50 Iranian Women You Should Know: Nasrin Sotoudeh

Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh is a tireless advocate of human rights and a defender of political prisoners. For her efforts, she has been harassed and imprisoned, but she has remained defiant, both inside prison and out. 

Nasrin Sotoudeh was born in 1963 in Tehran. She studied philosophy at college and received her Master’s degree in international law from Shahid Beheshti University. She passed the bar exam in 1995 but had to wait eight years to receive her permit to practice. In the meantime, she contributed to reformist publications. 

In the years before the disputed 2009 presidential election she represented defendants in many high-profile political and human rights cases, including Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, democracy activist Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, journalist Isa Saharkhiz, Kurdish activist Mohammad Sadeq Kaboodvand, human rights activist Parvin Ardalan and women’s rights activist Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani. She also took on many cases of child abuse and of minors on  death row.

When asked how she became a human rights defender, Sotoudeh said that as a lawyer, she was forced to make a choice. “When a lawyer witnesses unfair trials, when a lawyer witnesses the execution of minors, either they must turn their back or they must face up to the problem they are witnessing,” she said in an interview . “I think I entered the field of human rights on the day I decided not to avoid such issues.”

In the aftermath of the 2009 election, the Islamic Republic stepped up its persecution of dissidents, journalists and human rights activists on a dramatic scale. Sotoudeh was arrested on September 4, 2010 and was charged with propaganda against the regime and activities against national security.

On September 25, she went on a hunger strike to protest against having been denied visits and phone calls from her family. She was on a hunger strike for four weeks. On October 17, she embarked on another hunger strike lasting 49 days. She ended her hunger strike when a group of members of parliament visited Evin Prison where she was being held and pressured prison officials to lift newly-imposed restrictions.

While Sotoudeh was in detention, the authorities banned her husband Reza Khandan and her 12-year-old son from traveling outside the country.

Her prison experience did not break her spirit. When she was transferred to a new cellblock at Evin, a “miracle happened,” said her cellmate Susan Tabianian in an interview with IranWire. “Before Sotoudeh arrived, the prisoners all had very different political views but she brought a positive harmony that took root among all of us.”

Her detention led to an international outcry. Shirin Ebadi, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, the International Commission of Jurists, the International Federation for Human Rights, the Iranian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LDDHI), and the World Organization Against Torture all condemned the continued detention of Sotoudeh — who had not been charged or tried —  and called for her immediate and unconditional release. Former Czech President Vaclav Havel joined the call for her release.

Disregarding international appeals, the Revolutionary Court sentenced Sotoudeh to 11 years in prison and banned her from practicing law or leaving the country for 20 years. The appeals court reduced the prison sentence to six years and the ban to 10. In early 2011 she was sentenced to five extra days in prison for wearing “bad hejab” and protesting against the handling of her case.

Sotoudeh has received a number of awards for her defense of human rights and freedom of speech, including the 2011 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and the 2012 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European parliament.

The latter award was shared with the jailed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. When a delegation of European lawmakers visited Iran in 2013 they insisted on meeting them both. After initially resisting the demand, the government agreed; and the group  of parliamentarians were able to meet both at the Greek embassy in Tehran. The meeting created an uproar among the hardliners and three cabinet ministers of President Rouhani’s administration were summoned to parliament for questioning.

Hillary Clinton, then the US Secretary of State, issued a statement praising Sotoudeh and Panahi and expressed regret that they had not been able to receive the award in person.

On September, 2013, a few days before President Rouhani was to address the United Nations and after serving half of her prison sentence, Sotoudeh and 10 other political prisoners were released without any explanation.

After her release, Sotoudeh and a number of other human activists picketed the Iranian Bar Association in protest against the ban on their right to practice law. Eventually, on June 23, 2015 the ban was reduced to nine months.

“Her ongoing protest has provided many with a platform to express their grievances,” an article in the magazine Foreign Policy said of Sotoudeh. “Her defiance and fearlessness appear to encourage them”. 

“Creating fear and creating courage are both contagious,” Sotoudeh told Foreign Policy. Through one’s actions, she said, “it’s possible to encourage others to rise above their fear and stand up for their rights.”

Sotoudeh has shown her courage by fighting the death penalty in a country that has one of the highest numbers of executions in the world, both in absolute numbers and in proportion to its population. She has been especially active to save minors who have been sentenced to death. And it would appear that her time in prison has only added to her determination.

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