Release Imprisoned Human Rights Lawyers at Risk for Contracting COVID-19

Mar 27, 20200 comments

Update: On March 30, Mohammad Najafi was released on furlough. Sotoudeh and Davoodi remain in prison. We urge the Islamic Republic of Iran to grant permanent release to all three of these human rights lawyers.

In light of serious threats to life posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we, the undersigned, are calling upon the Islamic Republic of Iran to immediately release all human rights lawyers unjustly imprisoned in Iran, including Mohammad Najafi, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and Amir Salar Davoodi. These releases should be permanent and Iran’s judicial and security officials should stop their illegal persecution of human rights lawyers and attacks on the legal profession.

In March, the New York Bar Association also released a statement calling for Nasrin Sotoudeh, and others similarly situated, to be among the 10,000 to be released from prison in advance of Norooz (Persian New Year) or,  at a minimum, be immediately granted compassionate release on at least a temporary basis, recognizing the threat posed by COVID-19.

Iran is one of the countries hit the hardest by the COVID-19 global pandemic. The risk of the virus’ spread in prisons has made the situation of detained lawyers and political prisoners far more dire. Iranian prison conditions and overcrowding greatly increase the risk of  infectious diseases among detainees. In response, Iran has thus far released about 85,000 prisoners from on temporary furlough to decrease chances of infection. This included some political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. However, none of the lawyers currently in prison for human rights activities are on this list. It is urgent that the lawyers and all political prisoners be immediately released. 

Moreover, their release should be permanent as the grounds for the detention of these lawyers has always been as a punishment for their free expression in contradiction with international law. The government has informally indicated to Mohammad Najafi that he would get a corona-related furlough, but it has yet to happen.

Currently, at least three human rights lawyers are detained inside Iran. Human rights lawyers in Iran are routinely harassed and arrested by authorities simply for defending prisoners of conscience or for criticizing the government or judicial system. Since 2016, tens of lawyers have spent time in prison for peaceful expression or for work on behalf of their clients. These lawyers are serving sentences for vague national security charges such as “propaganda against the system” or “membership in an illegal group.”  

The threat of arrest and criminal charges are part of a large pattern designed to erode the independence and human rights efficacy of the legal profession as a whole by making it nearly impossible for lawyers to vigorously defend their clients or speak out against human rights abuses. Dozens of human rights lawyers have fled the country to avoid persecution. Moreover, Iran’s Criminal Procedure law prevents defendants facing “serious charges” from freely choosing their lawyer and having a lawyer at all stages of the proceedings. Lawyers often cannot get access to case files or their clients until just before trial, if at all. Authorities have even asserted undue control of the Iranian Bar Association by giving the Judiciary the power to disqualify independently-minded lawyers from standing for elections to the Bar’s Board.

Mohammad Najafi is one such lawyer who has faced arbitrary detention for promoting human rights and criticizing authorities. Najafi has a long history of defending prisoners of conscience and speaking out against human rights abuses in Iran. Mr. Najafi was arrested in mid-January 2018 after publishing on Facebook the outcomes of an investigation into the death of a young man named Vahid Heydari, who died in prison after being arrested during January 2018 protests. In his report, Mr. Najafi stated that the government’s explanation of his death was that he committed suicide in Arak’s politice detention faciility number 12, which he believed to be a false claim. He was subsequently arrested and sentenced to imprisonment. Mr. Najafi was not allowed to retain his preferred lawyers and rejected picking one from a list of lawyers pre-approved by the Judiciary. 

There are several human rights lawyers in Iran prisons alongside Mr. Najafi, including:

  • Amir Salar Davoudi, who has represented several political defendants and has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for human rights activities. 
  • Nasrin Sotoudeh, another Iranian lawyer, is also in prison for defending women who were opposed to the forced wearing of the hijab. She has been sentenced to a total of 17 years in prison.

From the viewpoint of the Islamic Republic security agencies, attorneys who work with political defendants are effectively collaborating with them. Sharing any information about their client’s situation with media outlets, especially those based outside Iran, is considered as a form of psychological war against the government and cooperation with foreign media. The semi-official Fars News Agency expressed this sentiment regarding Nasrin Sotoudeh, stating that: “Sotoudeh has engaged in illegal human rights activities and has represented terrorists and spies in court. Not being satisfied with this, she has also tried to make a psychological war against the Islamic government by interviewing with the official media of the spy organizations.” 

Iranian human rights lawyers say that raising awareness about their clients’ cases in the media is an essential part of their professional duty. They believe public and international attention helps ensure their client’s receive fair trials and treatment. Moreover, arrests and intimidation of lawyers speaking to the media or criticizing authorities is a clear violation of the lawyers’ right to free expression  as enshrined in international law. 

The Islamic Republic should immediately respond to the  COVID-19 pandemic by releasing all lawyers imprisoned for peaceful human rights activism inside and outside the courtroom. These releases should be made permanent as they were in violation of international human rights law. Moreover, judicial and security officials must guarantee all lawyers are able to defend their clients in a safe environment, without fear or intimidation. As such, the Islamic Republic should guarantee the independence of the Bar Association and amend the laws which inhibit defendants from freely choosing their lawyer. 


International Lawyers Tribunal



The Case of Mohammad Najafi

Mohammed Najafi, an Iranian lawyer, is facing criminal charges for his activism and criticism of the government. He has been in prison since November 2018, and was sentenced to a total of 22 years and 10 months imprisonment, 74 lashes, and a fine of four million Tomans, according to the Iranian security service’s latest filing. Under Iran’s penal code, he could serve 15 years and 10 months of the prison sentence.

Authorities have harassed and arrested Najafi many times in the past for his work as a human rights lawyer and for his activism. Najafi’s latest stint of state persecution is borne out of his activism over the case of Vahid Heydari, a young man who died in the custody of authorities in 2018.

Vahid Heydari was reportedly arrested in the city of Arak during nationwide protests that took place in January 2018. Six days later his family was informed that their son had committed suicide in prison.  Officials claimed that Heydari was “addicted to drugs” and that his arrest was not related to participation  protests. 

Najafi researched Heydari’s case, interviewing friends, witnesses, and family members. In mid-January, Najafi published a report on Facebook which concluded that the government’s account of Najafi’s arrest and death was false. According to Najafi’s report, Heydari was indeed arrested during the January 2018 protests in Arak and was found dead at a police detention center in the city with signs of abuse on his body. Najafi claimed that Heydari was neither a drug addict nor a drug dealer, citing his friends who “strongly denied” these claims and concluded his death was not by suicide.  The report angered security officials, who then filed a criminal complaint against him. Najafi also provided interviews on his findings to the media including BBC Persian, the U.S. government’s Voice of America Persian channel and US-funded Radio Farda. 

Mr. Najafi was initially arrested along with some of his friends in Arak. Mr. Najafi was detained from late February 2018 until late April 2018 and later released on a bail of one billion tomans ($200,000 USD). A few weeks after his release, Najafi told the Center for Human Rights in Iran that he was arrested for pursuing the suspicious death of Vahid Heydari, but stated that he would nevertheless continue to pursue justice for Heydari’s death. He was also willing to represent Heydari’s family as their lawyer, if they wished. Najafi added that the Revolutionary Guard intelligence told him that they are set on delaying his efforts through endless summons and arrests.

Najafi ended up facing at least seven prosecutions from 2018 to 2020, all seemingly borne out of this conflict. Human Rights Watch concluded that Najafi’s multiple long prison sentences were an act of “revenge [by authorities] for the revealing of Vahid Heydari’s death in the detention center and reporting signs of torture and other abuses, including bruises on his body.”

Najafi’s prosecutions include:

Arak Criminal Court – July 2018: On July 26, 2018, the Criminal Court Branch 102 in Arak sentenced Mr. Najafi to a total of three years in prison.

  • One year sentence and 74 lashes on the charge of “disrupting public order”(Article 618) based on Najafi’s participation in the January 2018 protests;
  • Two years on the charge of “agitating the public consciousness” (Article 698) for his publishing criticism of excess force of security forces during those protests. 

He was detained on October 28, 2018 to begin serving his prison term. In January 2019 the Supreme Court rejected Mr. Najafi’s application for a retrial but removed the 74 lashes from his sentence. Najafi was subsequently released under an amnesty order from Iran’s  Supreme Leader on March 28, 2019. He was arrested just four days later to serve the 10-year sentence issued by Arak Revolutionary Court in January 2018 and has been in prison since. 

During his imprisonment, Mr. Najafi did not stop his activism. In August of 2019, he published an audio file criticizing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which led to his transfer to solitary confinement. A month later, he wrote an open letter to the Supreme Leader again criticizing him for lacking legal legitimacy as a leader and using repressive tactics to silence dissenters.

Arak Criminal Court – November 2018: On November 20, 2018, the Criminal Court Branch 102 in Arak tried Mr. Najafi and sentenced him to one year in prison on the charge of “disturbing public opinion” (Article 18 of the Computer Crimes Law): the acts of sharing several photos on Facebook of himself protesting the Judiciary and the execution of a political prisoner.

Arak Revolutionary Court – December 2018 : On December 2, 2018, Mohammad Najafi was convicted by Branch 2 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Arak on three counts.

  • One year imprisonment on the charge of  “spreading propaganda against the system” (Article 500 of the Islamic Penal Code) for publishing his findings on Heydari’s death.
  • Two years imprisonment on the charge “insulting the leader of the Islamic Republic” (Article 514) for allegedly shouting “death to the dictator” during the January 2018 protests.;
  • Ten years imprisonment for “cooperating with hostile governments” by transmitting news and information in interviews to BBC Persian, Radio Farda and VOA Persian (Article 508). 

Payam Derafshan, Mr. Najafi’s lawyer, told HRANA: “Mr. Najafi has been sentenced to 10 years in prison on the charge of cooperating with a hostile government while he was speaking to the media about his concerns. He did not intend to give any information, but just wanted to share problems faced by himself and the other citizens with the media.” The convictions were upheld by the Court of Appeals in Arak, Markazi province in April 2019.

Shazand Criminal Court – January 2019: In the Winter of 2018, Mr. Najafi was tried by the Criminal Court in the town of Shazand, in the Markazi Province, on charges of “agitating the public consciousness” (Article 698). These charges were based on Mr. Najafi having published a letter critical of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s political legitimacy on Instagram on September 9, 2018. He was subsequently sentenced on January 22, 2019 by Branch 102 of the Shazand Criminal Court to two years’ imprisonment as well as a four million Toman fine (approx. $950 USD). 

In May 2019, Najafi’s lawyers in appeal, Payam Derafshan, Azita Pouladvand, and Abouzar Nasrollahi had resigned from pursuing the case due to the “written and verbal insults” of the judiciary in the Markazi Province. He later refused to attend the appeals hearing at the Eighth Branch Court of Appeal of the Markazi Province, in protest of what happened to his lawyers. TheShazand Court upheld the original verdict and sentence.

Arak Criminal Court – December 2019: On December 29, 2019, Mr. Najafi was sentenced to four months in prison on the charge of “agitating the public consciousness” (Article 698 of the Penal Code).

Arak Revolutionary Court – December 2019: On December 30, 2019, he was sentenced to three years in prison on the charge of “insulting the Supreme Leader” (Article 514) for allegedly recording and distributing a voice memo from prison where he again challenged the authority of Iran’s unelected Supreme Leader. 

Tehran Revolutionary Court – December 2019: On December 17, 2019, he was sentenced to an extra six-month imprisonment for his speech in Gohar Eshghi’s house. Gohar Eshghi is the mother of Sattar Beheshti, a blogger who was killed under torture in Iranian prisons. In the speech Najafi blames authorities for Beheshti’s death.

Mr. Najafi received the Human Rights Award of the Year by the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe last December. He won the award along with three notable Iranian lawyers: Abdolfattah Soltani, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and Amir Salar Davoudi.

Center for Human Rights in Iran (1), Center for Human Rights in Iran (2), Center for Human Rights in Iran (3)
Iran Prison Atlas
Mohammad Najafi’s Facebook Profile
World Organization Against Torture
Mohammad Najafi’s Instagram page
Observatory Urgent Appeal, IRN 004/0918/OBS 115, published on April 19, 2019. (World Organization Against Torture)
The Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe