PEN American Center, the U.S. chapter of the worldwide human rights and literary organization, has announced that Iranian writer, attorney, and women’s and children’s rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh, presently serving an 11-year prison sentence and banned from the practice of law for an additional 20 years, is the recipient of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. The award — named for its founder and sponsor, author and historian Barbara Goldsmith — was established in 1987 to honor an “international literary figure who has been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression.”

Sotoudeh, born in 1963, received a master’s in international law from Shahid Behshti University in 1989. Two years later, she was one of the founding editorial board members and contributors to the nationalist-religious monthly Daricheh Goftegoo. For International Women’s Day that year, she organized a collection of articles by and interviews with leading Iranian female activists, which the magazine’s editor-in-chief refused to run.

She passed the bar in 1995 but did not receive a license to practice law for another eight years. In the interim, she focused on journalism, contributing to many reformist periodicals, including Jame’eh, Toos, Sobh-e Emrooz, Abaan, Nameh, and Jomhouriat. After she was finally granted her law license in 2003, she became an active member of the Center for the Defense of Human Rights and the Society for the Protection of the Rights of Children.

Among the first to join the Campaign for One Million Signatures, dedicated to the abolition of laws that discriminate against Iranian women, she represented many of its members who were arrested, such as Nahid Keshavarz and Nasim Khosravi. Her many other clients have included journalists such as Isa Saharkhiz, student activists such as Atefeh Nabavi, opposition leaders such as Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi. She also represented Arash Rahmanipour, who was convicted of supposed anti-state offenses committed when he was a minor and eventually put to death in violation of international law. In 2008, she was awarded the Human Rights Prize by the International Human Rights Organization of Italy, but was barred from leaving the country to accept the honor. In the run-up to the June 2009 presidential election, she helped found the Coalition of Women’s Rights Movement and brought women’s demands to the attention of the candidates.

Sotoudeh, a mother of two, was first arrested in June 2008 among a group of female activists preparing to attend a commemoration of a national day of solidarity for Iranian women. She was briefly detained and then tried the following February for disturbing the peace. No sentence was announced.

Last August, security forces raided her home and office and her assets were frozen. In September, she was summoned to Tehran’s Evin Prison and arrested on an array of charges including “propaganda against the state” and “cooperating with the Center for the Defense of Human Rights.” She was denied bail, access to her lawyer, and the right to family visits. In response to her treatment, on October 6 she began the first of at least three hunger strikes that have lasted as long as three weeks.

On January 9, the Revolutionary Court sentenced Sotoudeh to 11 years in prison — one year on the propaganda charge and a decade for “acting against national security” and “violating hejab in a filmed speech.” The additional 20-year ban on practicing law also bars her from traveling outside the country once her sentence is complete. She remains in Evin Prison, held in Ward 209, which is under the control of the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Intelligence. She is reportedly kept in solitary confinement for much of the time and is in ill health.

Our columnist Muhammad Sahimi wrote extensively about Nasrin Sotoudeh last November. Following is an excerpted, edited version of that piece. — Dan Geist

Nasrin Sotoudeh Langroudi was born in 1963 in Tehran to a middle-class family, with one sister and two brothers. Her father was a businessman and her mother a homemaker. Her parents, particularly her mother, were very religious. Sotoudeh has said that although her mother was deeply faithful and had no advanced education, she allowed her children to explore religion for themselves and form their own ideas. Sotoudeh, it turned out, was strongly influenced by her mother’s example and still considers herself a religious woman.

After graduating from high school, Sotoudeh passed the national entrance examination and was admitted to Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran. She received a master’s degree in international law in 1989. While a university student, she was influenced by the work of the Nationalist-Religious Coalition (NRC), a group opposed to the hardliners. The NRC is composed of several Islamic leftist groups that opposed the Shah. Several of its leading figures were cabinet members of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan (1907-95), formed after the Shah’s regime was toppled. When Islamic leftist students overran the United States Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, Bazargan and his cabinet resigned, and the NRC joined the opposition. The group is currently led by such longtime political figures as Ezatollah Sahabi and Dr. Habibollah Payman.


Beginning in 1991, Sotoudeh and some of her like-minded nationalist-religious friends began publishing Daricheh Goftegoo (Conversation Hatch), a monthly magazine that quickly became very popular. She was the only woman on the eight-member editorial board. Secular leftists were involved in Daricheh as well. The two groups were linked by a common thread: opposition to the hardliners. Sotoudeh was in charge of the pages reporting on social developments. As the magazine grew in popularity, it began exploring subjects hitherto taboo in the Islamic Republic and emphasizing the idiomatically Iranian aspects of the lives of those it profiled and interviewed — such as Bazargan and Payman — rather than the exclusively religious aspects favored by the regime. While working at Daricheh, Sotoudeh also met her future husband, Reza Khandan. They were married in 1994 and have an 11-year-old daughter, Mehraveh, and a three-year-old son, Nima.

According to Sotoudeh, she was struck from an early age by the patriarchal culture of the workplace. So she began talking about women’s rights. For International Women’s Day on March 8, 1991, she put together a collection of articles by Shirin Ebadi (the 2003 Nobel Laureate for Peace) and Mehrangiz Kar, two leading female attorneys, as well as interviews with Noush Afarin Ansari and Parvaneh Eskandari, who would later be killed along with her husband, Dariush Forouhar, as part of the Chain Murders. But Daricheh’s editor decided against publishing the collection, which made Sotoudeh even more determined to fight for women’s rights.

Sotoudeh passed the bar exam in 1995. But it was not until eight years later that she received her license to practice law. The reason? Like everything else in Iran, the process of obtaining such a license is politicized. The Ministry of Intelligence was opposed to allowing Sotoudeh to practice law due to her connection with the Nationalist-Religious Coalition. She credits Farideh Gheyrat, a leading attorney representing some of the best-known political prisoners, with helping her obtain her license.

The 1990s witnessed two opposing trends. On the one hand, as memories of the war with Iraq receded, there was an expansion of political freedom that allowed Daricheh; Iran-e Farda, published by Ezatollah Sahabi, leader of the Nationalist-Religious Coalition; Kian, published by followers of the distinguished Islamic scholar Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush; and the daily Salaam, published by leftist Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha to appear. In the same era, on the other hand, the secret murder of dissidents and intellectuals — which came to be known as the Chain Murders in autumn 1998 — was taking place. The Ministry of Intelligence, led by the notorious cleric Ali Fallahian, kept summoning journalists, intellectuals, and dissidents to its headquarters and warning them about their activities. The staff of Daricheh was no exception.

A worried Sotoudeh consequently prepared a pamphlet about the rights of political detainees and prisoners. Titled Political Offense, it described the legal procedures for detaining and interrogating political activists and their rights while in custody. It emphasized that, according to Article 168 of the Constitution, a political dissident can be put on trial only with an impartial jury and in a court open to the public. As Sotoudeh herself once said, the very first people who could have benefited from the pamphlets were, ironically, the gang of intelligence agents detained for the Chain Murders.

With the dawn of the Khatami presidency in 1997, the Tehran Spring also arrived, an era with a relatively free press. Sotoudeh began contributing to and writing for other leading reformist dailies and weeklies of that era. She contributed an article about the rights of women to Jame’eh, which followed by an important article, “Political Crimes in the Law and Criminology,” in the same daily in 1998. She also published many articles in Toos, Sobh-e Emrooz, Abaan, and Nameh. The first two were closed in April 2000 after an angry speech by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in which he accused the reformist newspapers of being under foreign influence or outright foreign agents. Her other important articles included “Chain Murders in Iran” and “International Women’s Day and Iran’s Law,” in Abaan in 1999, and “Women’s Rights, before and after the Revolution,” in Nameh, “Who is Responsible for Children Rights?” in Abaan, and “Women’s Rights in Constitutional Laws: Japan, Russia, United States of America, Bulgaria, and Iran,” in Jomhouriat, all in 2004.

Gradually, Sotoudeh expanded her activities. After receiving her license to practice law in 2003 and influenced by Ebadi’s work, she joined the Center for the Defense of Human Rights, which Ebadi had founded. Members of the Center, including many prominent attorneys, defend political prisoners on a pro bono basis. She also joined the Society for the Protection of the Rights of Children and for two years was a member of its board of directors. She was one of the first to join the Campaign for One Million Signatures (CFOMS), a movement dedicated to the abolition of discriminatory laws against Iranian women, and became one of its most active members. When leading members of the Campaign were arrested, it was Sotoudeh who represented them. Indeed, the fact that women knew that if they were arrested, Sotoudeh would be their advocate gave many the inspiration and confidence to join the Campaign.

There was to be a gathering to commemorate the national day of solidarity of Iranian women on June 12, 2008, in Tehran. As Sotoudeh and eight other woman activists were preparing to attend, they were arrested by security forces. Sotoudeh was held in custody for a day. Many other women were arrested at the gathering itself, which was held in 7th Tir Square. Sotoudeh, Ebadi, and Leila Ali-Karami represented them in court. On February 13, 2009, Sotoudeh herself was put on trial, accused of disturbing the public and disobeying the police. Her sentence has yet to be announced.

Not long before, Sotoudeh had been awarded the Human Rights Prize, given by the International Human Rights Organization of Italy. The award ceremony took place in Mirano on December 10, 2008, anniversary of the adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. But as Sotoudeh was departing Tehran to receive her award, her passport was confiscated and she was barred from leaving the country. Her husband received the honor on her behalf. Her speech accepting the award was recorded and released.

One question that many ask is, Why does the Islamic Republic allow some dissidents to leave the country, while barring the travel of others? The answer is clear. Most, if not all, well-known dissidents that have been arrested have been told that they can get their passports and leave the country, provided that they do not return. Some have taken the offer and left. Others have refused. Those that turn down the offer are not allowed to travel abroad because the hardliners do not want the dissidents to describe the terrible political situation in Iran and the plight of political prisoners to foreign audiences and then return. The hardliners are scared, fearful that such dissidents will become living heroes among the people of Iran.

Sotoudeh was also very involved in the presidential election of June 2009. She helped form the Coalition of Women’s Rights Movement, participated actively in the election campaign to raise people’s awareness about women’s demands, and conveyed them to the four candidates. After the rigged election, she demonstrated her commitment to citizens’ right to elect whomever they want by supporting the Green Coalition of Women’s Rights Movement. All these activities angered the hardliners, eventually resulting in her arrest.

The list of people represented by Sotoudeh is a Who’s Who of Iranian human rights advocates, journalists, and political figures. She has represented Nobel Laureate Ebadi; Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, former university student activist, political dissident, and leader of the banned Democratic Front of Iranian people; journalists Isa Saharkhiz, Kayvan Samimi, Mohammad Sedigh Kaboodvand (a Kurdish human rights activist as well), and Omid Memarian, who now lives in the United States.

She has also represented many participants in the women’s rights movement, such as journalist and Kurdish human rights activist Dr. Roya Toloui; journalist and human rights activist Farnaz Seifi; writer and human rights advocate Mansoureh Shojaee; Talat Taghinia; Parvin Ardalan; journalist, community rights activist and CFOMS member Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani; human rights advocate and CFOMS member Khadijeh Moghaddam and her husband, Ali Akbar Khosrowshahi; journalist Maryam Hosseinkhah; Jelveh Javaheri; human rights activist Nahid Keshavarz; CFOMS members Raheleh Asgarizadeh and Nasim Khosravi; Mahboubeh Hosseinzadeh; university student and CFOMS member Amir Yaghoub-Ali; Delaram Ali; CFOMS member Nahid Jafari; former university student activist Somayeh Farid; and university student activist Atefeh Nabavi.

Sotoudeh also represented Arash Rahmanipour, who was executed in January 2010 at the age of 19 on trumped-up charges of moharebeh (warring against God) and plotting to overthrow the regime. Even if Rahmanipour committed any actual offense, he was but 17 when he was arrested. It was Sotoudeh who revealed information about his unconscionable condition in jail.
NasrinSotoudehApr.jpgSotoudeh has also represented the families of Ahmad Nejati Kargar and Meysam Ebadi, who were killed by security forces in the aftermath of the fraudulent 2009 election.

On September 5, 2010, Sotoudeh was arrested and incarcerated in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. Before her arrest, she had been repeatedly threatened with imprisonment if she did not quit representing Ebadi in her dispute with the judiciary. She has been accused of acting against national security and disseminating propaganda against the political system. The judiciary has also claimed that Sotoudeh’s membership in the Center for the Defense of Human Rights is an offense. The allegations are baseless.

Denied bail and prevented from seeing even her own family members, Sotoudeh began a hunger strike on October 6. Her health deteriorated with each passing day. Many leading political figures, human rights advocates and dissidents, including her close friend and colleague Shirin Ebadi, called on her to stop her hunger strike. Finally, on October 26, Sotoudeh ended the strike. Six days later, however, she went on another dry hunger strike, which she ended on November 10. [Joined by several other political prisoners, she went on hunger strike a third time in December.]

Sotoudeh had made it clear that she was ready to be arrested, because it would subject her to conditions similar to those suffered by her clients. Her only “offense” is defending the political prisoners and working to protect their rights.