I last spoke with Nasrin Sotoudeh in February, when she was defending young women arrested during the so-called Girls of Revolution Street Protest. Female protesters had been hauled off the streets for daring to take off their hijabs—head coverings required by law in Iran—and waving them at the end of a stick, like a flag of liberation. Their hair hung free. Early protesters appeared, symbolically, on the Tehran thoroughfare renamed for the country’s revolution, in 1979, adding a subtle double-entendre to the new women’s crusade. The protest was all the more striking because they acted individually, not en masse, making them more vulnerable to arrest. The women were charged with “a sinful act” and “violating public prudency” as well as “encouraging immorality or prostitution.” The charges carried sentences of up to a decade in prison.
“This is a civil-disobedience movement,” Sotoudeh, a tiny woman with a steely authority in her voice, told me by phone at the time. “Women know what the laws of the land say about hijab, and, based on that, they chose to protest.” The protest overlapped with economic unrest, in December and January, that swept thirty of Iran’s thirty-one provinces. The twin movements reflected growing public discontent over core issues in the Islamic Republic, from individual freedoms to high unemployment.
Defending human-rights activists is one of the riskiest jobs in Iran. On Wednesday, Sotoudeh was abruptly roused from her home and arrested. Security officials informed her that she had been convicted—in absentia—and sentenced to five years, her husband, Reza Khandan, announced on Facebook. She was hauled away to the notorious Evin Prison.
Sotoudeh, the mother of children now ages eleven and eighteen, became Iran’s most famous political prisoner during her first stint in Evin. In 2011, she was convicted of conspiring against state security and spreading propaganda after defending protesters arrested during the Green Movement uprising, in 2009. She was sentenced to eleven years, later reduced to six. Much of it she spent in solitary confinement. Sotoudeh went on two hunger strikes—the longest lasting forty-nine days—to protest prison conditions. For her “defense of human rights and freedom of thought,” the European Parliament awarded her the 2012 Sakharov Prize. She was pardoned after three years, shortly before the newly elected President, Hassan Rouhani, was due to speak at the United Nations, in 2013. Her jail stint didn’t silence her.
“I was released, but I was not freed,” she told me, when I visited her in Tehran a few months later. “For me, this sort of freedom is meaningless when my friends are still in prison.”
Sotoudeh was arrested on Wednesday shortly after announcing plans for a sit-in to protest a new government rule that restricts the rights of activists and dissidents from hiring an independent lawyer. In Tehran—home to eight million people and the country’s most politically active city—defendants in national-security cases must choose from one of only twenty lawyers pre-approved by the state.
“She was detained to prevent her from holding this public protest,” Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, which is based in New York, told me. “Her arrest was Orwellian, as the agents carrying it out claimed she has a five-year sentence in a case that has been decided in secret. She and her husband have no idea of when this prosecution took place, under what charges, and based on what evidence. That is an unbelievable miscarriage of justice.”
On Thursday, the State Department condemned Iran for the arrest and noted that the Treasury Department sanctioned Evin Prison last month. “We applaud Ms. Sotoudeh’s bravery and her fight for the long-suffering victims of the regime. We call on Iranian authorities to release her immediately, along with the hundreds of others who are currently imprisoned simply for expressing their views and desires for a better life,” the department spokesperson, Heather Nauert, said, in a statement.
Sotoudeh’s imprisonment, Ghaemi added, “is an ominous sign that the Iranian judiciary is not willing to tolerate any critical voices.” It comes amid a crackdown that largely quashed protests earlier this year over the hijab and unemployment. It also reflects the weakness of President Hassan Rouhani in fulfilling promises to improve individual human rights. His leverage at home has been diminished in part by President Trump’s pledge to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Rouhani staked his Presidency on ending the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program and improving the economy. Hard-liners who either opposed or were skeptical of doing any deal with the United States have gained leverage since Trump vowed to rip up what he called the “worst deal in history.”
“Another blow for Rouhani,” Haleh Esfandiari, the author of “My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran” about her own imprisonment at Evin, in 2007, told me. Sotoudeh’s original release was a concession to Rouhani, who vowed to end Iran’s pariah status. He opened negotiations with the Obama Administration within weeks of his election.
The arrest of Sotoudeh, one of the most important human-rights lawyers in the Middle East, immediately provoked international condemnation. “Iran’s judiciary again has revealed to its citizens and the international community its disdain for and fear of people who seek to protect human rights,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director, said in a statement.
Several other Iranian human-rights lawyers have been picked up as well. Mohammad Najafi faces national-security charges—and potentially years in prison—for alleging to the media that the government covered up the true cause of the jailhouse death of his client, a young protester involved in the recent economic demonstrations, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran. Abdolfattah Soltani, who won the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award, in 2009, is serving a thirteen-year sentence for talking to the press about his clients’ cases and co-founding the Defenders of Human Rights Center. Another lawyer, Hadi Esmaeilzadeh, died in prison, in 2014, during his second stint in jail, also for membership in the same group. Sotoudeh, who once defended Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, is a member of the group as well.
When I first met Sotoudeh, in 2014, a year after her release from prison, she was still banned from practicing law in the court system. She had a modest office, decorated with a poster of Nelson Mandela propped against a window, in her home off a winding alley in north Tehran. Her short hair was hidden under a white hijab scarf. Less than five feet tall, she was feistily defiant.
Sotoudeh was advising cases involving executions of minors and working with colleagues on changing the law that allowed it. One case involved the alleged murder of an eight-year-old boy by a thirteen-year-old girl. The girl was a servant in the home of a man who was reportedly sexually assaulting her, which was witnessed by his young son. The boy threatened to tell his mother. The girl said the man pushed his son, who hit his head and died. The man claimed the two children were alone and the girl pushed him.
“To me, it doesn’t make a difference whether the sexual relationship was willing or not,” Sotoudeh told me. “She was working for him, in his house. She had to be obedient to him. And she was thirteen years old.” The girl had been in prison for twenty years awaiting her execution when Sotoudeh took her case. I asked her, back then, if she thought she would be jailed again. “Definitely. It will start again because they have no other way,” she replied.
Sotoudeh is probably being held in Evin Prison’s Ward 209, which is reserved for political prisoners, Esfandiari, the former prisoner who wrote about her own experience, told me. Esfandiari was held in solitary confinement in a small Ward 209 cell with only two blankets for sleeping—no bed or mattress. She had to get permission from a guard to use the communal toilet near a hallway that was decorated with portraits of the current and previous Supreme Leaders. She was usually taken to the toilet blindfolded. Sotoudeh “is fearless and tough,” Esfandiari, who is now at the Woodrow Wilson Center and lives in Washington, told me. “They can’t intimidate her.”
During her first imprisonment, Sotoudeh wrote a letter to her husband, which he posted on Facebook in 2014. “My dear Reza, everyone ponders about their freedom while in prison,” she reflected. “Although my freedom is also important to me, it is not more important than the justice that has been ignored and denied . . . . Nothing is more important than those hundreds of years of sentences that were rendered to my clients and other freedom-seeking individuals, accused of crimes they had not committed.”
Source » newyorker