Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent writer, human rights lawyer and activist, was abruptly re-arrested on June 13, 2018, and taken to Evin prison. Her arrest came shortly after her legal support and advocacy for women who were facing charges for peacefully protesting Iran’s compulsory hijab law, including criticism of Iranian judicial procedures limiting defendants’ access to a lawyer in security-related cases. The charges against her were initially unclear, though later revealed to be for “propaganda against the state and assembly and collusion to act against national security.” She was tried in absentia on December 30, 2018 and in March 2019 was convicted of several charges but has not yet received either the verdict or details of the sentence in writing. She could face a total sentence of up to 34 years in prison.

Sotoudeh is the winner of the 2011 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and a co-winner of the European Parliament’s 2012 Sakharov Prize. She had previously been released from Evin Prison on September 18, 2013.

CASE BACKGROUND

Nasrin Sotoudeh is well-known for taking on high-profile political cases. She began her activism in 1991 as the only female writer for the nationalist-religious publication Daricheh Goftegoo; one of her first projects was to prepare a series of interviews, reports, and articles on Iranian women to mark International Women’s Day, all of which her editor refused to run. After completing her Master’s Degree in International Law at Shahid Beheshti University, Sotoudeh passed the bar exam in 1995 but was not permitted to practice law for another eight years. She concentrated on journalism instead, writing for several reformist newspapers, including Jame’e.

When Sotoudeh was finally granted a law license in 2003, she specialized in women’s and children’s rights while continuing to write articles addressing these issues. Her clients have included women’s rights activists, among them the organizers of the grassroots, door-to-door One Million Signatures Campaign; journalists such as Eisa Sharkhiz; politicians such as Hashmat Tabarzadi, head of Iran’s banned opposition group the Democratic Front; and legal colleagues such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. She has represented many Iranian opposition activists arrested in the crackdown following the June 12, 2009, presidential elections.

She has also boldly defended prisoners sentenced to death for crimes committed while they were under 18. Sotoudeh has recently worked as a defense attorney for women charged with violating Iran’s compulsory veiling law. During an outbreak of protests in December 2017 and January 2018, a number of women participating in the Girls of Revolution Street Protest were arrested for removing their headscarves in public to demonstrate against the mandatory dress code. Article 638 of Iran’s penal code mandates that women who appear in public places or roads without wearing the hijab will be sentenced to prison time, corporal punishment, or fines.

In addition to defending women who were arrested for protesting Iran’s compulsory hijab law, Sotoudeh is also known for her criticism of the judiciary’s decision to force detainees facing politically motivated charges to choose their counsel from a list of lawyers approved by the judiciary. She criticized the new amendment, indicating that it ‘not only undermines due process rights, it also undermines lawyers’ independence.’

Officials from all over the world, including the United States and the EU, have called for Sotoudeh’s release. PEN America and other international and Iranian non-governmental organizations have called the arrest an attack on freedom of speech and human rights activism.

CASE UPDATES 

March 11, 2019: According to reports, Nasrin Sotoudeh tells her husband, Reza Khandan, she is sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes and that it should be reported as such although the sentence may be reduced later. The Iranian media initially reports that she is sentenced to seven years in prison, quoting a statement of an Iranian judge. Khandan further tells to the CHRI that her sentence is based on seven different charges mentioned below.

March 5, 2019: Sotoudeh is reportedly convicted on multiple charges but her sentence in writing has not been issued yet. According to news reports, the charges for which she has been convicted are not yet clear, but the charges she was facing since her arrest in June 2018 could result in imprisonment up to 34 years and 148 lashes. These charges are, “assembly and collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” “membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center, the Legam group [against capital punishment], and the National Peace Council,” “encouraging corruption and prostitution,” “appearing at the judiciary without Islamic hijab,” “disturbing public peace and order” and “publishing falsehoods with the intent to disturb public opinion.”

January 22, 2019: Sotoudeh’s husband Reza Khandan and another activist, Farhad Meysami, are sentenced to six years in prison and banned from leaving the country or engaging in online activities for two years for protesting the mandatory hijab law in Iran. They are both convicted of “assembly and collusion against national security” and “propaganda against the state.” Khandan tells the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) that they were sentenced unlawfully in the absence of a public trial and without due process.

December 30, 2018: Sotoudeh is reportedly tried in absentia in Tehran. She allegedly refuses to appear in court because she is denied the right to choose her own lawyer and wanted to protest the unjust judicial process.

December 28, 2018: Reza Khandan, Sotoudeh’s husband, is released on bail.

December 13, 2018: The European Parliament adopts a resolution by 552 votes in favor, and 6 against, with 38 abstentions, calling on Iranian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Sotoudeh, to “ensure the right of all defendants to a legal counsel of their choice in all court cases without undue limitations, and to a fair trial, in line with Iran’s international commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” as well as “ensure the due process rights of all citizens detained in Iran and to grant them a fair trial.”

September 4, 2018: Reza Khandan, Sotoudeh’s husband, is arrested and taken to the Office of the Prosecutor in Tehran’s Evin Prison, where he is charged with “spreading propaganda against the system” and “colluding to commit crimes against national security,” after posting several updates about his wife’s June 2018 arrest online.

August 2018: Three agents from Iran’s Intelligence Ministry raid her family’s home while her children are asleep, as well as the house of her sister-in-law. “They came into the house at eight in the morning when the kids were sleeping and turned everything upside down,” Sotoudeh’s husband told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI). “They took away some things, like pins that had ‘I’m Against Forced Hijab’ written on them.” 

This kind of harassment has intensified since her arrest in June: the raid was one prime example of the ways the government has tried to intimidate Sotoudeh’s family and supporters. In response to her arrest and the continued harassment of her family, Sotoudeh begins a hunger strike in Evin prison.

June 17, 2018: To protest Sotoudeh’s arrest, her husband Reza Khandan and defense lawyers Arash Keykhosravi and Payam Derafshan, as well as several civil rights activists, gathered outside the gates of Evin Prison. Security agents beat the protesters and detained nine of them for several hours. Keykhosravi and Derafshan, as well as two other protesters, “received a lot of injuries,” Khandan reported.

June 13, 2018: Sotoudeh is re-arrested and detained at her home in Tehran, where she is informed she has been sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted in absentia. She had recently criticized the country’s judiciary and was apparently planning a sit-in to protest recent restrictions on defendants’ ability to hire independent lawyers in national security cases when she was arrested, according to news reports. In protest of the new rule, she has reportedly refused to hire a defense attorney for herself. She has also declined to post bail in protest of the charges against her.

Sotoudeh’s husband, Reza Khandan, told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) that she was informed during interrogation that she is charged with “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion” for supposedly colluding with her client, Shaparak Shajarizadeh, at the Kashan courthouse. Ms. Shajarizadeh, one of Sotoudeh’s clients, was arrested for removing her headscarf in public. According to Mr. Khandan, these accusations are completely baseless as Sotoudeh was unable to meet Ms. Shajarizadeh in Kashan when she was arrested because she was in Tehran, 152 miles away. Mr. Khandan also reports that Sotoudeh is considering joining the hijab protests by removing her headscarf in prison to protest her own arrest.

June 2015: Her license to practice law is reinstated.

December 10, 2014: On Human Rights Day and the 50th day of her sit-in, Sotoudeh is again arrested and detained, but released hours later.

October 25, 2014: She is arrested and detained at a demonstration while protesting a recent string of acid attacks against women, and released several hours later.

October 18, 2014: Branch Two of the Lawyers’ Disciplinary Court at the Iranian Bar Association bans Sotoudeh from her law practice for three years. On October 21, Sotoudeh begins a sit-inin front of the Bar Association to protest the ruling banning her from her law practice.

September 18, 2013: She is released from Evin Prison, on the eve of President Rouhani’s first visit to the United States. Previously, Sotoudeh had been released for short visits with her family.

December 4, 2012: Sotoudeh ends her hunger strike after authorities lift the travel ban on her daughter. Her husband reports that she had lived entirely on salt water and sugar water and that her weight had dropped to only 95 pounds. She spent 17 days in solitary confinement as punishment for her hunger strike but was eventually returned to Ward 209 of Evin Prison.

October 17, 2012: Sotoudeh goes on a hunger strike to protest her prison conditions and a travel ban placed on her 12-year-old daughter Mehraveh.

September 2011: An appeals court reduces Sotoudeh’s sentence from 11 years to 6, and her ban from working as a lawyer is reduced from 20 to 10. The ban is later reduced to three years and then nine months. Since nine months of the suspension had already passed by then, her license is effectively reinstated.

January 9, 2011: Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court sentences Sotoudeh to a total of 11 years in prison—one year for “spreading lies against the state,” five years for “acting against national security,” and another five years for “cooperating with the Center for Human Rights Defenders.” The court also bans her from practicing law and from leaving the country for 20 years after leaving prison.

September 4, 2010: She is summoned to special court at Evin prison, and arrested on charges of “spreading lies against the state,” “cooperating with the Center of Human Rights Defenders,” and “conspiracy to disturb order.” She was denied access to her lawyer and was restricted family visits for the first several months of her detention. Iran’s Secretary of the High Council for Human Rights, Mohammad Javad Larijani, claimed that Sotoudeh’s prosecution was not “due to her being a lawyer,” but because of her interviews in defense of her clients who had been arrested during the June 2009 crackdown, which Larijani labeled as “propaganda against the state.” In addition to the charge for interviews she gave with the media, she is believed to have been charged for a recorded acceptance speech, never shown in Iran, thanking the International Human Rights Organization of Italy for awarding her its Human Rights Prize in 2008, during which she did not wear a headscarf. Sotoudeh was barred from leaving Iran to accept the award personally.

August 29, 2010: Security officers raid Sotoudeh’s home, confiscating several of her files and documents.

FREE EXPRESSION IN IRAN

Iran is among the world’s worst free expression offenders. Hundreds of journalists are currently imprisoned on politically-motivated charges in Iran alongside scores of other writers, bloggers, artists, human rights defenders, and other political prisoners. President Hassan Rouhani pledged to initiate liberal reforms and to improve Iran’s free speech record during his election campaign but has thus far failed to deliver positive results. Iran remains notorious for a judicial system completely lacking in transparency, which is guilty of numerous arbitrary arrests and one of the world’s highest rates of capital punishment. Human rights organizations report that political prisoners are often kept in solitary confinement, restricted from connecting with their families for long periods of time.

IN THEIR WORDS

After her release from Evin Prison in 2013, Sotoudeh said to The New Yorker, “I was released but I was not freed. For me, this sort of freedom is meaningless when my friends are still in prison.”

During her first imprisonment, Sotoudeh wrote a letter to her husband, which he shared 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.”