Each week leading up to the PEN Literary Gala and the conferrence of the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award on May 5, PEN will feature the story of a previous winner. The Freedom to Write Award is awarded each year to an imprisoned writer who has made significant contributions and endured personal sacrifice in the service of free expression. Thirty-five of the 38 writers who were in prison at the time they won the award have been freed, including this week’s featured winner, Nasrin Sotoudeh.

From the very beginning of her career, Nasrin Sotoudeh has carried out a tireless fight for human rights in Iran, most notably for women’s and children’s rights, but also for those struggling against the political status quo. It is this commitment to justice that landed her in prison in 2010, but which also earned her a place at the head of PEN’s table as one of our most esteemed colleagues.

Sotoudeh, a mother of two, is a lawyer and a journalist. She began what would become a lifelong pursuit for women’s rights with a diverse collection of interviews, reports, and articles for the journal Daricheh Goftegoo, where she was the only female writer. Her editor rejected them all. Though she passed the bar exam in 1995, Sotoudeh was denied her law license for eight years because of opposition from the Ministry of Intelligence. She continued her journalistic work, writing for several reformist newspapers on the subject of women’s and children’s rights.

As a lawyer, Sotoudeh’s clients have included women’s rights activists like the organizers of the grassroots, door-to-door One Million Signatures Campaign, political activists, journalists, fellow lawyers, and prisoners sentenced to death for crimes they committed as minors. She also defended many Iranian opposition activists arrested in the crackdown following the June 12, 2009 presidential elections—the cause that would ultimately lead to her arrest and 11-year prison sentence.

Iran’s official in charge of human rights attributed Sotoudeh’s prosecution to interviews she gave in defense of her activist clients, deemed “propaganda against the state”—a violation of her right to free expression. On January 29, 2011, Sotoudeh was sentenced to a total of 11 years in prison, reduced to six years on appeal.

Sotoudeh continued her activism in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, going on several hunger strikes to protest her detention and ill-treatment, as well as the collective punishment that reached her own family. Several times she put her life at risk, dangerously dropping to a mere 95 pounds when the government began targeting her daughter. With this, the government relented.

It is this unyielding spirit that made her an ideal candidate for the 2011 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. For her part, Sotoudeh sees her struggle as absolutely necessary: “I know you require water, food, housing, a family, parents, love, and visits with your mother,” she wrote to her children from prison. “However, just as much, you need freedom, social security, the rule of law, and justice. Please be aware that these concepts have not been easily achieved anywhere in the world… our insistence on the rule of law is what brings a law into existence.”

We were thrilled when Sotoudeh was released from prison early, on September 18, 2013, on the eve of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s first visit to the United States. She had been released for short visits with her family several times before, but this time, she said, “When they took me out of prison, they told me, ‘You are free.’”

Still, Sotoudeh remains a target of the government. In late March 2014, she received an illegal summons to the Iran Intelligence Ministry while on vacation with her family. She ignored it and went horseback riding instead.

It is clear that while in prison, Iranian authorities did not break Nasrin Sotoudeh, as they might have hoped. She remains an active, formidable force for justice. For that, we at PEN salute her, and we continue to support her in her struggle.

Jailed lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh’s Letter to Her Daughter
Sotoudeh’s Interview with MSNBC
Nasrin Sotoudeh’s Message
Hanging of Juveniles Under the Age of 18 in Iran

Execution of Minors and Soghra’s file

Read PEN Canada’s interview with Dr. Abdol-Karim Lahidji, who accepted an honorary doctorate from York University on behalf of Nasrin Sotoudeh
Read PBS Frontline’s profile of Nasrin Sotoudeh
Read Shirin Ebadi’s The Guardian piece, “The Riskiest Job in Iran”