Iranian Authorities Arrest Lawyer Who Exposed Death of Protester in Police Custody
Civil Rights Activists Also Detained
February 16, 2018 – Attorney Mohammad Najafi has been held in detention in the Iranian city of Arak since January 15, and is facing eight charges for exposing the death of a young man who died in police custody after being arrested during the recent protests in Iran.
Najafi’s own attorney has also been threatened with arrest, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has learned.
“The Iranian authorities should immediately release Najafi and end the practice of intimidating and persecuting lawyers for exposing human rights violations inside the country,” said CHRI’s Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi.
“There’s no justice in a system where lawyers are put in jail for doing their jobs,” he added.
Najafi was due to be released on February 14 but the month-long detention order against him was extended, according to his lawyer, Payam Derafshan.
“One of the things the authorities have been very sensitive about is Vahid Heydari’s suspicious death,” Derafshan told CHRI on February 15. Heydari was one of the thousands arrested for participating in the protests that swept through Iran in late December 2017. The authorities claimed his death was a suicide. “They asked Najafi a lot of questions about it,” said Derafshan.
Najafi told CHRI on January 8 that Heydari, 22, died in detention at the 12th Police Station in Arak after he was arrested at a protest in the city on December 31.
“I believe that this young man did not take his own life,” Najafi said. “This young man was a protester. They arrested him and then they beat and killed him. Now they want to destroy his reputation.”
Derafshan said he and fellow attorney Arash Keykhosravi were also going to be arrested by the Intelligence Ministry’s office in Shazand, near Arak in Markazi Province, for giving legal counsel to Najafi, “but the [Intelligence] Ministry in Tehran told us they had blocked it.”
Derafshan and Keykhosravi are also representing the family of Kavous Seyed-Emami, the Iranian-Canadian academic and environmentalist who died in custody in Evin Prison on February 9, 2018. The authorities are similarly claiming that death was a suicide.
According to Derafshan, Najafi has been charged with “organizing with the intention to disturb national security,” “membership in opposition groups,” “propaganda against the state,” “insulting the supreme leader,” “spreading falsehoods,” “disseminating information and news abroad,” “assembly and collusion against national security” and “disturbing public peace and order.”
“Many of these charges are one and the same but they don’t have any reason or evidence to back them up,” he said. “Instead, the authorities have summoned and arrested a number of people and put them under pressure to make statements against Mohammad Najafi and accuse him of inciting protests, but none of them have given in, despite persistent questioning.”
In addition to Najafi, five civil rights activities were arrested in Shazand on January 15: Ali Bagheri, Kian Sadeghi, Abbas Safari, Gholamreza Ghasemi and Behzad Alibakhshi, according to Derafshan. All remain in detention except for Safari, who was released on bail at an unknown date.
In the days after Najafi’s arrest, 12 civil rights activists were also summoned to the Intelligence Ministry’s office in Shazand and questioned: Bijan Niou, Alireza Lak, Neda Yousefi, Davoud Rahimi, Ghodrat Abdi, Davoud Fadaei, Saman Gilani, Borzou Jafarifar, Vahid Moradi, Mehdi Rahimi, Mohammad Abedi and Javad Mahmoudi.
“The common theme in the interrogators’ insinuating questions has been whether Mohammad Najafi was organizing the civil rights activists to take part in the protests,” Derafshan told CHRI. “But none of them have made any statements against Mr. Najafi, despite the pressures.”
On January 8, Bagheri, a civil rights activist in Arak, told CHRI that one of Heydari’s relatives had seen evidence of a severe blow to Heydari’s skull before his body was buried.
“Unfortunately, the authorities have behaved badly towards Najafi and Bagheri,” said Derafshan. “They have forced them to wear prison uniforms, shaved their heads and put leg cuffs on them. This is against the rules. They have not been convicted of anything. They are only under temporary detention.”
He added: “The head of the bar association in Arak has had a meeting with the Markazi Province prosecutor to discuss Najafi’s case but for the moment, the situation is that he has been transferred from Arak Prison’s quarantine unit to the public ward and we will go there on Saturday [February 17] to check on him and follow up on his case.”
Pattern of Intimidation
Najafi was previously arrested in October 2016 for wearing a T-shirt honoring Iran’s Green Movement, which grew out of the protests against the disputed result of the country’s 2009 presidential election.
Iran has a documented history of harassing, intimidating and jailing lawyers who have taken on politically sensitive cases.
Well-known human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani is currently serving a 13-year sentence in Evin Prison for the charges of “being awarded the  Nuremberg International Human Rights Award,” “interviewing with media about his clients’ cases,” and “co-founding the Defenders of Human Rights Center.”
In 2010, his colleague Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to 11 years in prison for the charges of “acting against national security,” “collusion and propaganda against the regime,” and “membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center. The prominent human rights defender was freed after serving three years but continues to face the threat of imprisonment.
Human rights attorney Hadi Esmailzadeh was imprisoned twice before he died from a heart attack in February 2016 after being sentenced to four years in prison in July 2014 by a Revolutionary Court for the charges of “propaganda against the state” and “membership in the Center for the Defenders of Human Rights.”
“I will never forget that this great man continued to defend us no matter how much the court tried to humiliate him,” Esmailzadeh’s former client, Baha’i leader Mahvash Sabet, told CHRI after being freed from Evin Prison in September 2017.