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Q&A: “Prison Made Me Even More Determined”

Omid Memarian interviews ABDOLFATTAH SOLTANI, Iranian human rights lawyer

BERKELEY, California, Dec 11 2008 (IPS) - Abdolfattah Soltani has received the Nuremberg annual human rights award in appreciation of more than a decade defending individuals who have been prosecuted for their political and religious beliefs.

Abdolfattah Soltani Credit: ISNA/Alireza Sotakbar

Abdolfattah Soltani Credit: ISNA/Alireza Sotakbar

“I was informed by Shirin Ebadi that the jury has chosen me for this year’s Nuremberg prize,” said Soltani in an interview with IPS from Tehran.

Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Noble Peace Laureate, and Soltani, together with a dozen Iranian lawyers at the Centre for Defending Human Rights (CDHR), have provided pro bono legal counsel to hundreds of dissidents, journalists and civil society activists facing prosecution for exercising fundamental freedoms, such as peacefully protesting, criticising government policies or practicing their religious beliefs.

The Nuremberg Human Rights Prize was launched by that German city in 1995 and is awarded by an international jury to a human rights defender around the world every year.

CDHR has been Iran’s leading human rights organisation in representing many high-profile victims of human rights abuses. For example, Ebadi and her colleagues represented the family of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who died in Iranian custody following her arrest in 2003.

During the past decade, Soltani himself has been arrested and jailed many times, including seven months prison in 2005 on charges of disclosing confidential information and opposing the state. The government accused him of disclosing charges brought against some of his clients to international diplomats. He was initially sentenced to five years in prison, but after months in solitary confinement and because of the lack of evidence, the charges were eventually dismissed.

IPS: What is the impact of such awards on your activities? AS: Any kind of recognition by foreign human rights and international organisations has two functions. On the one hand, it’s very encouraging and shows that there are people beyond Iran’s borders who care about the other people and this makes us more determined to follow the path we have chosen. On the other hand, the government uses these recognitions as an excuse to label and put pressure on activists. In all, I believe that such awards to Iranian human rights activists are so encouraging for young people who despite all the difficulties of this field have chosen to stay in this risky profession.

IPS: How do the authorities react to such international recognition? AS: The body of judiciary system welcomes any kind of attention to lawyers who instead of going after making money have chosen to represent pro bono politically motivated cases. But there are judges who are fundamentalist and religious and are related to the radical part of Iran’s political system. They are the ones who hand down long sentences to my clients in such cases. They simply do not like lawyers like me who accept political cases.

IPS: Regarding the difficulties of practicing law in the field of human rights, are younger generations of Iranian lawyers interested in pursuing this path? AS: Regardless of financial limitations and the political risk that human rights lawyers take, a number of young lawyers have shown interest to practice in this field, just because of their belief and love of humanity. Many of them are among my colleagues at the CDHR. It’s hard for them to live their lives with pro bono cases but they enthusiastically travel all over the country to do their job. However, compared to the whole number of lawyers in Iran, their number is not too many.

IPS: You, yourself, have experienced prison several times. How has the experience of prison affected your life and profession as a human rights lawyer? AS: It has made me more determined and serious about what I do. Now, 90 percent of the cases I accept are people who have prosecuted for their beliefs, ideas and political views. The last time I was in prison for more than seven months, my family experienced a harsh time, financially and emotionally. I lost many of my clients. I spent a major part of my time in prison in solitary confinement, where I had no access to any book, newspaper, radio, and television for months, a situation that imposes a huge psychological pressure on detainees, and I faced physical and mental difficulties.

IPS: How does your family look at your work? It must be difficult for them bear all these pressures, financially and psychologically. AS: Despite the little time I spend with them, they have been encouraging. I have four children and all of them, plus my wife, want me to pursue my career. If I do not feel tired or hopeless, it’s because they are the major source of encouragement.

IPS: How do you survive doing all this pro bono work? AS: The life of a human rights lawyer is not fancy. We have a very simple life, always mixed with financial challenges. Many of us are poor, because once you have a reputation as a human rights lawyer, you don’t receive the other kind of cases that might make money for you. My life is simple, like a very ordinary employee. But I don’t regret it and do not feel upset for this. I have chosen this way based on my beliefs and values and enjoy my work.

IPS: How do you evaluate your work? How many of your cases have been successful in the courts? AS: The success in this field is relatively tentative. Most of the cases I follow are politically motivated and therefore our job cannot be brilliant. But we decrease the time of the sentence, try to change the prison sentence to a financial fine.

IPS: What is the worst aspect of your job? AS: When somebody whom you know is innocent gets a long sentence, even though there is no solid evidence to punish him or her. Regarding the political pressure, sometimes when you appeal the clients get a longer sentence. When there is no solid evidence to accuse somebody and people go to prison just because of criticising the authorities or their analysis in the newspaper, it psychologically and physically affects your body. I sometimes get sick under such pressure.

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