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Defenders Under Threat

Nasrin Sotudeh: A Defender Under Threat

Abdorrahman Boroumand Center
Abdorrahman Boroumand Center
May 8, 2019

Ms. Nasrin Sotoudeh is a member of the Bar Association and one of the most prominent Iranian human rights lawyers. She has been a member of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, the One Million Signatures Campaign, the Society for the Defence of Children's Rights, and Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty and has represented numerous human rights defenders, political activists, women's rights activists, journalists, victims of violence against children, and those arrested following the 2009 presidential election. Among her most prominent cases have been the cases of Shirin Ebadi, Isa Saharkhiz, Keyvan Samimi, Mohammad Sadiq Kaboudvand, Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, Parvin Ardalan, and Arash Rahmani Pour. She has also worked with and published in a number of critical publications such as "Daricheh Goftogou". Sotoudeh passed the bar examination in 1995-96 but security officials prevented her from obtaining her license to practice law because of her publications, which were critical of the government. When she finally obtained her license in 2003-04, she represented political activists, jailed journalists, and child victims of violence. She spoke to the media about these cases, raising awareness about her clients' situation.

In 2009, after the widespread protests that followed the presidential election, she represented some of those arrested including Arash Rahmanipour, a young man who was executed on January 28, 2010 on the charge of "waging war on God through membership in the terrorist mini-group Royal Association of Iran". Nasrin Sotoudeh's representation of the those arrested in relation to the protests and criticism of the authorities prompted the security forces to raid her house and office, search them, and confiscate some of her personal belongings, documents, and her clients' case files. She was also summoned to the Office of the Prosecutor in Evin Prison where she was arrested on September 4, 2010. She was held in solitary confinement for months and subjected to interrogations. In January 2011, Tehran Revolutionary Court Branch 26, presided over by Judge Pirabbassi, sentenced Ms. Sotoudeh to 11 years in prison, a 20-year ban from practicing law, and a 20-year ban from leaving the country, on the charges of "conspiracy to commit crimes", "membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center", "propaganda against the regime." The sentence caused an international outcry. She was also sentenced to a monetary fine for "disregarding the Islamic Hejab" in a video message. In September 2012, Tehran Province Court of Appeals reduced Ms. Sotoudeh's sentence to six years in prison, a 10-year ban from leaving the country, and a 10-year ban from practicing law. Sotoudeh went on hunger strikes on several occasions during her time in prison, including for 49 days to protest the travel ban imposed on her 12-year old daughter. On September 18, 2013, in a context of significant international pressure, Iran's judiciary released Nasrin Sotoudeh after three years in prison.

In October 2014, Branch Two of the Disciplinary Court for Lawyers, following a complaint by the Prosecutor of Tehran and under pressures by security bodies, suspended Nasrin Sotoudeh's licence to practice law for three years. It took nine months of peaceful protest outside the building of the Central Bar Association for the court to revise the sentence and reduce her suspension. Nasrin Sotoudeh continued her activism after being released from prison and was arrested a number of times for her civil and human rights activities.
In 2018, following widespread protests across Iran, Nasrin Sotoudeh accepted the case of several young women, commonly known as "the girls of Revolution Street," who had removed their head scarves to protest the compulsory veil (hejab). On June 13, 2018, the authorities arrested Nasrin Sotoudeh apparently to serve a five-year sentence which had been handed down in absentia. A few days after her arrest, Nasrin Sotoudeh told her husband that her arrest was in relation to her representation of  "the girls of Revolution Street" whose trial was about to start.  

In February 2019, Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced Nasrin Sotoudeh to seven years and six months in prison for "assembly and colluding with intent to harm national security", seven years and six months for "membership in the LEGAM ("Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty") campaign, one year and six months for "propaganda against the regime", 12 years for "inciting people to corruption and prostitution", two years for "disturbing the public order", three years and 74 lashes for "spreading lies with intent to create apprehension in the public's mind", and three years and 74 lashes for "appearing in public without the Islamic veil". In an open letter from prison, Nasrin Sotoudeh criticised the unfair proceedings in her case and stated that the accumulation of the sentences against her amounted to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. This included a five-year prison term issued in 2016/2017 in absentia on the charge of "assembly and colluding with intent to harm national security" imposed for her nine-month sit-in outside the Tehran Bar Association in protest of the revocation of her law license. According to Article 134 of the 2013 Islamic Penal Code, in cases of multiple convictions, the harshest sentence, meaning 12 years in her case, is enforceable.  

Ms. Sotoudeh has been the recipient of several international human rights prizes including the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and the Sakharov Prize.