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IRAN: Fighting for human rights

November 27, 2007 | 10:08 am

KazemiIran's Supreme Court today reopened the case of Zahreh Kazemi, the Canadian Iranian journalist who was allegedly beaten to death in 2003 while in a Tehran prison. Her mother tapped Iranian lawyer and Nobel Laureate Shireen Ebadi to pursue her case, which continues to strain relations between Tehran and Ottawa.

Ebadi lost the battle. Iranian authorities acquitted all those allegedly involved in her death.

On a trip to Iran early this year I spoke with Mohammed Hossein Aghassi, lawyer for Parnaz Azima, the Iranian American reporter who was charged with state security crimes during a visit to Tehran and later allowed to leave the country.

I expected a timid and discrete jurist who would refuse to let me use his name. Who knew that I would find Iran’s version of William Kunstler, the famous American civil rights lawyer who took up the case of the Black Panthers in the 1960s?

Aghassi was outspoken, charming and adept at using the media. He is a funny guy and often uses humor to convince court officials to go easy on his clients.

I found other lawyers like him, and they inspired my story about Iran’s most daring attorneys in today’s paper.

“We know we are under a microscope,” Aghassi told me. “My telephone is monitored. We’re careful not do anything that would cause a charge to stick.”

Farideh Gheirat is another Iranian lawyer who watches her step. She’s been practicing law since 1969 and had run-ins with the deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s legal system, too, especially when she took on child custody cases. Under Iran’s legal system fathers generally got legal custody of children in divorce cases back then. The new Islamic government only made her aims tougher.

“After the revolution the family laws changed,” she says. “It bound our hands. When we want to defend women we try hard and make a lot of efforts.”

She complains that she doesn’t see enough young lawyers take on tough cases. “Most are thinking about getting a castle, villa or car,” she says.

I asked her partner across the hallway in her law practice, 54-year-old Abdul-Fatah Soltani, why so few lawyers take on human rights cases, defend the rights of religious minorities or advocate for women.

“If they accept political cases it brings them hardship,” says Soltani, who has represented Iran’s most famous dissident, journalist Akbar Ganji, and Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian American scholar arrested in Tehran this year and later released.

He should know. he’s been tossed into prison twice over the last two five years. For two months he was in Evin Prison's infamous section 209 reserved for political prisoners. He was allowed no newspapers, no radio and no contact with the outside world. They even stopped interrogating him after he refused to answer questions.

When he got out of jail, many of his paying clients reluctantly dropped him, worried his reputation as a troublemaker would harm their cases.

Still he continues to take tough cases before Iran’s courts.

“Until the day I’m alive I’ll fight for human rights, no matter which government is in power,” he vowed. “We’re not looking for regime change. We’re looking to change the behavior of whoever is in charge.”

— Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Candlelight shines on a photograph of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian Canadian photojournalist killed while in the custody of Iranian security officials in 2003. Iran's Supreme Court today reopened the case into the acquittal of Kazemi's alleged killers. Credit: Behrouz Mehri/AFP