It could have been me

If the unlawful imprisonment of a lawyer is designed to prevent the proper representation of anyone

Like Nasser Zarafshan, I am a barrister who, at the present time, does not appear in court. But there the similarities more or less end. Whereas I have been distracted from the law by television, radio and other agreeable work in the British media, Zarafshan has been barred from legal practice and sentenced to five years' imprisonment by a military court in Iran.

In March 2002, he got two years for "disseminating confidential information" and three years for firearms said to have been found in his office, which was searched while he was in custody. To add injury to insult, he was ordered to receive 70 lashes for possessing alcohol allegedly found in the same circumstances.

Zarafshan strenuously denied all these crimes, and the sentences were heavily criticised by Amnesty International. He says the firearms and alcohol were crudely planted in his office to prevent his release on bail over the other charges.

Zarafshan and Amnesty believe his real offence was to have mounted a vigorous legal challenge to the government and its officials over a notorious sequence of deaths, known in Iran as the "serial murders" case, in which three prominent writers and two political activists were mysteriously killed in 1998. Zarafshan, himself a prominent author and translator as well as lawyer, knew the victims and argued that the deaths were sanctioned by the government to deter and suppress free speech.

Some former members of the security services have been convicted of the five murders, but convictions and sentences were set aside on appeal and a further investigation ordered.

Did the authorities have something to hide? Pressure was repeatedly put on Zarafshan to resign from the case. He was offered everything from quiet words of advice to anonymous death threats. Then he was arrested by the Judicial Organisation of Armed Forces and tried in a secret military court - a strange tribunal to judge a civilian with no connection to the army.

Zarafshan has not been successful in challenging the conviction or the competence of the court, which also banned him from practising law - even though this is not within the usual competence of the military court and the ruling may not be recognised by the Bar Association.

In any event, he has not been in a position to appear in court. Instead, he has been incarcerated in Evin Prison, where he has had a grim time. He is now 59, and due to stay there for about another year. Objecting to being locked up with prisoners convicted of violent offences, and demanding proper medical treatment for a chronic kidney condition, he went on hunger strike. He was given leave to go to hospital to have stones removed from one kidney but still has a stone in the other. He has spent some time in solitary confinement, some on a wing for political prisoners.

Zarafshan has not been forgotten in Iran. There have been sit-down protests outside the prison, though these have led to several people being arrested, including his wife.

The unlawful imprisonment of a lawyer may be no worse - if no better - than locking up anyone else. But where it is calculated to deter the proper representation of anyone who needs it, it affects everybody. It is not just fellow lawyers who must be concerned at Nasser Zarafshan's plight.

In association with Amnesty International

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