Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images
Abdolfatah Soltani (shown here in 2004) was asked by Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi to represent Roxana Saberi, the 31-year-old American journalist sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted of espionage. Soltani says his legal team has been denied access to Saberi.
Abdolfatah Soltani (shown here in 2004) was asked by Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi to represent Roxana Saberi, the 31-year-old American journalist sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted of espionage. Soltani says his legal team has been denied access to Saberi. Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images
Abdolfatah Soltani is a leading human rights lawyer and member of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, one of Iran's most prominent human rights organizations. He tells NPR that Shirin Ebadi's legal team has been denied access to Roxana Saberi, the 31-year-old American journalist sentenced to eight years in Tehran's Evin prison on Saturday after being convicted of espionage.
Ebadi, a Nobel laureate and Iran's leading human rights advocate, designated Soltani as the lead attorney in the Saberi case. Soltani is well-known internationally as one of the lawyers who represented the family of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist who was murdered in Evin prison in 2003.
Saberi's father, Reza Saberi, has authorized the Ebadi legal team to defend his daughter and help prepare her appeal. However, defense attorney Soltani says that, so far, the court has blocked their attempts to obtain the legal authority to represent Saberi.
Soltani spoke to NPR's Davar Iran Ardalan in one of his first public interviews in this case.
Were you able to get Roxana Saberi's power of attorney today to represent her?
Unfortunately, not yet. A few days ago, Reza Saberi came to seek our counsel. He asked that three of us — Shirin Ebadi, me and attorney Mahnaz Parakand — join the legal team representing Roxana Saberi. On Sunday, Parakand went to Branch No. 28 of Iran's Revolutionary Court and asked the judge for permission to see Roxana Saberi for the purpose of getting a power of attorney. The judge said you can go to Evin prison directly because she is allowed visitors and there you can proceed with getting her signature. However, when Parakand and Reza Saberi went to Evin, unfortunately authorities at Political Ward 209 did not permit our lawyer to meet Roxana Saberi and they did not allow the power of attorney to be signed.
We are now forced to meet with higher judicial officials to get this remedied. The fact that they are not allowing us to represent Saberi is a basic violation of her rights. I am shocked that on one front, the president [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] has urged that Saberi should be allowed a full defense. Iran's judiciary chief, Ayatollah Shahroudi, has done the same, ordering a full investigation into Roxana Saberi's case, and yet it's very unfortunate that lower-level security officials don't listen to the higher officials within the judiciary and the government.
My plea is [for them] to allow us to read her case, to visit with her, to get power of attorney and to defend her in an open court so we can determine what the exact charges are against her. If she really is guilty as charged, why won't they let us see her? If she really is guilty, why can't we study her file? You have given her eight years? Release her on bail so that she can defend herself in an open forum. All this clearly indicates that there is something going on behind closed doors that they don't want us to be privy to.
According to the Article 168 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, political offenses will be tried openly and in the presence of a jury, in courts of justice.
Could it be because Roxana Saberi already has an attorney? Abdolsamad Khorramshahi is her attorney.
According to the laws of Iran, any defendant can have up to 10 or 20 lawyers. Khorramshahi can represent her and so can we. If the authorities aren't worried, why are they preventing our team from meeting with Roxana Saberi?
What is your opinion about Saberi being released on bail? Is it possible for her to be released on bail?
Yes, in general, when a defendant's investigation is complete it is the responsibility of the judicial authorities to free them on bail to allow the defendant the opportunity to defend him[self] or herself. I believe it is a crime to keep her in prison right now. She needs to be released on bail right now so that she can have the ability to defend herself.
Do you have cases in the past where defendants in similar cases were released on bail?
A few years ago, I was arrested and jailed. I had four charges against me, including espionage and propaganda against the state; regardless, I was released on bail, and subsequently in an open environment I was put on trial and then found not guilty.
Do you think there is hope in the appeals process?
If they allow us to read the transcript, if they allow us to meet Roxana Saberi, and if they allow the evidence to be viewed by a group of well-educated jurists and not only particular judges, I am certain she will be found innocent.
What is the next step in the appeals process? If you are not able to join the legal team, what happens next?
If we are able to read the case that will be great. If not, [current defense attorney] Khorramshahi will enter his appeal; he is writing it now. We will then go to the Appeals Court and let them know of our intention to represent Roxana Saberi. We will then read the files, a court will be established, and we will defend her there. It is difficult to determine how long all this will take, but I believe it can be done in a month or two. But in my opinion, Roxana Saberi needs to be released on bail while she waits her appeal. Keeping her in jail is against the regulations.