Recently-published photographs of journalist and political activist Alireza Rajaei lying on a hospital bed after a 14-hour surgery to remove his right eye and part of his jaw has shocked and upset many people in Iran and around the world. Rajaei spent four years in prison, from 2011 to 2015, and suffered from pain on the right side of his face throughout those years. But prison officials, against the advice of the prison’s own doctors, did not allow him to seek diagnosis in a hospital.
After Rajaei was released from prison, he was diagnosed with cancer of the sinus. He underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but the cancer was so advanced that doctors had to remove one of his eyes and part of his jaw. A number of his relatives and friends believe that his current condition is the direct result of the judiciary’s decision to deny him access to proper medical treatment.
But this is not all that the Iranian justice system has done to him. While he was in prison, his wife was constantly harassed, and, in addition to his prison sentence, the court also banned Rajaei from civil and political activities or five years on charges of “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the regime.”
Alireza Rajaei was a working journalist in the years following the 1997 election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, an era that is associated with relatively greater press freedoms. In 2000, Rajaei ran as a candidate for the parliamentary elections, campaigning for the Tehran seat as a member of the Nationalist-Religious Coalition (NRC), an opposition coalition of small parties and individuals. He was elected to parliament, but the Guardian Council, the body charged with interpreting the constitution and supervising elections, recounted the votes and disqualified him. Instead, principlist Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel was sent to parliament as one of several representatives for Tehran.
Rajaei was arrested in March 2001 for the first time, along with several other members of the NRC. He spent more than six months in detention and 91 days in solitary confinement before he was released on bail. He was sentenced to four years in prison at a trial held at Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court, and was banned from political activities for a decade. This verdict, like others issued against members of the NRC, was neglected by the appeals court, which neither enforced or revoked the sentences.
IranWire, Journalism is Not a Crime's associate website, asked Iranian lawyer and jurist Musa Barzin Khalifehloo about the legal aspects of what Alireza Rajaei has suffered throughout the years.
After the 2000 parliamentary election Mr. Mostafa Tajzadeh, who was head of Iran’s Election Headquarters, explicitly stated that the votes cast for Rajaei were illegally invalidated. Why is it that the Guardian Council has such a free hand that it can invalidate votes that have been cast within the approved framework of the system?
The Guardian Council does have extensive powers when it comes to elections but the parliamentary election laws are very clear about invalid votes. Article 19 [PDF] of the election laws states that votes can be canceled only when they are cast illegally, such as those “cast by [using] the birth certificate of dead persons or foreigners,” or votes that have been cast in return for payment or as a result of threats. Therefore, the Guardian Council illegally invalidated votes cast for Mr. Rajaei. What is more, Mr. Tajzadeh, who was at the time the official responsible for the elections, did confirm that the Guardian Council had acted illegally.
After the election, Mr. Tajzadeh filed a complaint against Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Chairman of the Guardian Council, accusing him of “manipulating the votes of Tehran’s people,” but the complaint has not even been investigated. How is it possible that a complaint by the Head of Iran’s Election Headquarters was not even investigated?
You have to remember that in electing members of the Guardian Council, the dominant powers — and especially the Supreme Leader — play a significant role. These powers always protect the council’s members and, as a result, they are always able to abuse their powers. Also, the Iranian judiciary, both structurally and through its performance, has shown that it cannot act impartially when it comes to cases that have political dimensions. Instead, it has served the dominant power by disregarding the laws. As a result, even though by law the complaint by Tajzadeh should have been investigated, the judiciary prevented it and so it broke the law.
Alireza Rajaei was arrested in 2001. In 2002, the Revolutionary Court sentenced him to four years in prison, stripped him of his civil rights and banned him from membership to political and civil organizations for 10 years. What laws permit this denial of civil rights? How just was this verdict against Mr. Rajaei?
Article 19 of the old Islamic Penal Code, which was in effect at the time of his trial, stated: “The court, in addition to its judgment, may punish the person who is convicted…by depriving him/her of social rights, or forbid him/her to reside in certain places or force him/her to reside in certain places, for a period of time.” The law did not set a specific duration for such a sentence but Article 20 declared that “Deprivation of all or part of social rights…must be proportionate to the offence and characteristics of the offender and for a fixed period of time.” It left the specifics to the discretion of the judge.
Considering that Mr. Rajaei was sentenced to only four years in prison and he was a socially respectable and distinguished figure, the duration of the deprivation of his civil rights appears unjust.
As far as his prison sentence is concerned, and based on available information, it must be pointed out that membership to a group or a coalition by itself is not a crime, even if that group is illegal, unless the group is planning to act against national security or the person has engaged in propaganda against the fundamentals of the system — meaning its republican and Islamic nature. But obviously this was not the case with Mr. Rajaei. In any case, as I said before, when it comes to political cases, the judiciary tends to act politically and to guard the interests of the dominant power against its critics, instead of observing the laws. So, in a general sense, one can say that the verdict against him was unjust.
Mr. Rajaei was in prison from May 2011 to October 2015 on charges of “actions against national security” and “propaganda against the regime.” Authorities use these charges regularly and extensively to imprison journalists and civil activists. How appropriate were these charges in Mr. Rajaei's case?
Yes, these charges are often used against journalists and civil activists. The past shows that in most cases, these charges have served as a justification for taking action against critics. My own experience as a lawyer for political defendants shows that political cases are usually not processed in a just manner and the judges tend to be biased toward security officials in these cases.
During his incarceration Mr. Rajaei constantly suffered from infections, toothaches and pain in his jaw. But the prison official did not grant him a medical leave of absence even though they knew about his problems. They did not send him to a hospital even though a prison doctor prescribed it. Because of this neglect Mr. Rajaei’s cancer spread. Can he now file a complaint against prison officials for this reason?
According to laws governing prison, including the bylaws of the Prisons Organization, a sick inmate must be treated at the prison’s clinic. If the clinic cannot treat the inmate then the inmate must be sent outside the prison for treatment. In any case, prison officials cannot use any excuse to prevent an inmate from receiving treatment. Based on the laws concerning civil responsibility, it is possible to sue for damages. But if the complaint brings criminal charges, existing laws do not support a request to punish officials involved, unless intent is proven. Of course if intentional neglect is proven, then the lawbreakers can be punished.
While in prison, an interrogator known as Ali Awsat — probably a pseudonym — persistently harassed Mr. Rajaei’s wife, repeatedly telephoning her and asking her very personal questions. He even told her to divorce her husband and asked why she was staying with him. Can the family file a complaint against this interrogator? And if the interrogator used a pseudonym, what legal recourse do they have?
Complaints against security agents, including employees of the Intelligence Ministry, have always faced serious obstacles. The biggest problem is that it is very difficult to prove the illegal behavior of security agents. Plus, in some cases, it is not possible to establish the true identity of the agent who has broken the law. Also, keep in mind that a security agent has more power and influence than the plaintiff. For these reasons, the courts are usually unwilling to prosecute security agents. The other problem is that Iranian law has no provisions for dealing with a request for divorce or harassments when torture is not involved.
From a legal point of view, do you think what has happened to Mr. Rajaei in these years shows that the judiciary has intentionally attempted to destroy the life and the career of a journalist and political activist? Do you believe the judiciary has an organized plan of action in such cases?
There is no evidence that the judiciary is following an organized plan of action but, considering the fact that every year hundreds of journalists and political and civil activists are arrested and put on trial, we can say that under the Islamic Republic, the judiciary’s treatment of critics and wiping out their work by convicting them is a well-established and pre-planned policy.
So when the judiciary itself is the offender, to whom can one complain? How effective can the complaint be?
Practically, one cannot lodge a complaint against the judiciary, but it is possible to report the law-breaking to parliament. To complain against individual judges one must submit the complaint to the Disciplinary Court for Judges. If a judiciary official has done wrong, this is the court that the person must appeal to. But this court would not accept a complaint if it claims that unjust verdicts have been issued in security and political cases, unless the judge has behaved in a clearly illegal manner.