110 Days in Jail... To No Avail

A remarkable Iranian satirist, Ebrahim Nabavi, once said, "Iran is the only country in the world where people are erroneously imprisoned, accused of espionage, forced to sign a confession, and then set free." This commentary not only rang true for Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American scholar from the Woodrow Wilson Center, but also for many journalists, intellectuals and activists who have been repeatedly accused of a wide range of charges from being a spy to endangering Iran's national security.

Dr .Esfandiari was held in prison for more than 110 days without access to a lawyer and with only very minimal contact with her mother. She was accused of endangering Iran's national security by Iranian intelligence authorities as well as ultra conservative newspapers. Eventually, she was forced to 'confess' to her intentions to participate in a 'velvet revolution' on TV; a couple of weeks after this appearance, she was released from prison on bail and fled Iran, traumatized from her horrid experience.

If these authorities had a shred of proper evidence against her, they would not have released her or allowed her to leave the country; no sane administration releases people who undermine its national security. They would have held a trial, proven her guilt, and convicted her. So the accusations against her--'involvement in preparation for velvet revolution' in particular, or, 'espionage' as the hardliner newspaper Kayhan put it, was the fabrication of a paranoid intelligence service. The true intention seemed to be intimidation of the Iranian middle class and intelligentsia with access to foreign organizations and funds intended to strengthen civil society activities. I believe that the US policies toward so-called support of democracy in Iran through allocation of funds, has been terribly harmful to the Iranian civil society, but even such a reckless policy shouldn't be an excuse for the Iranian government to violate the basic rights of its own people.

On the other hand, while journalists, activists and intellectuals are facing the same treatment on a regular basis, Haleh Esfandiari's case, which received widespread international coverage, reflected the dire situation of justice in Iran. Actually, while the aim of Iranian authorities was to teach a lesson to Americans so as not to support Iran's civil society activists, their efforts seem to have backfired by giving worldwide attention to the way Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and its Judiciary branch operate.

That's why Haleh's case draws a terrifying picture of the situation of justice in Iran. Though in many countries, such as the US, judicial systems are continually criticized, the condition of justice in Iran appears appalling.

While the Judiciary should operate independently to monitor the activities of other branches of the government such as the Executive Branch which includes Ministry of Intelligence, it is clearly evident that the intelligence services are dominant over the Judiciary and they can do whatever they want with prisoners without any accountability.

This immunity has continually enabled them to violate the basic rights of Iranian citizens. It includes actions such as arrests without any clear evidence, mistreatment of prisoners through prolonged solitary confinement, denying them access to lawyers, preventing their communication with their families, forcing them to appear on TV, and large scale efforts to defame citizens.

Haleh Esfandiari's release from detention a few weeks ago, and her last week's departure from Iran is a lesson for those who during her detention defended the behavior of these institutions unconditionally for whatever reason. While the situation of Human Rights in Iran, comparatively speaking, is better than many countries in the Middle East, no one can deny the shortcomings, violations, and abuses happening in the Iran Judicial system.