Renowned Iranian women’s and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh (55) was sentenced in March 2019 to 38 years in jail and 148 lashes for spying, spreading propaganda and insulting Iran’s supreme leader. She claims she was only doing her job.
Her clients were women who protested the obligatory dress code by taking off their hijab in public in 2018, an act that the authorities equate with treason. Sotoudeh was already well-known for having represented jailed opposition activists and politicians following the disputed June 2009 presidential elections as well as prisoners sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were minors.
Her clients have included journalist Isa Saharkhiz and Heshmat Tabarzadi, the head of the banned opposition group National Demo.
Sotoudeh is the winner of the 2012 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded by the European Parliament. The court ruling specifically mentioned the prize as one of the reasons for her conviction, as well as her role in co-founding Legam, an organization against capital punishment.
Her courage already earned her prison time from 2010 and 2013, for ‘propaganda against the state’ and because she was a member of the Center for Human Rights, co-founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi.
After her release, Sotoudeh resumed her work of defending several activists who refused to wear the veil, including Narges Hosseini, 32, who has been detained since 29 January 2018. Hosseini was sentenced at the end of March 2018 to 24 months in prison for ‘encouraging corruption by removing the hijab in public’ and committing ‘a prohibited act in a public space’. Both women appealed the sentence, but Sotoudeh did not have the chance to see this appeal through before being arrested herself on 13 June 2018, joining the women depending on her to get justice.
At first, Sotoudeh’s husband Reza Khandan was told she would get ‘only’ five years in jail, but judges decided to add to this additional unspecified charges. She ended up being sentenced to 38 years and 148 lashes, which is a severe sentence for a lawyer, particularly given her contribution to upholding rights in her country. She has two children with her husband, also a human rights defender known for having raised concerns on Facebook about human rights violations in Iran.
The NGO International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) recently received information showing that Khandan was also targeted by the authorities. According to the FIDH website, ‘On 22 January 2019, Mr. Khandan’s lawyer was notified that Branch 15 of the Islamic Revolution Court in Tehran sentenced his client to six years of imprisonment – five years for “gathering and collusion with intent to commit crimes against national security” (Article 610 of the Islamic Penal Code) and one year for “spreading propaganda against the system” (Article 500 of the Islamic Penal Code). He was also banned from “membership in social and political groups and parties, undertaking activities in cyberspace, the media and the press” and from travelling abroad for two years. Mr. Khandan will appeal the court’s decision and will remain free pending the appeal.’
Mansoureh Mills, Iran Researcher at Amnesty International, believes Sotoudeh was targeted so harshly because of the cause she indirectly defended. “The Iranian authorities are extremely sensitive to the issue of forced hijab,” Mills told Fanack. “It’s very much an identity issue for them. Nasrin Sotoudeh is opposed to forced hijab and, prior to her arrest, had defended women who protested in the streets against forced hijab laws. Through her shocking prison sentence and flogging sentence, the Iranian authorities are trying to send a message to other women’s rights defenders, including those who campaign against forced hijab, that their activities will not be tolerated and they will face the same fate as Nasrin Sotoudeh. Of course, Nasrin Sotoudeh’s arrest is not just related to her opposition against forced hijab but also to her other human rights work, including her work to end the death penalty in Iran. She is a courageous human rights lawyer who is vocal about human rights violations in Iran and fearless about her peaceful activities. Her many years of human rights work have always made her a target for harassment, intimidation and arrest by the Iranian authorities.”
For Mills, Sotoudeh’s only hope is to have her sentence reduced, as was the case when she was imprisoned in 2010 and served only half of her six-year sentence following international pressure. “The same thing could happen again,” Mills said. “If there is enough public pressure through media and social media and enough pressure from governments that have influence over Iran, such as EU governments, then she could be released.”
According to Bijan Baharan from the FIDH, the Iranian authorities are sending a broader message than just to activists within their country. “The European Union has been trying for some time to open an office in Iran, and the EU has been conducting discussions with the Iranian government over human rights issues for the past couple of years,” Baharan told Fanack. “It seems that the judiciary, which is fully controlled by the supreme leader, is now sending clear signals to everybody at home and abroad and especially in Europe, as to who holds real power in the country.”
Iran, through this symbolic judgment, is trying to reinforce its position. “For many years, the Iranian authorities have justified repressing every type of criticism and opposition by linking them to ‘hostile’ governments abroad, including all independent and democratic dissidents, as well as some non-democratic opposition groups based abroad with ties to various powers,” Baharan added. “They have been unable to use the same argument about Sotoudeh and have not been able to contain her activities. Furthermore, taking into consideration Nasrin Sotoudeh’s activities and her increasing prominence at home and internationally, she may represent a glimmer of hope for many people who wish for a democratic society without foreign interference and bloodshed. This is exactly what the authorities do not want because it is much more difficult for them to handle democratic criticism and peaceful activities based on universal human rights principles.”
In an interview with the Belgium magazine Axelle, one of her last given to European media before being arrested, Sotoudeh said, “I think some of my constituents are critical of my work and I respect it. However, most people, women and men, when they see me in the street, are very kind to me, they tell me that they follow my activities and thank me. It happens often. As for the government, I mean that despite its positions against me – I am sometimes labelled as ‘dissident’ and ‘enemy’ by officials – we have support among its members. Those who defend women’s rights are supported and protected by the women and families of these same officials. So, the truth is that I am not upset by these positions of the government. I have one goal in mind, and I’m pursuing it.”
In that climate, despite all the support and legal options she is being offered to defend herself, Sotoudeh still wants to make a point with her life: Iran needs to change. One of the charges against her added 12 years to her prison sentence for ‘encouraging corruption and debauchery’, but her husband wrote on Facebook that she was not going to appeal this decision.
“She said she wouldn’t want to appeal, and the reason is that the judicial process is unfair and such protests will do no good,” Khandan told AFP. “She does not want to undertake any judicial action since she does not agree with the judicial process. Nothing will be done along these lines.”
International pressure will then be crucial to prevent this champion of human rights in Iran from finishing her life in prison, the same fate she has managed to save most of her clients from.