Last month, the prominent Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced by a court in Tehran to thirty-three years in prison and 148 lashes after being tried on a series of politically motivated charges. In an earlier trial, held in her absence in 2016, she was sentenced to five years in prison, bringing her total sentence to thirty-eight years. For decades, Sotoudeh has bravely battled injustice in her country and defended women’s rights. Back in 1991, to mark International Women’s Day, Sotoudeh, at the time the only female writer for the nationalist religious publication Daricheh Goftegoo, attempted to publish a series of interviews, reports and articles on Iranian women, which her editor refused to run. She has fought for women to be heard ever since.
Sotoudeh graduated with a master’s degree in international law from Shahid Beheshti University, passing the bar exam in 1995. However, she was not permitted to practise law for a further eight years. As a result, she decided to focus on journalism and wrote for several reformist newspapers, including Jame’eh. When Sotoudeh was finally granted a law licence in 2003, she chose to specialise in women’s and children’s rights and has continued to write articles addressing these issues. Her clients have included the organisers of the One Million Signatures Campaign, journalists such as Eisa Saharkhiz, the politician Heshmat Tabarzadi and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. She also represented many of the opposition activists arrested in the crackdown that followed the June 2009 presidential election and has defended prisoners facing the death sentence for crimes committed while they were under eighteen.
She has fallen foul of the authorities on several previous occasions. On 9 January 2011, she was sentenced to eleven years in prison, banned from practising law and forbidden to leave the country for twenty years after completing her jail term. On appeal, her sentence was reduced to six years, while her work ban was cut to ten years. This was later reduced to three years and then nine months. On 17 October 2012, Sotoudeh went on hunger strike to protest against prison conditions and the travel ban that had been placed on her twelve-year-old daughter. Eventually the authorities lifted the travel ban on her daughter, but Sotoudeh spent seventeen days in solitary confinement as a punishment for her protest. During her detention she was awarded the 2011 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and the European Parliament’s 2012 Sakharov Prize. She was finally released from Evin Prison on 18 September 2013, on the eve of President Hassan Rouhani’s first visit to the United States.
After being released, Sotoudeh worked as a defence lawyer for women charged with violating Iran’s dress code. During a series of rallies in December 2017 and January 2018, several women participating in the Girls of Revolution Street Protest were arrested for removing their headscarves in public to demonstrate against the obligatory veiling law (article 638 of Iran’s penal code decrees that women who appear in public places or roads without wearing the hijab can be sentenced to prison, corporal punishment or fines). Sotoudeh also opposed new regulations forcing detainees charged with political offences to choose their counsel from a list of lawyers approved by the judiciary on the grounds that this ‘not only undermines due process rights, it also undermines lawyers’ independence’.
On 13 June 2018, Sotoudeh was arrested once again and taken back to the notorious Evin Prison. She was informed that she had been tried in absentia in 2016 and sentenced to five years in prison. New charges were also brought against her. These were initially unclear, but were later announced as ‘propaganda against the state and assembly and collusion to act against national security’. Many believe she was detained in retaliation for her legal work and criticism of the judiciary. On 30 December, Sotoudeh was tried in absentia in Tehran. She allegedly refused to appear in court because she had been denied the right to choose her own lawyer. On 11 March, her husband, Reza Khandan, reported on his Facebook page that she had been sentenced to thirty-three years in prison. Amnesty International claims that this is the harshest sentence imposed on a human rights defender in recent years, which suggests that the authorities are deepening their repression.
Readers might like to send appeals calling on the Iranian authorities to unconditionally release Nasrin Sotoudeh, who is detained for attempting to carry out her work as a lawyer and for exercising her legitimate right to freedom of expression; urging them to immediately quash her sentence; seeking assurances that all defendants have access to a lawyer of their choice; and demanding that further measures be taken to fully enshrine the right to freedom of expression in law and practice in Iran, as provided for under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a state party.
Appeals to be addressed to:
President Hassan Rouhani
Office of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran
Pasteur Street, Pasteur Square
Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran
His Excellency Hamid Baeidinejad
Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran
16 Princes Gate, London SW7 1PT
Fax: +44 20 7589 4440