Hossein Raeesi was forced to leave Iran because of his activities as a human-rights lawyer. He successfully defended a number of political prisoners on death row and is currently teaching sharia law and human rights at Carleton University as the school’s first academic from the Scholars at Risk program, an international network protecting freedom in academia. Jayme-Lynn Mauchner, Charleen Rourke and Abigail Yeboah —all undergraduate students studying law and human rights—had the chance to welcome Raeesi to Carleton as part of law professor Melanie Adrian’s class. They interviewed him about his work protecting vulnerable citizens.
Photos by Graham Law
Q: What message do you hope to convey to your students over the course of the semester at Carleton?
It’s important to share my own experiences because I practice and was involved in many cases of sharia law. There are many interpretations of sharia law inside Muslim society. I believe we have some misconceptions about Muslim societies and we should find an academic solution to share some experiences. We should focus on some point between children’s rights and LGBT rights and focus on the legal points, not the political points. Legal points can support good ideas for society.
Q: What difficulties did you face in Iran, both personally and professionally?
At that time, I had a case where the person was to be stoned and I tried to argue the case publicly and I received more pressure for speaking out. I tried to do something outside of the legal system, because sometimes public attention is more helpful than legal activities, since the government is afraid of public attention around human-rights issues. After that, I had a client who was a women’s-rights activist. After she attended a conference in New York, immediately upon her return to Iran she was arrested. I was her lawyer, and during this case the judge told me three times my case was stronger than my client’s case. After 125 days, my client was released from detention. She told me I should leave the country. She told me for a month the intelligence service brought in interrogators, and they asked her, “Why did you choose Raeesi as a lawyer?” Privately, someone told me they had plans to arrest me. Every morning I was waiting for someone to knock on the door and arrest me, because all those plans are carried out early in the morning. At that time, I asked my sister to stay with me, because I was alone and if someone arrested me, no one would know. In the last two months in Iran, I was under high pressure and was using a lot of medication for depression and anxiety. Once I was here, I was able to go off the medication. I was a high-profile lawyer and people trusted me. I built up a history for myself but left my livelihood and came here in 2012. It was very difficult, but now it’s better. I am settled and am going to be active in the academic field. From Canada, I connected with the Iranian civil society in Iran to help them increase the voice of Iranians and to share something new and provide some context to share inside Iran.
I started working with a group that supports women inside Iran who are facing domestic violence. I taught six courses remotely for Iranian lawyers to teach them how to handle these cases, and I wrote four guidelines for cases dealing with children, women and LGBT groups. It shows how lawyers can handle these cases based on my own experiences and some other cases.
Q: What does pressure mean? How did the government and institutions threaten you, and what was it like to live with those pressures every day?
I mean all kinds of pressure. For example, the Iranian legal system is not allowed to immediately arrest you as a lawyer. They try to discourage you in your method and your practice. We have more than 50,000 lawyers in Iran. Fewer than 15 lawyers practice human rights, because they are afraid. There is huge pressure, but it’s not exactly direct. In Shiraz, my city, one of my apprentices became a lawyer and he has followed up on some of my cases—the political cases no one can follow up on, including a boy of 16 who was arrested and faced the death penalty. This is a huge pressure. We cannot always count it, and sometimes we can.
One time I was interrogated more than 80 times. In the early morning of July 2008, a group of undercover officers came to my house. My little daughter was afraid. They started a case against me. They tried to target my career in human rights. The other side was about my client. For example, I had a client who was a political activist, and they arrested him. After two months, he was released from detention on bail. He came to my office, and we followed up the case. After three weeks, he came to my office and asked me to please stay off my case. I asked why, and he told me because the intelligence service told him he had to do this because they discovered he was a homosexual through his blog and told him if he quit using me as his lawyer, then they would not pursue his case. His maximum sentence was two years in prison, but based on the new evidence, he faced the death penalty. Iranian penal code has the death penalty for gay sexual behaviour. I told him okay and to be careful. The last week that I was in Iran, I saw him in the revolutionary court and someone was walking with him whose appearance was very religious. He came by, and we talked to each other, and he told me, “He is my new lawyer.” I said, “How did you find him? Are you sure he is a lawyer?” He said, “No, he is a lawyer and the intelligence service introduced him to me.”
Q: You have dealt with many cases involving women, the LGBT community and children’s rights. You
have defended women from being stoned to death. What do you feel has been the most successful campaign you have participated in?
We need to support all these groups, but I believe Iranian women need more support than the others because everything can be changed by women’s activities. People inside Iran never listen to them, and we should provide a voice and support civil society inside Iran. It’s really important, and we can change everything based on this movement. Women are under pressure in Iranian society and have problems in family law, family court, civil code and court, and the criminal law and court of Iran. There is huge discrimination between men and women. We should target it and create a huge voice to change this.
Q: In 2006, you worked as a volunteer lawyer for a network that defends women’s rights in critical situations. What was the purpose of this volunteer position, and what did you take away from this experience?
At that time, we had many stoning cases in Iran and I had two stoning cases at that time. I ran a workshop to invite lawyers from around the country to support women’s rights and to mentor young lawyers. At that time, we provided a letter to the head of the judiciary in Iran to stop the stoning. We signed it and sent it, and after six months, he sent an announcement to all courts to stop implementation of stoning. In 2007 he sent it. Unfortunately, in 2008, the implementation of stoning returned. I was a pro bono lawyer for groups that work with 150 single mothers. I provided insurance for all of them. Being a single mom in Iran is very difficult because most women are working a lot and most of them are not in professional fields—they don’t have enough skills to get jobs. Based on this group of 150 single moms, most of them have husbands that are in prison or they died. Legally, when some people get divorced or lose their husband, they become single moms, but some Iranian women who officially have a husband, but they are in prison or are addicts or who are unsupportive—they don’t have the money to support themselves and their children.
Q: In the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade report of 2015, Canada states that Iran is the top risk to threatening international peace and security because of its non-compliance with international obligations. Do you believe that Canada’s statement is warranted?
Based on my experience, I won’t 100 percent reject or accept this report. I think the Iranian government should be considered dangerous but should not be at the top of the list. As a lawyer, when we talk about this report, we should find the factors to support our report. We should ask: what is the standard, what is the role model? We have a theocracy in Iran. The supreme leader has huge power that we did not vote for. But to start a war, we should vote for this—Iranian civil society voted in President Rouhani because he talked to people and said we should stop nuclear armament, we should deal with the West. Iranian civil society never likes clerics to be president. They have chosen between the bad and the worse. Before the revolution, people loved and supported clerics. Today, even the taxi drivers, if they see a cleric on the street corner, they will drive by and not pick them up. Also Rouhani sent a bit of a message against the supreme leader. Iranian people know the problem is with the supreme leader and his authority, and they will choose people who can speak smoothly through the religious rules. President Rouhani said something about women’s rights, but the guardian council stated against him.
Q: What was it like to grow up pre-revolution of 1979? As a young man, did you have any particular interest in one leader?
Before revolution, we had many opportunities to learn about sharia. Western countries supported Iran and Afghanistan to keep the countries out of communism. They supported clerics and Muslim scholars to train people to stay in a Muslim state and to stay religious as a Muslim and not get involved in communism at that time. It caused them to be grown up in their sharia. Sharia wasn’t a huge pressure or a huge influence on Iranian civil society. The Iranian government at that time would support this group, and we had a reformist movement inside Iran, but the Iranian government at that time didn’t hear the voice of the young people. They only want freedom. They don’t want to change everything. They want the constitutional law in place. We have problems in society. If we had freedom, we would never face revolution, and after revolution, nobody supported the young generation’s movement and the religious groups occupied everything and took out the youth movement and even the lawyers. They closed the bar association for 18 years and cracked down on everything. I remember my sister, when she was nine years old, tore a picture of the king in class, and an officer came to the house to ask, who tore the picture of the king? They interrogated my little sister about the picture of the king.
Q: Tell us the circumstances that brought you to Canada.
I had a client in Montreal who had problems in Iran. I solved her problem, and she helped my family and me to come here. Also, our immigration advisor did the best to assist us with our immigration case. Based on this, we got processed quickly. Canada supports human rights and was a remarkable country as a human-rights supporter. Based on this, I came here, and now I am a permanent resident and it will be my pleasure to be a Canadian soon.
Q: Who would you identify as your most influential legal scholar? Who would you say has shaped your legal outlook?
I would say my mom, because I learned the definition of right and wrong from her. I remember exactly when and how, and I plan to write about it in a book. In my second year of law school, I conducted research on how to influence rehabilitation of criminals. I went to a prison, and the head of the prison never allowed me to go inside. He told me, “You have to go to the intelligence service, and if they confirm, you are allowed to ask questions of prisoners.”
I asked if I could interview him as I was at the gate of the prison. He allowed me to come to his office, and I asked him, “Do you categorize prisoners here?”
He told me yes.
I said, “Do you separate political prisoners from others?”
He said, “We don’t have any political prisoners. None.”
At that time, we had a huge amount of political prisoners. They kept more than 10,000 prisoners at that time. My cousin at that time had been arrested after he had an interview with Iranian television and said that he hated the war between Iran and Iraq. And I knew this, but the guard said they did not have any political prisoners.
“I said, “How do I find prisoners?”
He said, “Go to the implementation branch in the judiciary.
Every day there are people there and you can talk to them.” When I went there, I asked a prisoner about some things. One of my questions was: do you prefer lashes or do you prefer to stay in prison, because we have many articles in the penal code that support lashing as a punishment. He told me that he preferred to stay in prison. I asked him why. He told me because lashing is horrible, you will be disabled after 100 lashes. I finished my questions with him, and an officer came and called the prisoner over and said that the prisoner’s 70 lashes would be implemented.
I saw the officer lashing him. The officer had been my classmate and now he was a prison guard. He counted the lashes and after about 20 or 25 lashes, he said, “Oh, I lost count. I should start over.”
I said, “No, I counted.”
He told me to shut up. At that time, I decided I must be a part of the system or against it. At that time, I decided to be a defender and to defend human rights. That classmate later became a judge in Tehran. I definitely learned more from this than from my teachers.
Q: You mentioned previously that moving to Canada would afford you the opportunity to speak freely. Do you feel that you have been able to do so thus far?
I want to speak freely. I’m not going to be a lawyer who supports rich people or corporations. I am a human-rights lawyer. Here in Canada, I find the law practice is mostly focused on corporations and contracts. I don’t want that.
If I was going to be a lawyer in this field, I could have stayed in Iran where I had everything but I could not be silent about human rights. Here, I want to be a voice of human rights and support human rights around the world. For example, when talking about Scholars at Risk, we should know that so far, many people in Bangladesh were killed. They were scholars and bloggers, and it was because they were against Islam. We should know this, and we should find solutions to support people. If I am going to be active here in Canada, I want to support all aspects of human rights in Canada and outside Canada.
Q: What recommendations do you have for young activists today in getting involved in human rights? How do you propose we keep ourselves motivated and encouraged to fight for our human rights and the rights of others?
We should believe we have the same war, and we should believe in diversity and in universality. Universality and a culture of diversity help us find some element of rights. I think young lawyers and young students who support this area should study philosophy of human rights and believe it and believe the borders around the countries are based on politics and that human beings are the same and all have rights that are equal. If someone is harmed or injured, we should feel harm and injury. Based on this, we should support fellow humans without the government, without political separation, without border, without culture, but with respect for all cultures.
The Scholars at Risk network protects scholars suffering grave risks to their lives, liberty, and well being by arranging positions of sanctuary at institutions in the network. The position was supported by donations from alumni, staff, faculty, and the office of the provost. Read more about the program at FutureFunder.ca.