The night before lawyer Mohammed Dadkhah was to appear in court for his first human rights case, two masked men on motorcycles pulled up alongside him as he walked home. They hurled him into one of Tehran's ubiquitous street-side drainage canals. They grabbed at the briefcase filled with papers for the next day's defense.
Dadkhah refused to let go. They punched and kicked him. They ripped off a piece of the briefcase and roared away into the night.
Panting in fear, his face scraped raw, his clothes soaking wet, Dadkhah pulled himself out of the gutter and brushed himself off. When he got home, he caught his breath and considered his options.
He was in his late 40s and had been working since 1979 as a lawyer, building up a bustling practice. His father had been a lawyer, his uncle among the greatest litigators in his native city of Esfahan and his grandfather a famous cleric and jurist.
This was 2000, and Iranian authorities had just arrested a member of the outlawed but barely tolerated Freedom Movement and ordered him to appear before the Revolutionary Court.
Dadkhah's decision to take on the case had raised eyebrows in the legal establishment. Few, if any, lawyers represented defendants in the Revolutionary Court, which handles politically charged cases.
"My worst fear was that they would kill me in an accident," he said of his decision to take the case.
With the clock ticking toward the court appearance, he contemplated his stark choice: stand up for justice or protect his family, his wife and his children.
As the United States pressures Iran over its nuclear program and its alleged support of militant groups across the Middle East, it also has decried human rights abuses in the country. The Bush administration has refused to rule out military intervention against Iran.
Inside the country, a small number of activists continue to struggle peacefully for change. They are protected by a cadre of lawyers, including 2004 Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, the first Iranian to receive the prize.
But such defenders are few: Out of 27,000 licensed lawyers here, perhaps no more than 100 take on tough politically charged cases.
These lawyers say that for now they are able to work and speak their minds, and that despite a recent reduction in political liberties, the climate here is comparable to that in other Middle Eastern countries. But they also say they have to battle not just Iran's Islamic laws but authoritarian mind-sets and powerful interests that often act with impunity.
Most agree the legal climate has improved since the first days of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when signs saying, simply, "No Lawyers" went up outside courtrooms here.
The ayatollahs who had come to power were determined to break with the past. As Shiite Islam became the rule of the land in Iran, secular lawyers not schooled in Sharia law were considered suspect and branded atheists.
Among them was Mohammed Saifzadeh, a pious native of the holy city of Qom and family friend of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. A judge in the 1970s, he says he once signed a letter to the French authorities, urging them to give Khomeini shelter after he was expelled from Iraq in 1978, a move he now says he regrets.
Saifzadeh says he wholeheartedly supported the revolution, only to be disillusioned.
"From the beginning of the revolution, I opposed the penal code, which included Islamic punishments," says Saifzadeh, his brown eyes peering out from above large rectangular eyeglasses. "I was opposed to allowing the clergy into the judiciary."
Saifzadeh was purged from his judicial post and banned from practicing law for more than 10 years. Whenever he tried to work as a legal consultant, authorities pressured employers to fire him. By the time he regained his legal accreditation in 1992, he had lost his passion for law but had found one for human rights.
Since 1997, he has taken on more than 300 human rights cases: reporters charged with writing against the system, activists alleged to be subverting national security, scholars accused of insulting Islam, members of the Bahai religious faith rejected from university for their beliefs. He was one of Ebadi's lawyers when she was charged with security crimes and locked up in prison.
Saifzadeh has been to prison nearly half a dozen times, tossed on several occasions into solitary confinement. "Two months in solitary for someone like me," he says, heaving a deep sigh, "it really changes your personality."
His wife was killed in a suspicious car accident, a hit-and-run that remains unsolved. He remarried, to a lawyer. She promised to stick to lucrative real estate and tort cases.
"We are few because the danger is great," Saifzadeh says. "Lawyers here can make a lot of money. Many of our fellow attorneys think we're just fools."
Khalil Bahramian is among those who know well the sacrifices and disappointments of taking on Iran's establishment in court.
In 1984, Bahramian agreed to represent the parents of a young man who was allegedly killed by members of the Black Scorpions, an offshoot of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. It was his first human rights trial and among the first times the group had been brought to court.
The suspects were well-connected and powerful. Bahramian says they called his relatives and threatened to kill him. They accused him of being a communist. They torched his car. Authorities decided to hear the case in the Revolutionary Court, which is stacked with sympathizers of the Revolutionary Guard, whose elite Quds Force was recently labeled a terrorist organization by the Bush administration.
But Bahramian, now 68, says he wasn't scared off that easily. His father was a labor leader, organizing peasants among the rice paddies and orchards of the Caspian Sea coast while evading the shah's secret police. A small copy of Picasso's "Guernica" hangs in his office next to a statue of the 10th century Persian poet Ferdowsi.
"When you enter political work in Iran, you have to put your life aside," he says. "But I've always been careful. I don't want to be a hero."
Bahramian made his arguments with the utmost care. "I told them, 'I want to remove these black sheep from your flock.' "
To his shock, the judge sentenced the three suspects to death; an appellate court upheld the verdict. But the case was later reopened and the defendants acquitted at the behest of Iran's then-president, Ali Khamenei, now Iran's spiritual leader.
Lawyers dread arguing a case before the Revolutionary Court, or even entering and exiting the court building. Men are harassed or barred for wearing ties, considered a sign of Western decadence, while women must adhere to the strictest Islamic dress codes.
The Revolutionary Court system runs parallel to its other courts and its jurisdiction includes matters of national security, moral corruption, espionage and insurgency, and insults to the pillars of the Islamic Republic, according to the website of Iran's judiciary.
Lawyers complain that the court sessions have a theatrical quality, with sentences appearing preordained. The judge often acts as the prosecutor, grilling the suspect while hurling insults at the lawyer. Often the judge won't acknowledge legal arguments or even pay attention to the lawyer.
Under law, Revolutionary Court defendants are entitled to lawyers. But the judge sometimes rejects the defendant's choice.
Once, lawyer Nasrine Sotoudeh tried to argue on behalf of two detained women's rights activists. The judge refused to let her and ordered her out of the courtroom, but refused to sign the document that would allow her to leave the building. She tried to walk out, but the security guards stopped her. After waiting for hours, the guards finally let her out without the signature.
"They don't want lawyers in there," she says. "Lawyers know the law. They protest."
Five months ago, the same judge summoned Sotoudeh to the Revolutionary Court. He told her he'd read interviews she'd given to the international media and said that if she continued, he'd throw her into jail.
"If I get thrown into prison, it would be a lot easier than dealing with these laws," Sotoudeh, 44, says.
The morning after his encounter with the motorcyclists, Dadkhah appeared in court. He had decided that a few scrapes and bruises weren't going to stop him.
The judge accused his client of being a member of an outlawed political party. But Dadkhah produced a letter from Iran's Interior Ministry, then under the control of reform-minded moderates, that said it wasn't illegal.
This outraged the judge and other authorities. They overruled their own ministry but let the defendant go.
The next year, Dadkhah was thrown into Evin Prison for five months. Prison authorities put in him in solitary. Guards stripped him naked in the winter cold and threw him against iron bars. They locked him up with common criminals, killers and drug dealers.
If the punishments, pressure and threats were supposed to send a message, they sent the wrong one. The treatment only enraged Dadkhah. He sees himself as a Renaissance man well-versed in poetry, history and architecture, as well as law. Throwing him in with common criminals was an insult.
Instead of lowering his profile, Dadkhah took on the case of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian Canadian journalist held in Evin Prison who eventually died of injuries allegedly suffered at the hands of government officials.
Dadkhah expanded his law practice to nearly 20 attorneys, drawing in earnest interns dedicated to defending women, trade unionists, students and activists and taking other tough cases few other lawyers would. Every week, they canvass Evin, asking for new prisoners detained on political charges or just in dire straits.
"A hundred years from now, I don't want people looking back and saying, 'No one stood up,' " Dadkhah says. "Now at least they'll be able to say, 'Yes, a couple of people stood up.' "Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times