When journalist and political activist Ahmad Zeidabadi finished his six-year prison sentence on May 19, instead of returning to his home in Tehran, he was forced into exile in Gonabad City, almost a thousand kilometers away. The sentence was handed down in connection with Zeidabadi’s open letter to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in 2007 — an act that clearly angered the regime, and which is reflected in the unusual sentence.
Authorities arrested Zeidabadi shortly after the controversial presidential election of June 2009, during which he worked as a consultant for presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, who is currently under house arrest. Prior to 2009, Zeidabadi had been arrested on several occasions, including in July 2000 and March 2001.
In December 2009, Zeidabadi was charged with propaganda against the state, assembly and collusion to create riots after the presidential election, acting against national security, and insulting the Supreme Leader.
Judge Pir Abbasi, who presides over Branch 26 of the revolutionary court, sentenced Zeidabadi to six years in prison, five years in exile and a lifetime ban on social and political activities. Zeidabadi had to pay his own expenses to relocate to Gonabad to ensure he did not violate the terms of his release.
Zeidabadi was put under severe pressure during his interrogation because of his open letter to Ayatollah Khamenei. “By what religious, rational, legal or traditional reasons, and based on what public interest, is it practically forbidden in Iran to ask the Leadership public questions or to critique his statements and his actions?” he asked. Zeidabadi’s letter also criticized the Iranian government’s stance toward the nuclear program.
The harsh treatment of Zeidabadi during his interrogations not only goes against Iran’s obligations under international human rights law, it also goes against Iran’s own constitution, in violation of those articles that emphasize equality of everyone — including the Supreme Leader — before the law. These articles include Article 107, which states, “In the eyes of the law, the Supreme Leader is equal to the citizens of the country”; and Article 19, which states, “All people of Iran, whatever ethnic group or tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal rights; and colour, race, language, and the like do not bestow any privilege.” The treatment of Zeidabadi also contravenes Article 20, which states, “All citizens of the country, both men and women, enjoy equal protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria.”
The conviction of Zeidabadi also goes against the right to freedom of thought and expression, rights that have been enshrined in a number of articles in Iran’s constitution. These include Article 23, which states, “The investigation of individuals' beliefs is forbidden, and no one may be molested or taken to task simply for holding a certain belief.”
I talked to lawyers Mohammad Olyaeifard and Musa Barzin Khalifehloo about Zeidabadi’s sentences.
Olyaeifard considers the revolutionary court verdicts to be invalid. “The constitution does not recognize revolutionary courts. The requirements under Article 168 of Iran’s constitution (open trial, with the presence of a jury for press and political crimes) are not applied at revolutionary courts. Hence, the verdicts of such courts cannot be legally valid regarding press and political crimes.”
“Within the penal code, there are two kinds of exile,” says Olyaeifard. “1) exile as the main punishment and 2) exile as a complementary punishment. Exile as the main punishment is provided for in Article 282 of the penal code as one of the punishments that a judge can assign to a mohareb (a person who takes up arms to create fear and to deprive people of their freedom and security). According to Article 284 of the penal code, exile as the main punishment should not be for a duration of less than one year. Up to now, exile as the main punishment has never been separate from a prison sentence.”
“The second type of exile is in the form of a complementary punishment and has been defined in the penal code as obligatory residence in a specific place, which must be proportionate to the main punishment, must conform to the character of the convict and should not be for a duration of more than two years.”
Olyaeifard argues that even though at first glance, exile as a complementary punishment might seem less severe than exile as the main punishment, when one looks more carefully, it becomes apparent that it is completely unjust for a judge to hand down punishment reserved for an individual who has created "fear in society" to a journalist.
There is also a difference between exile as the main punishment and exile as a complementary punishment. “In cases when exile is used as the main punishment,” Olyaeifard says, “the convict is kept in prison and hence he does not incur any expenses. But in the case of exile as a complementary punishment, the convict has to pay for his own living expenses (including accommodation, food, and so on). In this sense, at least from a financial perspective, it can be argued that exile as the main punishment is less severe than exile as a complementary punishment.”
Olyaeifard also raises the issue of Zeidabadi’s transfer from Evin Person in Tehran to the Rajaie Shahr prison in Alborz province while he was serving his prison sentence. He argues that the transfer effectively amounts to Zeidabadi serving his exile sentence.
The penal code was reformed in 2013, while Zeidabadi was serving his sentence. Musa Barzin Khalifehloo looked first at Zeidabadi’s sentence under the previous penal code — which was in force when Zeidabadi’s verdict was issued. He then assessed his sentence under the rules of the new penal code.
“I must say that Zeidabadi’s sentence does not accord to the previous penal code,” says Barzin. “According to Article 19 and 20 of the previous penal code, the complementary punishments should conform to the character of the convict and should be proportionate to the main punishment. So it is by no means reasonable to sentence a well-known journalist to five years of exile and a lifetime ban on social and political rights. It is unfair and the sentence does not conform to his character. Also, according to Article 19 and 20 of the previous penal code, the duration of the complementary punishments should be specified; hence, a judge cannot impose a lifetime complementary punishment to a convict. So, in imposing a lifetime ban on Mr Zeidabadi, it is obvious that the revolutionary court has acted against the law.”
One of the amendments that Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly introduced to the penal code in 2013 refers to the case of multiple crimes. According to the previous code, in case of multiple crimes, judicial authorities had to implement all punishments. But, according to the new code, only the most severe punishment must be implemented. Barzin argues that, in the case of Zeidabadi, since he was charged with two crimes (one carrying a five-year prison sentence and the second carrying a one-year prison sentence), according to Iranian law, he only had to serve the harshest punishment (the five-year prison sentence). But he was given a six-year prison sentence.
In addition, Barzin points out that the penal code states that complementary punishments cannot exceed two years. “So Zeidabadi’s exile sentence and the deprivation of his social rights should be commuted and should not last more than two years”, says Barzin.
Regarding relocation expenses, Barzin says, “According to Article 16 of the bylaw of Article 297 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the expenses of sending the convict in to exile should be paid by the judiciary. Hence, the authorities that impose these expenses on Mr Zeidabadi are acting against the law.”
Despite Foreign Minister Javad Mohammad Zarif’s recent claim that Iran does not jail journalists, cases such as Zeidabadi’s prove the opposite is true. Independent journalists pay a heavy price, including intimidation, prison and exile.