Nasrin Sotoudeh has represented prisoners of conscience, Iranian opposition activists and politicians, journalists, abused children and mothers working to protect their abused children from being returned to their abusive fathers, and prisoners sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were minors. She has also highlighted the execution of juveniles and Iran’s high rate of executions.
Her clients have included Heshmat Tabarzadi – the head of the banned opposition group Democratic Front of Iran, and activists and journalists Isa Saharkhiz, Nahid Keshavarz, Parvin Ardalan, Omid Memarian and Roya Tolouie including cases following the disputed June 2009 Iranian presidential elections. She has also worked closely with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi and her Defenders of Human Rights Center.
Nasrin was arrested in September 2010 and imprisoned in solitary confinement in Evin Prison on charges of spreading propaganda against the system, conspiring to harm state security, misusing her profession as a lawyer, and belonging to an “illegal” organization, the Defenders of Human Rights Center. Nasrin has denied all the charges against her.
Activists and campaigners say the charges against her were trumped-up, fabricated because of her human rights activities, for which she is recognized internationally. Nasrine’s arrest is also believed to be linked to her representation of Shirin Ebadi, a colleague and Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate currently living in exile.
Following Nasrin’s arrest, Shirin called for her release and expressed concern regarding her health. In the statement, Shirin said, “Ms. Sotoudeh is one of the last remaining courageous human rights lawyers who has accepted all risks for defending the victims of human rights violations in Iran”.
Nasrin’s imprisonment is widely condemned in the international community. International lawyers, movie directors and politicians — among them Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — have called on Iran to set her free. Former Czech President Vaclav Havel and Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, have also called for her release.
Amnesty International launched an urgent call for her release, designating her a prisoner of conscience and noting that she was “at risk of torture or other ill-treatment”. The US condemned what it called the “unjust and harsh verdict” against Nasrin, who it called “a strong voice for rule of law and justice in Iran
In October 2010, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, the International Federation for Human Rights, the Iranian League for the Defence of Human Rights, the Union Internationale des Avocats and the World Organisation Against Torture joined Amnesty International in a joint statement denouncing Sotoudeh’s arrest and calling for her immediate release. In January 2011, the Law Society of England and Wales also issued a call for her release.
European Union High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton stated, “I am following the case of Nasrin Sotoudeh and other human rights defenders with great concern … We will continue to campaign for the charges against them to be dropped. We look to Iran to respect the human rights obligations it has signed up to”.
In January 2011, Iranian authorities sentenced Nasrin to 11 years in prison, in addition to barring her from practicing law and from leaving the country for 20 years. An appeals court later reduced Nasrin’s prison sentence to six years, and her ban from working as a lawyer to ten years.
While in prison, Nasrin lost both her parents. She was not allowed to attend the funeral of her father who died two weeks after she was arrested, but she did attend her mother’s burial ceremony for a few hours in December 2012.
Nasrin’s husband, Reza Khandan, and her 13-year-old daughter, Mehraveh, have also been subject to harassment by the Iranian officials. Khandan and Mehraveh were both summoned to the court and barred from leaving the country.
While in jail, Nasrin repeatedly has gone on hunger strikes in protest at her arrest and at being deprived of her rights and her family’s rights including access to her lawyer and family. One hunger strike was four weeks long and another was 49 days. She only ended the second following a short visit of some parliament members where they acknowledged and implemented her requests on lifting her daughter’s travel ban.
Nasrin has repeatedly been denied visits from her children in jail, including once for refusing to wear a chador, the full-length cloak worn by Iranian women. “I know that you require water, food, housing, a family, parents, love, and visits with your mother,” she wrote to her children in a letter from jail, according to the opposition website persian2english.com. “However, just as much, you need freedom, social security, the rule of law, and justice.”
In January 2013, she was temporarily released for three days on production of a hefty bail, after more than two years in jail. The release is provided for under Iranian law.
Amnesty International welcomed the news of Nasrin’s temporary release, but said: “Nasrin shouldn’t have been imprisoned in the first place”. Amnesty International has long campaigned for Nasrin’s unconditional release as a prisoner of conscience, as she was jailed solely for her peaceful work as a human rights lawyer. They stated that vaguely worded charges like those against Nasrin do not amount to recognizably criminal offences, but they commonly lead to the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience.
Her release was unexpectedly curtailed, as it had been anticipated that it would be extended. A spokeswoman for the Security Committee of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission said that a number of its members took part in an inspection of Evin Prison on 21 January. Shortly after they left, Nasrin was summoned back to prison.
Khandan told Amnesty International that her prompt return had come as a surprise, and he plans on writing to parliamentarians to raise concerns that her release may simply have been a pretext for ensuring she was absent when the inspection took place. The authorities had indicated to us that her release would be more than three days. It was totally unexpected [that she would return so soon]…and when we took her back to Evin Prison, outside the gate, the children wept – it was so hard on both of them,” said Khandan.
When Amnesty International heard of her return to prison, they said “Nasrin Sotoudeh, whose human rights work has been recognized internationally, including when she was awarded the EU’s Sakharov Prize last year, is a prisoner of conscience who must be released immediately, unconditionally and for good. Nasrin Sotoudeh’s three-day release was merely a cruel charade and illustrates how little respect the Iranian authorities have for their international human rights obligations. It is becoming increasingly common for the Iranian authorities to use the denial of access to family visits as a form of punishment for imprisoned human rights defenders. Children of prisoners are often deeply affected by the absence of a parent and denial of family visits only compounds their distress,” said Amnesty International.
Before her recent three-day release – and brief reunification with her husband and two children, aged 13 and four – Nasrin had been regularly prevented from having face-to-face meetings with her husband Reza Khandan and their two young children since her imprisonment in 2010. She was also frequently prevented from speaking with her family.
The Iranian authorities have also harassed or taken punitive measures against her family members. On one occasion her husband was detained overnight for his peaceful advocacy to secure his wife’s release. The authorities also placed an illegal travel ban on their 13-year-old daughter, which prompted Nasrin to stage a 49-day hunger strike in prison late last year.
She decided to go on this hunger strike out of fear of increasing limitations imposed on her family. She fell into fragile health during the hunger strike, in which she would drink only water mixed with salts and sugar. Her weight dropped to 95 pounds.