentenced in an appellate court. Branch 26 of Tehran’s revolutionary court had previously issued an 11-year sentence for Mohammadi on charges related to “propaganda against the state,” assembly and collusion against the state, and membership in the Center for Human Rights Defenders, but an appeals court reduced to sentence to six years. Security forces arrested Mohammadi in June 2010, but released her on July 1 on bail. She is currently out of prison but expects to be summoned shortly to serve her sentence.

Iran’s revolutionary courts handle special cases, including those purporting to be about national security.

Maedeh Soltani, Soltani’s daughter, told Human Rights Watch that authorities showed Soltani a copy of the court’s judgment after it had been issued but refused to provide him with a copy. “They asked my father to sign the judgment and acknowledge receipt but he refused and demanded they give him a copy so he could review it,” Maedeh Soltani said. She said her father had refused to provide a defense at his trial because he considered the charges politically motivated and demanded the presence of a jury in accordance with Iranian law.

Under article 168 of Iran’s Constitution, “political and press offenses [should] be tried openly and in the presence of a jury.” The constitution requires that a definition of political offenses “be determined by law and in accordance with Islamic criteria,” but authorities have failed to include such a definition in the Islamic Penal Code or other applicable legislation.

Authorities had previously arrested and detained Soltani in 2005 and 2009. On July 30, 2005, agents of the judiciary operating under the authority of then-Tehran chief prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, arrested Soltani inside the offices of the Lawyers’ Association in Tehran. The next day, a judiciary spokesman announced that authorities had arrested Soltain for “revealing secrets relating to the case of nuclear spies.”

Officials held Soltani in Ward 209 of Evin prison for 219 days, largely in solitary confinement. On July 16, 2006, a revolutionary court convicted Soltani on espionage charges and sentenced him to five years in prison and barred him from practicing law for five years, but an appellate court acquitted him on all charges.

Security forces arrested Soltani again on June 16, 2009, four days after officials announced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won the disputed June 2009 presidential election. They released him on bail after two months in detention.

The government has increased pressure against lawyers defending rights activists since 2005, and especially after the 2009 election protests. In August 2011, Ebadi said that at least 42 lawyers had faced government persecution since June 2009. In addition to Soltani, the judiciary has sentenced Nasrin Sotoudeh, Mohammad Seifzadeh, and Javid Houtan Kian to prison and lengthy bans on practicing law on similar national security-related charges. The judiciary has allowed several other convicted high-profile lawyers, like Mohammad Ali Dadkhah and Khalil Bahramian, to be released from detention on submitting money for bail and await the results of their appeals outside of prison.

In 2010, Mohammad Javad Larijani, the head of the Human Rights Council of the Judiciary, Iran’s state-controlled human rights body, said in relation to Sotoudeh’s case that she had been engaged “in a very nasty campaign” against the government, referring to several interviews with her by foreign Persian-language media outlets in which she defended her clients. On January 20, 2011, Sadegh Larijani, the head of the judiciary, repeated the government’s warning that lawyers should refrain from giving interviews that damage the government’s reputation.

At least eight other lawyers, including Ebadi, Mohammad Mostafaei, and Shadi Sadr, have been forced to leave the country as a result of repeated arrests, detention, and harassment. Authorities banned and then shut down Ebadi’s Center for Human Rights Defenders in 2008. In March 2010, Tehran’s Public and Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Officeaccused the Center and two other local rights organizations of engaging in “cyber warfare” against the state. The groups denied the charges, and the Center for Human Rights Defenders called the attacks nothing more than a “frame job against human rights activists and civil society.”Authorities have also limited the independence of the Iranian Bar Association by barring lawyers from running for high-level offices in the association on discriminatory grounds, including their imputed political opinions and their peaceful human rights activities. For example, in 2008, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, Hadi Esmailzadeh, Farideh Gheyrat, and Soltani – all members of the Center for Human Rights Defenders – were disqualified by the judiciary from running in the election for the association’s Central Board because of their activities as human rights defenders.

The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers provide that lawyers must be allowed to carry out their work “without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.” In addition, it affirms the right of lawyers to freedom of expression, also provided for in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which includes “the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights.”

“Soltani’ and Mohammadi’s convictions are the latest in a series of arrests, detentions and convictions of rights advocates who are being targeted simply because they are doing their job,” Stork said.“The judiciary should immediately quash all convictions that relate to the defenders’ free exercise of their basic rights,and allow them to return to work without harassment and interference.”

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