June 22, 2022 – For trying to sue Iranian leaders for their grossly negligent response to the COVID-19 pandemic, three lawyers and two civil rights activists have been sentenced to prison.
“These individuals are being punished in order to send a message to the people of Iran: Seeking an accountable government in the Islamic Republic will land you in jail,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“This ruling reflects Iran’s judicial system, which works in lock step with the state security apparatus to crush dissent,” he added. “Iranians seeking justice are treated as enemies of the nation, while those in power who are destroying it enjoy immunity.”
A revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Mostafa Nili (lawyer) and Mehdi Mahmoudian (civil rights activist) to four years in prison each, Arash Keykhosravi (lawyer) to two years in prison, Mohammad Reza Faghihi (lawyer) to six months in prison, and Maryam Afrafaraz (civil rights activist) to 95 days in prison.
Their attorney Babak Paknia, who announced the verdicts on June 21, 2022, said they would be appealed.
The prison sentences come at a time when the government is increasingly trying to crush peaceful rights advocacy and attempts to hold officials accountable for their actions.
State forces have been violently repressing protests occurring around the country for months, while scores of activists including laborers and teachers have been detained.
Health Defenders Denied Justice, Punished as Enemies of the State
Referred to on Persian social media as the “health defenders,” the lawyers and activists had attempted to file a lawsuit against senior Iranian officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for banning the import of COVID-19 vaccines made by U.S. and British pharmaceutical companies for political reasons, forbidding factual numbers about the extent of deaths and infections from being publicized, and mismanaging response efforts.
Health Ministry officials involved with pandemic policies told the New York Times that they were interrogated regularly by intelligence agents.
The prosecution of the defendants—all members of Iran’s growing “seeking-justice” (Dadkhahi in Persian) movement—was also unconstitutional. Article 34 of the Iranian constitution states, “It is the indisputable right of every citizen to seek justice by recourse to competent courts.”
In Iran, there are no laws against “intent to commit a crime,” yet the health defenders were prosecuted for “intending to file a suit.”
Suing officials is also a right according to Iranian law, yet the health defenders were convicted on the charge of “assembly and collusion against national security” for having private meetings on the Clubhouse social media app to discuss the lawsuit.
The court ruling also banned the lawyers from working in the future, despite having no legal authority to impose the ban.
Mostafa Nili has been banned for two years and Arash Keykhosravi for one year, yet according to Article 17 of the Law on the Independence of the Legal Profession, only the Iranian Bar Association and military courts have the authority to suspend lawyers.
The government’s so-called “High Council on Human Rights” has meanwhile refused to counter the unlawful court ruling, opting instead to demonize the defendants, stating on June 21 that “The prosecution of a handful of lawyers was not related to their legal work but committing crimes that had nothing to do with their profession.”
Khamenei’s Ban on Western COVID Vaccines Resulted in Delayed Aid to Population
Khamenei’s ban on importing vaccines from major vaccine-producing countries including the U.S., UK, and France, as well as Iranian officials’ touting of improperly tested domestic vaccines, were followed by surging infections and deaths throughout the country.
Khamenei’s ban was also applied to COVAX, a global initiative that was designed to ensure low-income countries could access vaccines.
Yet due to his ban, state officials refused offers of vaccines from various countries.
“Because of the continuing ban imposed by Iran’s leader on the importation of vaccines produced by the U.S. and the U.K., the entry of Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson, and AstraZeneca vaccines into Iran have been dangerously hampered,” Ali Akbar Mousavi-Khoeini, a former Member of Parliament in Iran, told CHRI in August 2021.
The Iranian government reported 141,370 coronavirus-related deaths as of June 2022, though the number has been vastly underreported from the beginning of the pandemic, according to Iranian medical officials.
“Iranian leaders blocked the import of Western vaccines to promote politically motivated conspiracy theories,” said Ghaemi.
“People died due to the Iranian government’s egregious mismanagement of the pandemic, and now those who tried to hold it accountable are being thrown behind bars,” he said.
“The international community must speak out strongly on this injustice,” added Ghaemi. “We should amplify the voices of the people of Iran, not look the other way.”