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Iran: human rights lawyers in distress

The Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh is on a life-threatening dry hunger strike in Evin prison. Silencing Sotoudeh is to silence one brave, talented, and resourceful woman, but also to silence a multitude of civil and political activists
Philip Grant Roja Bandari
8 November 2010

It is an ironic indication of the dysfunction of a system when prison officials harass the children of a children’s rights advocate. Iranian human rights lawyer and activist, Nasrin Sotoudeh, has been kept in Evin prison in solitary confinement, practically deprived of any contact with her family and lawyer since September 4th. Evin prison officials forced Nasrin to make a phone call to her children, at an hour when they knew their father would not be with them, and ask 12-year-old Mehraveh to relay a message to her father: “Do not publicize Sotoudeh’s case in the media.” Mehraveh was distraught as she repeated the conversation to her father. The use of children by Evin officials to put pressure on their parents in this way is a vicious tactic, but it is not surprising in a country where a child offender can still get the death sentence.

Nasrin Sotoudeh has dedicated her career to promoting human rights, advocating for victims of child abuse and defending children sentenced to death. Despite being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Iran continues to sentence child offenders to death and execute them when they turn 18. Sotoudeh regularly takes up these painful and controversial cases pro bono, and fills her days with a constant struggle to navigate the Iranian judicial system, convince the victim’s family to forgive the child offender, and publicize the case in the media. Her clients include people like Soghra, a woman who was sentenced to death when she was arrested as an abused 13-year-old child charged with murder. Soghra has been at risk of being hanged since the day she turned 18.

There are few legal professionals in Iran who have a set of clients as diverse as Sotoudeh’s. In addition to defending people like Soghra, Nasrin Sotoudeh is legal representative to many civil society advocates including Issa Saharkhiz, journalist, Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, political activist, Shirin Ebadi, lawyer, and Jelveh Javaheri, women's rights activist. Activists working in areas that the state frowns upon face constant pressures through cases brought against them. They rely on the dedication and work of lawyers like Sotoudeh to continue their work.

One week prior to her arrest, Sotoudeh's office and home were searched and several of her and her family's personal items were confiscated. She was later summoned to court and was taken directly to solitary confinement in Evin prison on September 4th. Her case was recently sent to the 26th branch of the Revolutionary Court. Two of the charges against Sotoudeh's are “propaganda against the state” and “ conspiracy to disturb public order”; vague charges that are regularly brought against anyone whom the state intends to silence. Her third charge is working with the Center for the Defense of Human Rights founded by the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi.

Since her arrest on September 4th, Sotoudeh has been permitted to make one very short phone call during which she was able to tell her  husband, “I’m on hunger strike and there are threats…” at which point the call was cut off. Her family are extremely worried about her health because of her month long hunger strike - her only way of protesting against her ill treatment in detention. Sotoudeh was refused permission by Evin prison authorities to attend her father's funeral in September.

On October 27th Sotoudeh was finally allowed a visit by her sister Giti Sotoudeh. Her husband, Reza Khandan, has not yet been permitted to visit her. After four weeks on hunger strike Sotoudeh broke her hunger strike, but on October 31st, with no improvement in her treatment in detention, she resumed her hunger strike. Her family report that she is also refusing water and believe that her health is deteriorating dangerously.

Since her arrest, Persian-language websites have written about Sotoudeh continuously and statements with many signatures have been issued, including one by her clients and one by a group of nearly a thousand Iranian civil rights and women’s rights advocates. Eight prominent international human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recently joined the Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi in demanding the release of Nasrin Sotoudeh. The international community must continue to shed light on this case and hold Iran accountable for the illegal and unjust treatment of its human rights lawyers.

There are only a handful of lawyers like Sotoudeh working in Iran, and they endure immense pressure from the Iranian government for representing defendants that the state does not approve of. A similar case is that of Mr. Mohammad Oliayeefar, the defence attorney for several political prisoners. Oliayeefar was sentenced to one year in prison for publicizing the case of one of his clients who is a juvenile on death row. He has been in jail since May 2010 and has been diagnosed with leukemia. He spends his time in the hospital with armed guards next to his bed and is denied visits.

In a diverse country of seventy million people with a long history of politically-motivated repression, why pay such attention to a few people like Sotoudeh and Oliayeefar? Because their activities are essential to the continuation of the activism of numerous others. Because they also bear witness through their tireless activism to the struggles of many more people and to the difficulties they face - including legal and extra-legal harassment.

Iran has produced more famous human rights lawyers than Nasrin Sotoudeh - Shirin Ebadi is of course the great example - but the work of lawyers like Sotoudeh is invaluable to the success and well-being of a multitude of activists, themselves anything but famous. The Iranian authorities know this perfectly well, hence her arrest. To silence Nasrin Sotoudeh is to silence one brave, talented, and resourceful woman, but also to silence many more beyond her. They are political activists, but also civil activists: women's activists, human rights activists, labour activists, children's activists, activists from marginalized religious or ethnic groups all seeking long-denied justice. Nasrin Sotoudeh is simultaneously one and many: exemplifying the need not only to honour existing laws, but to build on and where necessary transform those laws so that they no longer defend the interests of a ruling minority alone.

Sotoudeh and Oliayeefar are not alone in their incarceration. There are others too who draw our attention to the vital role human rights lawyers play in a system where the odds are stacked against them and their clients, these are the men and women who ensure that the authorities do not erase all trace of civil society and civic and political resistance. They bear witness to all those who are engaged in such struggles, and beyond that to all those who will benefit from them; a group which includes the judges and interrogators who are involved in Sotoudeh's case - those who for now shelter under the current system, but who might one day be eaten by that same system, just as many have been before them. 

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