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Nasrin Sotoudeh: Iran's fearless human rights defender

Fearless and outspoken, Nasrin Sotoudeh is one of Iran's most well-known human rights defenders. Harassed by the authorities for years, Sotoudeh is currently in prison on 'fabricated' charges.

Lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh in Jafar Panahi's latest film "Taxi Téhéran" (Memento Films). FIDH/ Flickr

In a letter she wrote to her daughter from prison in 2010, Nasrin Sotoudeh wrote:

"Justice arrives exactly at a time when most have given up hope. It arrives when we least expect it. I am certain of it."

Over the years, Sotoudeh has defended a range of activists including students, journalists and dissidents. She has also worked on behalf of child prisoners convicted of murder and facing execution. Among her high profile clients is Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is now in exile.

In January 2011, Sotoudeh was sentenced to eleven years in prison: one year for 'propaganda against the regime' and ten years for 'acting against national security' and 'violating the Islamic dress code (Hija) in a filmed speech'. She was charged for giving interviews to the international media in the aftermath of protests against the disputed presidential election in June 2009. She was also barred from practising law and not allowed to leave the country for 20 years. The sentence and the ban on her working as a lawyer was later reduced on appeal to six years.

Sotoudeh had been arrested four months earlier, in September 2010, after police raided her home. She was taken to the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. Contact with her lawyer, husband and children were severely limited. She spent three months in solitary confinement, not even allowed photos of her family, according to Amnesty International. When she learned that her 12-year-old daughter had been banned from travelling abroad, Sotoudeh went on hunger strike demanding her rights to meet with her family, and for an end to their harassment. She went on hunger strike four more times while she was in jail.

In September 2013, three years into her sentence, she was unexpectedly freed. Soon after, she returned to activism, and has been harassed and briefly detained multiple times since. In October 2014, she was among a group of people arrested at a protest outside the Ministry of Interior in Tehran against a spate of acid attacks on women in Isfahan who were left scarred and blinded by their assailants.

A month after her release, the Iranian Bar Association issued a ban against her practising for three years. Denying it had been pressured by the government, the Association cited her 2010 conviction as the reason. Incensed, Sotoudeh started a picket campaign outside the Association's office. Every weekday since, she has stood on the office steps from 9.30 am to noon, carrying placards stating "right to work" and "rights of dissidents". Other political activists and supporters have joined her, despite having also been harassed. Reporters observing her pickets note that members of the public have called out to her in support, flashing victory signs from car windows, and bringing her bottled water.

Sotoudeh graduated in law in 1995. Not being able to practice until 2003, she took up journalism in the interim, writing on women's and children's rights and contributing to numerous reformist publications. She continues to write. In April 2011, she was granted the PEN American Centre's PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. As Sotoudeh was still in prison and unable to accept it in person, Shirin Ebadi received the award on her behalf. In October 2012 Sotoudeh was co-awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize, alongside film-maker Jafar Panahi who has defied a 20-year ban on making films. His internationally acclaimed film Taxi, released in 2015, is filmed entirely in Tehran taxis where passengers discuss politics on camera. Nasrin Sotoudeh is one of them.

On 13 June 2018, Sotoudeh was arrested by security forces on a complaint filed by a judicial official in Kashan, reportedly due to her "legally representing Shaparak Shajarizadeh, who has been charged for peacefully protesting against Iran's compulsory hijab law." At the time of writing, bail has been set at 650 million tomans (approximately $152,500 USD) which Sotoudeh is refusing to pay, to protest this injustice, and she remains in jail. She may face a five-year prison sentence.


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