(Beirut) – Iranian judiciary authorities should allow at least 20 detainees charged with terrorism, in connection with the murder of Iranian nuclear scientists, access to their lawyers and family members. Iran’s judiciary has failed to provide basic information about these cases, even to their families, despite the seriousness of the charges, which carry severe punishments, including death.
Family and associates close to three of the detainees told Human Rights Watch that the government has not provided these detainees, who are believed to be held in Tehran, with access to counsel or family visits, or provided the families with details of the charges or evidence against the suspects. The only information released publicly were several announcements by the Intelligence Ministry in 2012 that it had arrested more than a dozen people in connection with the killings of the scientists, and the televised confessions of 12 of the detainees in August 2012.
“If the Iranian authorities have a credible case against those accused of committing terrible crimes of murder, they should present real evidence, not forced confessions,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Denying defendants access to their lawyers, and shrouding these trials in secrecy only invites suspicion that the authorities do not have credible evidence about who killed so many Iranian scientists.”
On June 17, 2012, Heydar Moslehi, the head of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, told Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency that authorities had arrested 20 suspects allegedly involved in the murder of two scientists – Majid Shahriari, a nuclear physicist, and Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, who was reportedly a supervisor at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. Shahriari was killed on November 29, 2010, and Roshan on January 11, 2012, both in car bomb explosions in Tehran. Authorities have also linked the suspects to a car bomb attack that seriously wounded a third nuclear scientist, Professor Fereydoon Abbasi, and his wife, on November 29. Abbasi was the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.
On July 23, 2011, two gunmen on motorcycles shot and killed Dariush Rezaeinejad, a 35-year-old postgraduate engineering student, while he and his wife were waiting outside their daughter’s kindergarten in Tehran. Rezaeinejad’s wife was wounded, but survived. Iranian authorities have rejected reports that Rezaeinejad was involved in Iran’s nuclear program. Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, a distinguished physics professor at Tehran University died when a bomb detonated outside his home in Tehran on January 12, 2011. A fifth scientist, Ardeshir Hosseinpour, died under mysterious circumstances in 2007. Stratfor, a private US intelligence firm, reported that Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, killed Hosseinpour, but Iranian officials have denied that Hosseinpour was involved in Iran’s nuclear program, or that his death was anything but an accident.
The confessions are the only evidence the government has so far offered in connection with these deaths. On August 5, Iran’s IRTV Channel 1 aired a half-hour documentary titled the Terror Club, which featured the televised confessions of the 12 suspects allegedly involved in the killings of Ali-Mohammadi, Shahriari, Rezaeinejad, and Roshan, and the attempted killing of Abbasi.
The suspects, seven men and five women, all confessed to being involved in the assassinations and provided details about their alleged roles in planning and carrying out the plots. Some confessed to receiving training by American, British, and Israeli intelligence agents in camps outside of Tel Aviv, with the assistance of Iranian opposition groups such as the Mojahedin-e Khalq.
During the August 5 program, IRTV also rebroadcast the confession of Majid Jamali Fashi, whom officials had executed in May for the murder of Ali-Mohammadi. Fashi’s confession initially aired in January 2011, months before his revolutionary court trial in August 2011. Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm the identities of the other seven people the government said it arrested in June.
The program identified the 12 suspects who confessed on camera as: Behzad Abdoli, Tara Bagheri, Maziar Ebrahimi, Fouad Faramarzi, Maryam Izadi, Arash Kheradkish, Ramtin Mahdavi Mousaei, Ayoub Moslem, Mohsen Sedeghi-Azar, Firouz Yeganeh, Nashmin Zareh, and Maryam Zargar. Authorities earlier had announced they had arrested 20 suspects in connection with the killings. A review of the August 5 program by Human Rights Watch revealed that the authorities did not offer any evidence other than the 12 detainees’ confessions, nor did they provide any information regarding the specific charges against the detainees or details about their judicial files.
The Intelligence Ministry made several other announcements during 2012 citing various numbers of suspects arrested in the killings linked to the nuclear program. It is not clear whether these announcements all referred to the same group of 20, or whether other unidentified detainees have also been charged with the killings.
Shapoor Ebrahimi, Maziar Ebrahimi’s brother, told Human Rights Watch that since his brother’s arrest, the authorities have kept him incommunicado, prevented him from selecting a lawyer of his own choosing, and provided no information to the family about his well-being or the status of the criminal case against him.
Ebrahimi said his brother was a businessman who had been busy managing his cinema and television production company, and frequently traveled between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan. Although Maziar Ebrahimi said in his public confession that he led the team that killed Roshan, Shapoor Ebrahimi provided Human Rights Watch with receipts he contends prove that his brother was in Iraqi Kurdistan during Roshan’s assassination.
Another informed source told Human Rights Watch that as of February 19, the authorities had kept Zareh and Faramarzi, her husband, incommunicado and failed to provide their families with any information regarding their well-being or the status of the criminal cases against them. The source said that Zareh’s family has had absolutely no contact with her since the day security forces arrested them. The source also said authorities have prevented Zareh from getting a lawyer, claiming that the suspects’ cases are under investigation.
Although Human Rights Watch has received no credible evidence suggesting that officials tortured or forced the people featured in the August 5 IRTV documentary to confess, it has documented numerous cases in which Iranian judiciary, security, intelligence, and prison officials have extracted forced confessions from detainees under torture. The fear of ill-treatment or torture of detainees is particularly high when people are held in incommunicado detention, Human Rights Watch said.
International human rights law protects detainees from mistreatment, including from making forced “confessions.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party, protects the right of every person “[n]ot to be compelled to testify against himself or to confess guilt.” It is unlawful for authorities to use coercive means to obtain incriminating statements. Broadcasting such statements is likely to be a form of degrading treatment strictly prohibited by international law. Any televised confession broadcast prior to a suspect’s fair trial also violates article 14(2) of the covenant. The article provides that “[e]veryone charged with a criminal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to the law.”
The covenant also requires Iran to ensure that anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge “shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release,” and requires authorities to conduct a “fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal,” and to allow defendant “adequate times and facilities for the preparation of their defense,” and to communicate with the lawyer of their choosing.
Although Iran’s criminal procedure laws allow for the prolonged incommunicado detention of a suspect during the “investigation phase,” the prolonged detention of these individuals is inconsistent with requirements laid out in article 3 of the Law Establishing Public and Revolutionary Courts. These provisions oblige the judiciary to end the investigative phase of a case within four months, at which point authorities must either indict or release the suspects. In cases in which the judiciary wishes to extend the investigative phase, the judges must provide a reason for their decision. The law states that detainees have the right to appeal this decision to a Revolutionary Court judge. Available information suggests that the court has not offered any of these legal protections to Ebrahimi, Zareh, Faramarzi, or the others.
“Any conviction and sentencing of suspects alleged to have played a part in the killing of these nuclear scientists is tainted when there is evidence, as there is in this case, suggesting that officials have deprived defendants of their fair trial rights,” Whitson said.