September 17, 2020
An Iranian lawyer says his minority Kurdish client is at imminent risk of being Iran’s next political prisoner to be executed following the Saturday execution of an Iranian wrestler who had joined a peaceful antigovernment protest.
Speaking to VOA Persian on Monday from Tehran, lawyer Saleh Nikbakht said Iran’s Supreme Court had rejected his request to grant a retrial to his client, Heydar Ghorbani, leaving Ghorbani’s death penalty in place and enabling authorities to carry it out at any time.
Ghorbani was arrested in October 2016 in Kamyaran County of Iran’s Kurdistan province in connection with the deaths of three members of Iran’s top military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in September.
Rights activists have said Iran’s judiciary sentenced Ghorbani to death on charges including engaging in an armed attack that killed the IRCG personnel, being an accessory to murder and being a member of the outlawed Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan rebel group.
In 2017, Ghorbani appeared on a program on the Iranian state network Press TV, “The Death Driver,” and seemingly confessed driving a car of DPIK rebels who authorities said were involved in the September 2016 incident. Family members have said Ghorbani was tortured into making a false confession. Rights activists say this is a common pressure tactic used by Iranian authorities seeking to create pretexts for harsh sentences against political prisoners when other evidence of serious crimes is lacking.
Nikbakht said Iran’s Supreme Court upheld Ghorbani’s death sentence in an August 6 ruling, and on September 5 rejected the request for a retrial. The lawyer said the court informed his client of the decision on Sunday.
Iranian state media had not mentioned the Supreme Court action as of late Wednesday. But Ghorbani’s brother Hassan sent a video message to VOA Persian on Tuesday confirming that the Supreme Court rejected the retrial request and saying family members were in shock.
Heydar Ghorbani has been detained at a prison in the Kurdistan provincial town of Sanandaj.
Nikbahkt had requested the retrial in August after gaining access to the case files for the first time and determining that there was a lack of evidence to justify a death penalty for Ghorbani other than the confession on Press TV.
Speaking to VOA, Nikbakht made his first strong public criticism of the Iranian judiciary’s handling of the Ghorbani case. “The death sentence handed down by the lower court and finalized by the Supreme Court is illegal and un-Islamic,” he said.
The lawyer said Ghorbani never testified to carrying a weapon during the 2016 incident and noted that his client did not address the issue in the apparent forced confession on Press TV.
Nikbakht said the Kurdish political prisoner also denied involvement with the DPIK rebel group.
Rights group Amnesty International has said Ghorbani is one of several minority Kurds persecuted in Iran for “real or perceived affiliation with armed Kurdish political opposition groups.”
Nikbakht also said the Supreme Court’s September 5 ruling specified that it was rejecting his request to retry Ghorbani on the lesser charge of being an accessory to murder while making no mention of Ghorbani’s conviction for the more serious charge of engaging in an armed attack. The lawyer did not explain the reason for the court’s apparent silence on the latter charge.
The Supreme Court’s latest move appears to leave Ghorbani’s fate in the hands of Iranian judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi. Under Article 477 of Iran’s Code of Criminal Procedure, he can order the Supreme Court to overturn a verdict that he deems to be “evidently in contravention of Sharia [Islamic law]” and issue a new one.
Nikbakht told VOA that he had sent a request to Raisi on Saturday to apply Article 477 in Ghorbani’s case. But there was no word on whether Raisi would intervene to stop authorities from proceeding with an execution of Ghorbani.
Raisi did not intervene in the case of Iranian wrestler Navid Afkari, whom authorities executed on September 12 after the Supreme Court upheld the athlete’s death sentence in August.
Afkari had become a hero in his hometown of Shiraz for winning medals in domestic and international Greco-Roman wrestling competitions. But he was arrested in September 2018 for allegedly killing a local government security guard the previous month on the sidelines of a peaceful antigovernment protest that he had joined. Authorities sentenced Afkari to death on the basis of a murder confession that he later said was made under torture in prison.
Afkari’s execution drew condemnations from the United States, European Union, U.N. human rights experts and a statement of shock and sadness from the International Olympic Committee.
In the video message sent by Hassan Ghorbani, he said a judge who oversaw his brother’s trial refused to listen to anyone besides IRGC and intelligence officers and shouted down Heydar when Heydar tried to speak on the final day of proceedings.
“We call on all the people of the world to do everything in their power, not only for Heydar, but also for all the innocent young people who are condemned to be executed,” Hassan said.