Iranian Activist Went From Defending Political Prisoners to Being One Herself

Jailed for representing women who removed their headscarves, human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh is on a hunger strike

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Lawyer and human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh in her office in Tehran in 2008.
Lawyer and human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh in her office in Tehran in 2008.Credit: Arash Ashourinia / A.P.
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

In the last scene of Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s award-winning film “Taxi,” a dignified, smiling and captivating woman gets into his taxi. Her name is Nasrin Sotoudeh. She holds a bouquet of red roses. Panahi, who plays a taxi driver in the movie – which won the Golden Bear in 2015 – drives his passengers, Iranians from a variety of social backgrounds, through Tehran’s streets and on the way, he interviews them about life. Sotoudeh is the last passenger, and Panahi, who is curious about who the roses are for, suggests two possibilities: “Either someone is getting out of jail or someone is going into jail.”

Sotoudeh, a human rights activist, perhaps the most important one in Iran, knows Panahi very well; he himself was a political prisoner and in 2012 they both won the Sakharov Prize, awarded by the European Parliament. “Unfortunately I’m going to visit a family whose daughter is under arrest and is on a hunger strike,” she tells Panahi in the film. She says the girl’s mother had asked to meet with her daughter to try to persuade her to give up the strike. The meeting was indeed organized by the prison authorities, but when the mother entered she was asked to join an official film crew who demanded that she read a document that had been prepared ahead of time that stated that her daughter had never been on a hunger strike. The mother was so angry that she tore the document to shreds, gave up on the visit and left the prison in fury. “Now I’m going to the family to see what can be done for the daughter,” Sotoudeh said.

Suddenly a van stopped next to Panahi’s “taxi,” and it was clear to both of them who it belonged to. “They always do this so we know they’re following us,” Sotoudeh explained to Panahi. “That’s how it is with us. First they accuse you of collaborating with the Mossad or the CIA or MI5 and to that they add, to inflate the charges, harm to public morality and order…they turn your close friends into the worst enemies until your last resort is to leave the country,” she said.

Sotoudeh, 57, a mother of two, did not leave Iran. After she completed law school in Tehran and successfully passed the bar, she had to wait eight years until she was allowed to appear in court. These were not wasted years for her. Sotoudeh continued her public activities to defend human rights activists, political prisoners, writers and artists who were persecuted by the regime, until she herself was persecuted. In 2010, she was arrested for “activities intended to undermine the regime in Iran,” after she took part in huge demonstrations in the country protesting mass fraud in the 2009 presidential elections, in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected. The court sentenced her to 11 years in prison and banned her from her profession and from leaving the country for 20 years. She filed an appeal and her sentence was reduced to six years and the ban on practicing law and foreign travel was reduced to 10 years.

The heavy punishment did not deter this courageous woman. She continued to do what she saw as a professional and humanitarian mission, and so, in 2018, she found herself in jail again for “harming national security,” after she represented women who were accused of harming morals by removing their head coverings. In 2019 she was sentenced to seven years in prison (according to another version, 10 years and 148 lashes). On August 11 this year she launched a hunger strike, not her first, demanding to release political prisoners and in protest against the harsh prison conditions. Her relatives are worried about her health; international human rights groups, heads of state and public figures have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to pressure the Iranian authorities into releasing her immediately. The usual Iranian response, both with regard to Sotoudeh and similar requests about other political prisoners, is that these prisoners have had a fair and legal trial in which their guilt has been proven and so they should not be treated any differently than “regular” prisoners. But in fact, 10,000 criminal prisoners received early release last year, approved by the government due to fear of the spread of the coronavirus in the prisons.

Sotoudeh can perhaps take comfort in the fact that her fate is better than that of Navid Afkari, 27, a professional wrestler convicted of murdering a security official during demonstrations in the city of Shiraz in 2018, and executed Saturday. Afkari proclaimed his innocence. In that case as well, international pressure, including that of U.S. President Donald Trump, failed to persuade the Iranian authorities to vacate Afkari’s death penalty.

According to an unofficial count, Iran has executed 123 people this year, and the number is believed to be much higher. The death penalty in Iran is based on Islamic law, and in this Iran is no different than Saudi Arabia, where Islamic law is the constitution and thus it imposes heavy punishments, including the death penalty, as a deterrent against opponents of the regime.

The great frustration is that the countries that impose the death penalty, or where human rights activists are murdered, can continue these practices because of their economic or strategic importance to the West. Reports by the U.S. State Department on human rights internationally only receive attention in countries that are dependent on American aid, and the fate of imprisoned activists are of passing interest only after they die or are executed.

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