When Becoming a Christian Earns the Death Penalty
Ben Davidson knows too well the perils of living in Iran
Published in 2006 Southern California Rising Stars magazine
on June 16, 2006
Updated on March 30, 2017
Howrey attorney Ben Davidson is 37 years old with a youthful face that often appears bashful, especially when he downplays his patent litigation. “When I talk to court reporters after depositions,” he says, “I don’t ask them if it was boring. I inquire ‘how boring was it?’”
But boring is not the word for the tale Davidson tells of his life in Iran, or of his latest asylum case, where the stakes were exceptionally high because the client faced prison, torture and possibly death. It’s a case that resonates with Davidson because of his own family history.
In 1979, when Davidson was just 10 and growing up in Tehran, the Islamic Revolution unfolded. Fearing for his life, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (the monarch Americans know as “the Shah of Iran”) fled the country, and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile as a wildly popular leader. Later that year, 90 Americans would be taken from the U.S. Embassy and 52 would be held hostage for 444 days.
Davidson’s father was on the wrong side of this conflict. “My dad represented a lot of American companies with his trading business. Not that he did anything political, but having that connection to the U.S. was all of sudden a very bad thing,” Davidson explains. “Plus we were Jewish.”
Jews are often described as a “tolerated minority” in Iran, but during the revolution many Jews were persecuted, and worse. Davidson recalls the story of a Persian Jew who had donated a lot of money to Israel and was arrested in the middle of the night as a spy. The man’s brother immediately raised $1 million, basically a bribe, to free him. After the man returned home, the same officials who had arrested him returned that night and shot him in the head.
Sensing a similar fate, Davidson’s father sent Ben and his sister to New York and followed quickly with his wife. “It wasn’t clear that we were leaving for good, but what did we know? It was very confusing at the time,” says Davidson. “I only later discovered that we didn’t have a choice. It turns out that my dad was on a list of people being looked for. People who appeared on those lists tended to disappear. That was happening with many prominent Jewish businessmen.”
Davidson says it didn’t take long for him to feel he belonged in the United States. Because of the political fallout from the hostage crisis, however, it took a long time for Davidson’s family to work through the red tape of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and become citizens. “The INS in New York was not the nicest experience,” he says. “Even as a kid I could tell that they would treat people differently according to their backgrounds and accents. Frankly, I think that’s why I wanted to go to law school in the first place. I wanted to be a real participant in the social fabric.” Davidson was finally naturalized at the age of 21.
Davidson received an engineering degree from Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and earned a law degree at George Washington University while working as an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office. At Howrey, he has distinguished himself by, among many other successes, defending a small California medical company against claims of patent infringement by a mega company. “I was the only lawyer [the small company] had for 90 percent of the time,” he says. “At every deposition it was just me; [the large company] had three or four lawyers.” The lone attorney, though, was able to prove the plaintiff had gotten its patent by simply copying something out of an old textbook; and after countersuing for antitrust, Davidson’s case was resolved. “I really do find the work exciting because at the end of the day the stakes are pretty high. If someone is shading the truth, just a little, they’re doing it for a reason.”
A decade after he had established himself as a successful attorney with Howrey, the sum of his coming-to-America experiences prompted Davidson to take an extremely grave case that had nothing to do with patents. A lawyer from Public Counsel brought an asylum case to him simply because he was an Iranian American who spoke Farsi. He hesitated at first because he knew nothing about immigration law, but soon realized how critical the situation was, especially in the post-9/11 world, and got to work.
The client (Davidson prefers him to remain anonymous for fear of retribution to family still living in Iran) had moved from Iran to Japan and converted from Islam to Christianity, which many Muslims consider a crime deserving of death. He took other Iranians to church with him, but one of them worked at the Iranian embassy and reported him. The next time Davidson’s client returned to Iran, his passport was confiscated and he was thrown into jail and tortured. After six months, he bribed someone to spring him from prison and get him out of the country. He fled to Southeast Asia and then reached the United States and applied for asylum.
It’s unclear why the INS was so adamant about keeping Davidson’s client out of the country, but whenever the case looked bad for the INS it changed tactics. First it claimed the man wasn’t actually a Christian; so Davidson tracked down the church in Japan and the priest who performed the baptism. Then the claim of torture was challenged; but Davidson had doctors testify about the nature of his injuries. The INS then claimed that Iran was very tolerant of other religions. Davidson kept knocking holes in the INS’s charges, but the agency wouldn’t let up. The INS finally stated that the man was a national security issue, but Davidson was able to convince the judge that no evidence existed to support that charge.
“I think I went to court seven or eight times. Frankly it was pretty outrageous spending so many hours just trying to prove the obvious. I don’t want to cast dispersions on the INS or its lawyer — he was just doing his job — but he really got caught up in the whole post-9/11 situation,” says Davidson. “If you’re not careful and don’t really look at the facts, people like my client get hurt. He’s really the type of person that most needs our help.”
Davidson can recall the immense feeling of pride when the judge read her decision, specifically noting the congressional duty to protect asylum seekers. “It’s because of that duty that my family is in this country too,” he says.
After all that, the INS still appealed the ruling, but to no avail; Davidson’s client has stayed in the United States safely since then. As for Davidson, Public Counsel honored him as the “Advocate of the Year” for its Immigrants’ Rights Project in 2003, the same year he became a partner at Howrey.
Happy to have had the chance to recall such a high point of his career, Davidson finally lets a little enthusiasm show for his chosen career in patent litigation: “It’s really not trivial. Somebody’s livelihood is on the line — maybe not on the same level as in the asylum case. But you still identify with the client. They’re the engineers who built something. You feel the same way about wanting to protect them. That’s where it’s fun to be a lawyer.
“But no one’s going to make a movie about it.”