Political Judges and Unfair Trials: The Widespread Infiltration of Intelligence Operations Into the Judicial System
Acting as court officers, Iranian Police, the Ministry of Intelligence, and Intelligence Units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have always interfered to varying degrees in arrests, interrogations, and trials, and have been known to harass the families of prisoners. But after the presidential elections in June 2009, interference has reached a new level. In many arrest cases after the elections, though the case judge has ordered bail or has given the families of prisoners permission to visit, court officers have refused to carry out the orders and complaints filed by families have not been addressed.
While the Iranian Judiciary’s Prisons Organization has full responsibility for Iran’s prisons and the conditions in which prisoners are kept, the court officers appear to have final say in prisons. For example, ward 240 of Evin Prison is under complete control of the Ministry of Intelligence and the Warden of Evin prison does not have influence there. The same is true for wards which are under the control of the IRGC. The domination and interference of court officers in the Iranian judicial system has brought stress on the ability to conduct fair trials.
In September 2009, when Jafari Dolatabadi replaced Saeed Mortazavi as Tehran’s General and Revolutionary Courts Prosecutor, he made a reference to the Judiciary’s autonomy and demanded that the Prosecutor’s oversight on court officers’ be fully implemented. However, after he took office, not only did the Police, Ministry of Intelligemnce, and IRGC continue such activities, they increased their influence and control in judicial cases. In his introduction ceremony, Dolatabadi said: “The Prosecutor’s oversight of court officers and those attending investigation sessions is a serious matter to me. If some people expect me to determine my moves based on their orders, I will not oblige.” He also said: “We will strongly confront court officers who dictate whom to arrest, release, or convict, and I won’t stand for this.” Jafari Dolatabadi who was previously the Prosecutor of Khouzestan, said that he is responsible for all detentions and releases. “Court officers and interrogators must carry out their duties within legal frameworks and policies and under full supervision of the Prosecutor, and I accept the responsibility for releases and detentions and judicial orders, because I have to be accountable.”
Even so, families of several prisoners told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that court officers have violated laws, acting beyond their duties during arrests, visitations, and in carrying out bail orders issued by judges. In at least five cases, while prisoners were authorized by judge’s orders to have in-person visitations, “case analysts,” or interrogators, refused to allow in-person visitations. In other cases, it has been observed that though bail amounts have been set, court officers refuse to release the suspects. In many cases, prisoners’ listed personal belongings are not returned to them and their personal computers with all their unpublished articles and personal files have been erased and families know that objections to such actions will not be heard. Interrogation methods are also outside the supervision of the judicial system and behind closed doors of prison cells, court officers can do whatever they wish with prisoners, particularly political prisoners.
In an interview with ILNA News Agency, Ali Younesi, the former Minister of Intelligence during Khatami’s presidency, expressed concern about this issue. Younesi, who is currently an adviser to the Head of the Judiciary, has said: “Court officers are not allowed to interfere in the judicial process and must only present their reports. Acceptance or refusal of such reports is upon the judge.” Younesi’s statements come at a time when there is growing concern about security and intelligence organizations’ interference in their capacity as court officers. In many cases, judges act in a fashion entirely coordinated with the wishes of information organizations. It is a bitter truth that the Iranian Judiciary has fallen victim to political and non-judicial decisions. Prolonged “temporary detentions,” mistreatment of prisoners, lack of attention to the health conditions of prisoners who need serious medical care, willful actions with respect to visitation privileges and releases, and contacting prisoner families as a means to apply pressure on prisoners and their families to keep them from talking about political cases, are only some of examples of practices employed by court officers.
Regarding the interference of court officers in the Judiciary’s affairs, Younesi said: “A court officer’s job is to carry out orders from the Judiciary, therefore a court officer is not permitted to interfere in judicial affairs and must only present his report and the judge is entitled to take the report under advisement or not.” Referring to acts that undermine the autonomy of the Judiciary, he added: “By virtue of its independence, the Judiciary must not allow infiltration into the court officer system, whether from the police or security organizations. When I was at the Ministry of Intelligence, I controlled this seriously and would never allow security officers to interfere in a judge’s work; I developed guidelines about this and personally oversaw their implementation.”
He provided an example, indicative of the interference by court officers in the judicial process, a subject which is highly visible now. “I told the judicial authorities at the time that if security officers attempted to interfere in a case, they were to inform me immediately. If they reported that a security officer was following up on a case from this branch to that, I confronted that officer and issued him a warning reminding him that since the case has been delivered to the judicial authorities, it is no longer a concern of the Ministry of Information what the judge’s ruling would be.”
The power and authority of court officers are now important factors in the deteriorating condition of processes leading to a fair trial and implementation of the law, due to the increased power of intelligence and police forces post-elections. Show trials, extraction of forced confessions as evidence to convict political prisoners against whom there is no evidence, sentences which are disproportionately severe, and outrageous bail amounts for political prisoners are all results of the influence of court officers and their complete infiltration of the judicial system. Though authorities such as Mr. Younesi or Jafari Dolatabadi have expressed the importance of the Judiciary’s independence from intelligence operations, the concept has unfortunately never been implemented.