Nasrin Sotoudeh, the prominent Iranian human rights lawyer, faces new charges after being held in an Iranian jail for the last 2 months. Detained under national security charges since June 2018 when Nasrin was arrested and taken from her home in Tehran to Evin prison. At that time, she was issued a five-year sentence on ‘in absentia’ charges from 2016, that she knew nothing about. Her human rights campaigning work included the defence of a woman who fought for the right to remove her headscarf, as well as campaigning against the death penalty. Nasrin is now exemplary of the extent to which Iran is clamping down on human rights defenders.
After having a successful career as a lawyer with clients including Nobel Prize winning human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, Nasrin was first arrested and held in solitary confinement in 2010 when she was accused of spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security. In protest of the Iranian authority’s denial of her right to communicate with her family during this sentence, went on a 49-day hunger strike. This sentence was to be the first of others to follow as she continued her work on the path of defending human rights laws.
In the midst of her hunger strike in October 2012, Sotoudeh was announced as the joint winner of the Sakharov Prize of the European Parliament. The prize honours those who have given their lives to defending human rights.
After winning the prize, Nasrin then found herself in the spotlight of charges once again from the Iranian authorities. Commenting on the bravery of Nasrin and her co-winner, former President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz said,
“(they) have not been bowed by fear and intimidation and have decided to put the fate of their country before their own”
Her release from this sentence came in 2013, and subsequently Nasrin only enjoyed a few years of freedom before being arrested and taken to Evin prison again earlier this year.
The ‘in absentia’ charges were handed down in June 2018 and were originally issued under counts of “espionage in hiding”, however Sotoudeh’s lawyers stated that the sentence issued was one that actually exceeded the maximum in Iranian law.
Nasrin’s husband Reza Khandan made a statement on the charges saying,
“My question is, how can someone be condemned to five years in prison based on a suspicion, not a certainty.”
Her current struggle is the fight against new charges that have been brought to the fore by the Iranian authorities. Nasrin’s lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the authorities have now opened two new cases against her for her human rights work.
Ongoing attack on human rights defenders in Iran
Nasrin is one of many lawyers that have been unjustly detained in the defence of human rights. In addition to lawyers, young activists have also been arbitrarily detained for their support of human rights causes. International human rights organisations have consistently called for their release, as they have committed no crime and ‘have been arrested purely because of their human rights work.’
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said,
“Apparently what authorities fear greatly is advocating respect for human rights.”
Narges Mohammadi is another human rights defender who has been imprisoned in Iran on similar charges. She has been incarcerated since 2015, when she was arrested after meeting the high representative of EU foreign affairs. The court sentenced Mohammadi to a 16-year prison sentence on charges of, “membership in the [now banned] Defenders of Human Rights Center,” “assembly and collusion against national security,” and one year for “propaganda against the state.”
Mohammadi has been suffering with severe ill health and has lost more than 16 pounds. Narges suffers from a neurological disorder that causes muscular paralysis and was transferred to hospital last week after weeks of her condition deteriorating.
Iran has held a number of other defenders of human rights, including human rights lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani who was a co-founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Center alongside Shirin Ebadi. Soltani had been imprisoned since 2011 and was issued temporary release upon the death of his daughter earlier this month. Soltani’s family say that he should have ben released as early as 2014, but that the Ministry of Intelligence opposed his release.
The arbitrary detention of human rights defenders in Iran is particularly troubling, as they campaign to peacefully exercise their rights. It is therefore important for the international community to continue to pressure the Iranian government to release the detainees, as well as ensuring that those detained are subject to better conditions in detention.