Lawyers, Activists Arrested as they Attempt to Sue State for Failed COVID Response
Six Arbitrarily Detained as State Tries to Block Attempt to Seek Justice
August 17, 2021—The unlawful arrests of six prominent lawyers and civil rights activists in Tehran as they were preparing to file a lawsuit against state officials for their gross mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic is an indication of the worsening human rights situation under the newly inaugurated President Ebrahim Raisi and new Judiciary Chief Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei.
“Instead of addressing the skyrocketing numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths amid the lack of safe vaccines, the state focuses on crushing attempts to hold officials responsible for their calamitous pandemic response,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“The Iranian government should be focused on immediately importing as many vaccines as possible,” said Ghaemi. “And the international community should urgently condemn these latest arrests and call on the government to stop trying to muzzle criticism of its policies.”
The arrests took place against a backdrop of the judiciary’s escalating campaign to prevent independent lawyers from seeking justice within the judicial system, which has included dismantling the Iranian Bar Association as well as imprisoning independent lawyers on trumped-up charges.
Arash Keykhosravi (lawyer), Mehdi Mahmoudian (civil activist), Mostafa Nili (lawyer), Leila Heydari (lawyer), Mohammad Reza Faghihi (lawyer), and Maryam Afrafaraz (civil activist) were arrested in Tehran on August 14, 2021, and their phones and other personal belongings were confiscated without a warrant. Heydari was released the following day.
CHRI calls for the immediate release of the lawyers and activists, whose detention is a violation of Article 34 of the Constitution, which states that it is an “indisputable right of every citizen to seek justice by recourse to competent courts. All citizens have right of access to such courts, and no one can be barred from courts to which he has a legal right of recourse.”
Officials who violate Article 34 are subject to punishments listed in Article 570 of the Islamic Penal Code, stipulating that “Any official and agent associated with State agencies and institutions who unlawfully strips members of the public of their personal freedom or deprives them of their rights provided in the IRI Constitution shall be sentenced to two months to three years’ imprisonment, in addition to dismissal from the service and prohibition of employment in state offices for one to five years.”
Lawyer: The Arrests are a Sign of the State’s “Growing Fear of Demands for Justice”
The attempted lawsuit followed widespread criticism in Iran of the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s ban on importing vaccines from major vaccine-producing countries including the U.S., UK, and France, as well as Iranian officials’ false promises of an effective domestic vaccination program, have been followed by surging infections and deaths throughout the country.
The lawyers and activists were collectively preparing to sue Iranian authorities in accordance with Article 34 of the Constitution, accusing them of “negligence in carrying out their duties and causing the deaths of thousands of Iranians” in their pandemic response.
The group was arrested by judicial agents and pressured to drop the lawsuit before they could file it. Some of the detainees are now facing manufactured charges based on their previous peaceful advocacy work.
Iranian human rights lawyer Saeid Dehghan tweeted that the arrests are a sign of the state’s “growing fear of demands for justice.”
The latest arrests are a harbinger of the state’s growing campaign to crush peaceful dissent, which has intensified since President Raisi and Judiciary Chief Mohseni Ejei, two major human rights violators, took power in Iran this past June.
“What the international community does now will send a strong signal to the new Iranian administration,” said Ghaemi. “Instead of looking the other way when individuals are unjustly detained, we should all work to support and amplify the voices and demands of the Iranian people.”