Dutch government hires lawyers for Zahra Bahrami

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The Netherlands has hired two lawyers to defend the Dutch-Iranian woman Zahra Bahrami, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has told Radio Netherlands Worldwide. Ms Bahrami was sentenced to death in Iran for being in possession of drugs. A spokesperson for the ministry says the Netherlands will do its very best to prevent the death sentence from being carried out.

By Johan van der Tol and Sebastiaan Gottlieb

The two Iranian lawyers were assigned to the case once the death sentence was officially announced. Usually the Dutch government doesn’t pay legal expenses for Dutch citizens who are in prison abroad. The Netherlands only gives legal support when someone sentenced to death wants to appeal.


Quiet diplomacy
Until now the Dutch government has used quiet diplomacy in order to put pressure on the Iranians over the Bahrami case. Ms Bahrami is now thought to have been transferred to the section for drug convicts at the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran, according to the Iranian opposition website Free Messenger. This section mainly houses prisoners who are allowed less contact with the outside world than the other inmates.

Last weekend the Iranian authorities confirmed that Ms Bahrami has been sentenced to death. Those involved don’t expect an appeal to have much effect. According to the Iranian human rights activist Sadegh Naghaskar, “the only remaining hope is now that the Dutch government is prepared to put pressure on Iran”.

Until now Johannes van Damme was the only Dutch citizen to be sentenced to death. He was arrested in Singapore in 1991 and found guilty of smuggling heroin. Despite pleas for clemency from the Dutch government and a letter from Queen Beatrix, the President of Singapore remained unmoved. Mr Van Damme was executed by hanging in September 1994.

There are various examples of Dutch citizens abroad whose death sentence was commuted to a prison sentence. But usually it doesn’t pay to advertise these 'successes'. On the contrary, it may endanger the individual involved or insult the country in question.

Velvet glove
Human Rights Watch (HRW) urges countries to treat human rights violators not with a velvet glove approach, but by putting pressure on them. Harsh condemnations and sanctions are a better way to teach countries like Iran to respect human rights, HRW said in its annual report. "The ritualistic support or 'dialogue' and 'cooperation' with repressive governments is too often an excuse for doing nothing about human rights."

Firm condemnation
Dutch lawyer and former MP Boris Dittrich has worked since 2007 for HRW in New York. Too often there are commercial or other interests standing in the way of firm condemnation, he says.

”Against human rights violators such as North Korea we dare to say: what you do is wrong. That’s because we have few interests there. But when it comes to countries with which we have trade relations, you see that it’s already much harder."

Mr Dittrich condemns the death sentence on Ms Bahrami and others, including homosexuals, in Iran:

"Iran has a terrible legal system. Human Rights Watch released a report on it last month. It’s up to judges to decide on a death sentence for a defendant, regardless of whether there’s evidence or not. Iran must be constantly criticised for this."

The Dutch-Iranian human rights activist Sadagh Nagashkar, who is following the Bahrami case closely, also believes that quiet diplomacy does not work in this case, and says he told the the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that quiet diplomacy would never work.

Pressure for a Fair trial
The ministry has announced that the Netherlands continues to press for consular assistance and a fair trial for Ms Bahrami according to international legal norms. A ministry spokesperson says that the Netherlands is indeed critical of the human rights situation in Iran. "We also do this at EU level, which allows us to make more of an impact."