By Rebecca Lowe
Just before our interview at the International Bar Association London office is due to begin, Mohammad Mostafaei takes a phone call on his mobile. It is from the new Iranian lawyer representing 43-year-old Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, convicted to death for adultery and currently awaiting execution.
It is a rare point of contact with a country renowned for suppressing communication and condemning free speech. Mr Mostafaei, a human rights lawyer who has saved dozens of prisoners – including 18 children – from the death penalty, was forced to flee to Norway after his office was ransacked and members of his family were arrested.
In an exclusive interview with the IBA, he spoke of the dangers facing lawyers and other human rights activists in Iran, and why he may never be able to return.
“I love Iran, but it is a big ask to go back,” he said. “I think it is not possible for me now. Our government does not respect human rights and if I go back they will kill me.
“It was a big decision to leave, but I had no choice when my wife was arrested. When I fled to Norway they released her.”
Working in Iran was “very, very hard”, he said, due to governmental intimidation and surveillance - making it almost impossible to represent clients effectively.
He said: “Two months ago two human rights lawyers were put in prison. There is constant pressure on lawyers over there. They live a secondary life.”
Mostafaei took on Ashtiani’s case after she was convicted of adultery in 2006 and sentenced to death by stoning. During this trial, Ashtiani retracted a confession she had made during a pre-trial interrogation, alleging it had been coerced, and she continues to deny the charge.
Following vehement international condemnation, the Iranian authorities are now expected to commute the sentence to hanging – but, faced with a legal system where rules are open to interpretation, Mostafaei says he is “not 100 per cent sure”.
‘'Two months ago two human rights lawyers were put in prison. There is constant pressure on lawyers [in Iran]. They live a secondary life.'
“Considering how unpredictably the judiciary behave, anything is possible. It is not out of the question for the Islamic republic to show its might and defiance to do this.”
Mostafaei is careful to insist the problem of human rights abuses lies solely with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his theocratic government, not with society as a whole, which condemns the practice of physical punishments, including stoning and flogging.
“There aren’t any people in Iran who support stoning,” he said. “But the problem is that some people keep the power, and some of these people support it – not all. People in Iran are kind, friendly and honest, but the government is not. They are powerful and they want to keep the power.”
But it is not only lawyers who are persecuted by the regime, however – around 200 to 300 journalists are currently in prison, he said, “and are extremely limited with what they can do”.
The only way to help the suppressed voices is through international pressure, Mostafaei stressed, from both the public and political sphere.
“The international community needs to put pressure on the government. This is good for our people. But it is not just down to people holding demonstrations, but down to governments to stop giving Iran a platform at the UN so it can continue with its lies and propaganda.”