Interview with Houshang Pourbabayi, Lawyer

Houshang Pourbabayi: There is No Legal Obstacle to Membership and Activism in the Campaign

By: Elnaz Ansari

Sunday 31 May 2009

Change for Equality: Elnaz Ansari.

One of the first worries confronting the Campaign as it began its movement to collect one million signatures calling for change in discriminatory laws was whether there was any legal obstacle to this movement. After consulting with a number of Iranian legal scholars, Campaign members were certain that collecting signatures could in no shape or form be considered a crime according to the law.

Requesting a change in the laws by means of collecting signatures from citizens, despite not being illegal, has been a pretext for the arrest of tens of Campaign activists. A number of these individuals have been acquitted, and a number have been given suspended jail sentences. Until now most of the charges against the Campaign activists have been brought under article 500 of the Islamic Penal Code, the most severe sentence ensuing from which was given to Parastoo Allahyari (one year in jail), but now article 499 has also been added to existing charges.

In the course of the last few weeks, Maryam Malek and Khadijeh Moghaddam have been charged with activity against the security of the country by being Campaign members, and one of the charges against Jelveh Javaheri has now been confirmed as membership in the Campaign. All this has taken place even as, in a judgment previously issued acquitting two Campaign members, it was clearly stipulated that collecting signatures for a change in the law exactly resembles collecting signatures requesting the resurfacing of roads with asphalt and cannot be considered a crime.

Legal scholars likewise are of the opinion that the One Million Signatures Campaign is completely legal. Houshang Pourbabayi, member of the Center of Human Rights Defenders, in conversation with the Change for Equality website, considered the reasons for this charge [of Campaign membership] and emphasized that there is no legal obstacle to membership and activism in the Campaign.

He said that for a crime to be proved, three tests must be met. The first of these tests is that the crime must be defined as such in the existing law. That is to say, the legislative branch must officially declare that activism in the One Million Signatures Campaign, or all civic activism, are crimes. Up to now, the legislative branch has not passed any such law. Therefore the first test faced by this charge has not been met. The two other tests for the proof of a crime, concerning material and non-material evidence, have also not been met in the case of activism in the Campaign.

Pourbabayi did not consider either that “propaganda against the state” (article 500 of the Penal Code) covers activism in the Campaign, and emphasized that “the charge of ‘propaganda against the state’ outlined in article 500 of the Islamic Penal Code is not a charge which is legitimately applicable to Campaign activists. In the law, the term “state” is understood to refer to the political system as a whole. That is to say, if someone conducts propaganda activity against the president of the Republic, this is not subsumed under article 500. This charge can only be made against that individual or group if they have the official aim of overthrowing the state and additionally in order to prosecute this end they make use of the media for propagating their opinions. In no case is this charge applicable to the Campaign. The half of our society that is comprised of women is requesting a change to discriminatory laws. They have repeatedly announced that they have no desire to overthrow the state, and that they wish to have these laws changed in legal fashion by their elected representatives in parliament. This activity is completely legal”.

According to Mr. Pourbabayi, not only is the demand for legal change not a crime, but it is also in accordance with the fundamental principles of the Constitution.

The charge of membership in the One Million Signatures Campaign is the latest reaction of the judicial apparatus to the activism of the Campaign. Prior to this, the most frequent charges brought were those of acting against national security and disrupting public order. The latest charges against activists from the One Million Signatures Campaign, and now the Campaign members arrested at the beginning of May, result from recent encounters with security forces that have gone so far as to include people arrested for being guests at New Year receptions for families and friends. It seems, on the basis of the recently issued charges, designed to include the greater part of the women’s movement and other civic activists, as if the Campaign’s share in the “election atmosphere” is to be prison and judicial rulings against them.


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