March 17, 2023

Mustafa Nili, a Distinguished Human Rights Lawyer

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Mustafa Nili has emerged as one of the most distinguished lawyers in Iran dedicated to human rights. Born in Tehran on January 21, 1981 as the fourth and youngest child in his family, he grew up in one of Tehran’s northwest neighborhoods. After completing his mandatory service in the army, Nili entered the Imam Khomeini International University of Qazvin, which is his father’s hometown. While he initially set out to study mechanical engineering, he joined the Islamic Association at the university and became known as a student activist interested in human rights. As a result of his student activism and his dream of fulfilling the International Charter of Human Rights and supporting prisoners, he resigned from studying engineering and decided to study law instead at the beginning of 2006. 

Throughout 2009, Nili had worked for Mehdi Karroubi’s presidential campaign and participated in the protests against election fraud during the Green Movement. This led to Nili’s first arrest in December 2009, when he was in the final months of his undergraduate studies. Nili’s sister Fatemeh witnessed his 2009 arrest while accompanying him during the Ashura protests.

The arrest lasted for 40 days before he was released on bail. Eventually, the Fifteenth Branch of the Revolutionary Court sentenced Nili to 3 and a half years in prison in the summer of 2010. The appeals branch confirmed the sentence, which was issued on charges of acting against national security and propaganda against the regime.

Mustafa Nili began his prison term in June 2011 at Evin prison. During that time, in Ward 350 of Evin Prison, the young law student became acquainted with political activists and human rights figures, developing a deeper and more accurate understanding of Iranian law and its impact on political prisoners.

Suddenly and without prior notice, on January 6th 2013, Nili was transferred from Evin Prison – where he had been imprisoned for a year and a half – to Rajai Shahr Prison of Karaj along with Dr. Seyed Mohammad Seifzadeh – a well-known lawyer who was imprisoned in the same ward.

Before the beginning of his sentence, Nili asked his family not to write any requests to the authorities during his imprisonment. In 2011, when the judicial authorities had provided an opportunity to write a letter of repentance in exchange for amnesty and release, he refused to write the letter and disavow his participation in the Green Movement.

The last days of May 2013 were perhaps some of the hardest days in prison for Nili, since his father was gravely ill and the judicial authorities denied him the opportunity to visit his father and then, after his passing, to attend his funeral.

Ultimately, Nili was released from Rajai Shahr prison on November 27, 2013. In an interview that was published on Kalema website a few days before his release, he emphasized his intellectual identity as a member of the Green Movement and the need to continue its policy of non-violence. Concerning his future upon his release from prison, Nili stated that “my main problem is that I want to become a lawyer, but I don’t know how favorable the environment is for me if I want to continue my education or work as a lawyer after my release.”

However, Nili, after participating in the “test” exam, succeeded in getting the fifth place in the Bar Association exam in 2016. He started his career in Semnan before moving back to Tehran. Nili finally succeeded in obtaining an official attorney license in November 2018. Despite his past imprisonment, Nili had managed to start his career as an attorney. 

Though Nili had initially been concerned that his experience in Evin would hold him back in his career, he noted that his past experiences made it possible for him to understand prisoners and their families’ concerns and in turn advocate for them more effectively. This foundation, along with his good public relations and familiarity with most active human rights lawyers and activists, enabled Nili to become a popular figure. 

Simultaneously with the issuance of Nili’s attorney’s license, Iranian society had been witnessing the rise of protests by citizens of all backgrounds, which has been repeated consecutively since 2019. Nili advocated for arrested students such as Soha Mortezaei, Ali Younisi, Amirhossein Moradi and Atena Daemi along with human rights activists such as Narges Mohammadi, Keyvan Samimi, Mehdi Mahmoudian, and Saeed Madani. However, his work on behalf of these well-known figures did not prevent him from also extending his services to all the anonymous political prisoners in remote cities and towns. Like other human rights lawyers in Iran, he did not charge any attorney fees for representing the defendants. He often traveled to different cities of his residence to attend trial sessions, follow up on his clients’ cases, many of whom were imprisoned for their participation in the November 2019 protests. His clients included a wide range of political affiliations, gender identities, ethnicities, and religions, all of which he defended equally and honorably. 

At the same time as the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nili did not stop working and in addition to the legal defense of his clients and information about them, he was also concerned about the health status of all the political and ideological prisoners and criminal convicts in the public and exposed environment of Iran’s prison system. The COVID-19 pandemic hit Iran early and hard, provoking a widespread management crisis with hospitals and even cemeteries declaring their service capacity insufficient. In this capacity vacuum and amid dire need, Nili started collecting public donations to buy masks and disinfectants to deliver to all prisoners in coordination with the Civil Rights association, a non-governmental organization. 

After the production of the COVID-19 vaccines, Supreme Leader Khamenei issued a controversial order banning the import of American and British vaccines. Nili along with nine other lawyers and activists intended to file a lawsuit against the leader of the Islamic Republic, the president, the minister of health, and all the members of the COVID-19 pandemic task force including the attorney general of the country on involuntary manslaughter and other criminal charges for putting partisan, political, and economic interests above the health of the people, causing the death of many, and creating severe financial problems and life risks.

On August 13, 2021, security agents arrested them in response to their bold lawsuit plan. This time, Nili was placed in solitary confinement for thirty days and after four months of detention he was temporarily released after posting a bail of 800 million tomans. During his detention, he wanted to hold a public trial. He also wrote in a letter addressed to the Supervisory board for the protection of citizenship rights, together with Arash Kikhosravi and Mehdi Mahmoudian who had also been arrested in the case, claiming that they had been arrested for filing a lawsuit against Khamenei.

Finally, after holding the trial sessions of the defendants of this case, who were known in the media as “health plaintiffs”, the judge of the 29th branch of the Revolutionary Court sentenced Mustafa Nili to four years in prison and two years of being banned from practicing law and media activities. This ruling, which was issued and communicated in the last days of June 2022, was confirmed by the 36th branch of the Court of Appeal on August 14, 2022.

On November 7, 2022, IRGC Intelligence arrested Nili at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran. He was planning to travel to Zahedan to represent some of the families of the prisoners and those killed on Bloody Friday in the city. His sister Fatemeh Nili reported on Twitter that the security forces took Mostafa Nili to his mother’s home and after a search, they confiscated his national ID and his work-related documents.

Additionally, in the short time between his temporary release in 2021 and his re-arrest at Mehrabad Airport, Tehran Criminal Branch 2 sentenced him to pay a fine of twenty million rials in late August. According to Nili’s Twitter account, this sentence was issued for the accusation of publishing falsehoods in an interview about the condition of his client in Qarchak prison. 

Female political prisoners in Evin Prison and Mr. Nili’s clients Aliyeh Motallebzadeh and Narges Mohammadi released a testimony that was posted on Mohammadi’s Instagram account, in which they blamed the security and judiciary institutions for punishing him for voicing the truth. They also shared a threat to Nili’s life by a prisoner charged with murder, and wrote that Nili wrote a report to the assistant prosecutor demanding a follow-up on his case. They also testified that after being ignored by the authorities, Mr. Nili did an interview with domestic media, which led to another case being brought against him by the Tehran public prosecutor.

After one month of solitary confinement after his arrest at Mehrabad airport, on December 6, 2022, Nili was transferred to the Greater Tehran Prison by the order of the investigator at Evin court. On Dec 11, 2022, he began serving his sentence of 4 years in prison for the health plaintiff case. His sister Fatemeh reported on her Twitter account and said on the same day, a bail of six billion rials was set for the new case, but “he will serve his four years in prison starting now.” His sister subsequently reported on February 5, 2023 that her brother had been transferred to Rajai Shahr Prison’s political prisoners’ ward, where he remains imprisoned. 

This sentence coincided with the height of the protest movement, allowing Nili – a distinguished lawyer and expert – to connect with and support many of the young political prisoners who had been unjustly detained. One such prisoner stated that: “Mustafa Nili has changed the destiny of a lot of people, we would have received much harsher sentences without him. We learned how to defend ourselves, and he even wrote a defense bill on our behalf.”

We look forward to the day when Nili is free to practice law without fear of political targeting, and when the work of Nili and others like him help ensure the legal guarantee of freedom for countless political prisoners.

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