New York City, April 28, 2011—Salman Rushdie, E. L. Doctorow, Michael Ondaatje, and Jhumpa Lahiri were among the more than 570 PEN luminaries and supporters joining PEN American Center last night in honoring Nasrin Sotoudeh, one of Iran’s most courageous lawyers who is serving an 11-year prison sentence, with the 2011 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award at its annual Literary Gala at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi accepted the award on Sotoudeh’s behalf, calling her “a symbol of the free women of Iran.”

While the award presentation highlighted the ongoing suppression of freedom of expression in Iran and the country’s role in the uprisings in the region, the focus was on Nasrin Sotoudeh herself, a rights lawyer who has also worked as a journalist. She was praised repeatedly throughout the evening as an example of courage in the face of severe restrictions and disregard for the rule of law. Barbara Goldsmith, founder and patron of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, read a letter from Sotoudeh’s husband, Reza Khandan, which arrived mere hours before the ceremony. In it, he described her conditions in prison, noting that on March 17, 2011, prison officials confiscated her only writing instrument. Khandan said that now, according to the current court’s sentence, “she will be without a pen for nearly 4000 days.”

“We will honor and record the day of March 17, 2011, in our history, so that our children will remember the dedication and sacrifice of all those around the world for the freedom to write,” Khandan concluded.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, who is 47 and the mother of two young children, 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 Behshti University, Sotoudeh passed the bar exam in 1995 but was not permitted to practice law for another eight years, and so she concentrated on journalism instead, writing for several reformist newspapers, including Jame’e. When she 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 Isa Sharkhiz; political activists such as Hashmat Tabarzadi, head of Iran’s banned opposition group the Democratic Front; and Shirin Ebadi herself. She has also represented prisoners sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were minors and many Iranian opposition activists arrested in the crackdown following the June 12, 2009 presidential elections.

On August 29, 2010, security officers raided Sotoudeh’s home and office, confiscating several of her files and documents. Authorities also froze her assets. On September 4, 2010, she was summoned to the special court in Evin prison and arrested on charges of “spreading lies against the state,” “cooperating with the Center for 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.

On January 9, 2011, Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court sentenced Sotoudeh to a total of 11 years in prison— one year for “spreading lies against the regime,” five years for “acting against national security,” and another five years for “cooperating with the Center for Human Rights Defenders.” The court also banned her from practicing law and from traveling outside the country for 20 years, a term that begins after her release from prison and that for all intents and purposes confines her to Iran and bars her from her profession for life.

Sotoudeh has gone on several hunger strikes since her arrest, refusing even water during one 11-day stretch, to protest her detention and ill-treatment inside Evin Prison. She has reportedly lost a considerable amount of weight and is in poor health. She is being held in Ward 209 of Evin Prison, where she has spent much of the time in solitary confinement. Sotoudeh has dropped her appeal after being told that the verdict would be upheld, and has threatened to go on yet another hunger strike.

On the eve of the award presentation, PEN American Center sent a letter to Iranian authorities, expressing its concern for Sotoudeh’s well-being in prison and promising a steady stream of advocacy on her behalf, stating “We…wish to remind you that in this time where governments are increasingly being held to account for the way in which they treat their own citizens, the world is watching her case closely.

In accepting the award on Sotoudeh’s behalf, Shirin Ebadi recounted Sotoudeh’s legal ordeal and paid tribute to her husband and two small children. “My dear colleague was very eager to send her personal message tonight. However, in prison, she is even deprived of prisoners’ rights. She is being treated worse than a murderer and could not send her message,” she said.

“In light of the above I proudly accept the prize on her behalf and thank all of those who respect freedom of expression, not only in their own country, but all over the world,” Ebadi concluded.

PEN American Center is the largest of the 145 centers of International PEN, the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization. The Freedom to Write Program of PEN American Center works to protect the freedom of the written word wherever it is imperiled. It defends writers and journalists from all over the world who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted, or attacked in the course of carrying out their profession. For more information on PEN’s work, please visit

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