Iran Human RightsIranian lawyer committed to winning U.S. hikers' freedom

Iranian lawyer committed to winning U.S. hikers’ freedom


Los Angeles Times: Masoud Shafii’s clients, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, are charged with spying. ‘Nobody can prove my clients were spies,’ says Shafii, who acknowledges he’s walking a tightrope as their lawyer.

The Los Angeles Times

Masoud Shafii’s clients, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, are charged with spying. ‘Nobody can prove my clients were spies,’ says Shafii, who acknowledges he’s walking a tightrope as their lawyer.

By Ramin Mostaghim and Meris Lutz, Los Angeles Times
Reporting from Tehran and Beirut —

For a man preparing to go up against his own government in a case with international repercussions, Masoud Shafii doesn’t look particularly worried as he brews some tea and offers it to a guest.

Shafii, the lawyer defending the two American hikers who have been detained in an Iranian prison for more than a year, said he’s oblivious to the global dimensions of the case, or the fact that his two clients come from the “Great Satan” itself. Or even that another Iranian human rights lawyer was recently jailed on unspecified national security crimes and another was just sentenced to nine years in prison.

“We lawyers protest if anything illegal is committed,” Shafii said in a recent interview at his modest Tehran office. “I do not chicken out if there is a violation of law regarding my clients.”

In the latest twist in the case, the spokesman for Iran’s judiciary announced Monday that the court date for the two men, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, long scheduled for Saturday, has been postponed until a third American, now in the United States on bail, returns to Iran to face espionage charges.

“The court session has been postponed … so that all three can be tried,” Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei told reporters at a briefing, according to the semiofficial Iranian Students News Agency.

The news left Shafii unfazed. He said he hadn’t received any official notice. “For me the date of the court appearance is as it was before,” he said.

In court, Shafii will argue that his clients are not spies who sneaked across the border from Iraq as charged, but merely hikers who got lost. Bauer, Fattal and the third American, Sarah Shourd, say they were hiking in an unmarked border area in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region in July 2009 when they were arrested by Iranian forces.

According to a classified Pentagon document that was among the trove released this month by the website WikiLeaks, the U.S. military believed the three hikers were on the Iraqi side of the border when they were seized. But the military also took the three to task for failing to inform authorities about their whereabouts.

Shourd was released in September on humanitarian grounds. Iranian officials have indicated that they will tie the release of the two men to freedom for eight Iranians they say are being held in the U.S. or being extradited there from a third country.

Iranian officials are sticking to their guns on the spying charges. Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi said last month that Iran had evidence connecting the trio to espionage.

A political deal may still be struck between the United States and Iran. But for now the fate of the hikers rests with the Iranian judiciary and Shafii, who says he’s committed to winning his clients’ freedom.

“There are many lawyers more knowledgeable than me, who can write a legal writ with better wording,” he said. “But what I do is to be an intimate and close ally to my clients and to be beside him and her.”

Shafii, 55, is tall and broad-shouldered with salt-and-pepper hair. He eschews legal jargon for street slang, lending his Persian a playful confidence.

Shafii, a native of the southwestern city of Abadan, moved to Tehran with his family when he was 7. He attended one of the capital’s most prestigious high schools before entering university to study literature. After a stint working in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, he entered law school.

Shafii was approached by the families of the three hikers based on his reputation as an independent lawyer who has defended union leaders, AIDS activists and dissident intellectuals, among others.

He declined to give details of his defense strategy, but vowed to advocate for them strenuously. “Defending the client has no border,” he said. “I defend the rights of people no matter what is his or her nationality.”

He added: “Nobody can prove my clients were spies. Spying for whom? Where are the devices for spying? Where are the classified documents?… So anybody can trespass the borders unknowingly.”

Shafii is well aware of the risks of his position. On Monday, fellow human rights lawyer Mohammad Seifzadeh was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of being part of an illegal organization, a legal counseling service set up by Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. Seifzadeh vowed to appeal the verdict.

“I am proud of all my charges,” Seifzadeh told The Times. “I am proud that since the beginning of the revolution I have been involved in advocating and teaching human and civil rights.”

In September, colleague Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been quoted frequently in domestic and international news reports, was arrested. This year she voiced her outrage when one of her clients was executed at dawn without her notification.

“Defending the clients in security cases is risky everywhere,” Shafii said. “It seems we as lawyers walk in minefields. When I do interviews with foreign or local press, I watch what I say. I take my clients’ interests, my government and my own situation into consideration. I am really on a tightly balanced rope.”

Shafii’s influence can be heard in the deferential public statements made by Shourd, her family and the families of Fattal and Bauer. Recently, Shourd met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York and described him as gracious in an interview with the radio program “Democracy Now.”

When the mothers of the three hikers were allowed to visit their children in May, they praised the decision as a “humanitarian gesture” on the part of the Iranian government.

“The first time I met the mothers of the hikers, they did not trust me,” Shafii said.

But eventually, they warmed to him. He showed off letters of thanks from the families sent through the Swiss Embassy, which serves as the representative of the U.S. in Iran and thus pays his fees. “We chatted intimately about their children, and I promised to do my best.”

Special correspondents Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Lutz from Beirut. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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