With A Defiant Smile - A Portrait of Nasrin Sotoudeh

Nasrin Sotoudeh is a world famous human rights lawyer from Iran.

Nasrin Sotoudeh is among the most prominent human rights lawyers in Iran. She is the recipient of many very prestigious awards in the field of human rights, including the 2012 European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which she shared with the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, and the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Known for her membership in the women’s rights Campaign for Equality [1] and her work defending women’s rights activists, minors on death row, journalists, Kurdish rights activists and other human rights lawyers, including the Nobel prize winner Shirin Ebadi, she is a national hero to many Iranians.

Prior to the 2009 elections, Sotoudeh was actively involved in the Iranian Women’s Coalition formed to pursue women’s rights in Iran. In the aftermath of the rigged election process and the ensuing massive protests, she defended the families of those killed by the security forces. Her home and office were raided, and in September 2010 she was arrested.

In January 2011, she was sentenced to 11 years in prison on charges of "propaganda against the system," and "acting against national security," and for her membership in the NGO The Defenders of Human Rights Centre. Following persistent calls for her release from the UN, governments, and NGOs around the world, including FIDH, her sentence was reduced to six years, to be spent in the notorious Evin prison. While in prison, she was handcuffed and brought before a tribunal that was to decide whether she would also be banned from practising law. The scene prompted incumbent FIDH President Karim Lahidji to voice his outrage, saying, “They handcuffed the hands that deserve to be kissed.” In a recent interview with FIDH, Sotoudeh said that when her husband informed her of Lahidji’s comment, it gave her strength.

Freed from Evin, Sotoudeh carries on her work

In 2013, after three years in prison, Sotoudeh was unexpectedly released, without explanation from the authorities. During her incarceration, she spent time in solitary confinement and went on several hunger strikes in protest of the inhumane prison conditions and the 2012 travel ban imposed on her husband and young daughter. One of the hunger strikes lasted 49 days and resulted in her losing 95 pounds. Upon her release, despite her weakened physical state, Sotoudeh got right back to work fighting for the respect for human rights in Iran.

Since then she has reactivated the Professional Women Lawyers Association and the Children’s Rights Committee, both of which she had helped found before her imprisonment. However, she has been spending much of her energy on a new campaign she helped launch to abolish the death penalty in Iran, called Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty (LEGAM). The initiative focuses on amending Iranian legislation to gradually reduce and eventually abolish the use of the death penalty.

Sotoudeh’s work fighting the death penalty is especially important as the use of the death penalty has been on the rise again over the past few years. The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty reported 721 executions in Iran in 2014, compared with 624 executions in 2013 and 580 in 2012. The number of executions in 2015 is expected to be even higher. [2]

The death penalty is familiar ground for Sotoudeh. In 2007, when Sotoudeh was pregnant with her second child, she took on the case of a 15-year old boy named Sina, who had been condemned to death on murder charges. As all legal options had already been exhausted, Sotoudeh turned to the media, making numerous public appeals to prevent Sina’s execution. Her efforts enabled Sina’s family to raise enough money to save the boy from the death penalty. [3] However, Sotoudeh explains that most cases of minors on death row do not finish on such a positive note. She considers the cases in which she defended minors condemned to death to have been the most traumatic experiences of her career.

Until recently, her ability to push for legislative reforms remained greatly limited due to the Iran Bar Association’s October 2014 decision to suspend her license to practice law for a period of three years. The decision was issued under pressure from the Judiciary. In protest, Sotoudeh staged daily sit-ins in front of the Bar Association’s offices in Tehran. Her perseverance and that of her supporters finally paid off when, on 23 June 2015, Sotoudeh was informed that the Bar Association had revised the ban and reduced it to a period of nine months. Since nine months had already passed since the suspension was issued, Sotoudeh declared that she would be applying to renew her license. In an interview with Iranwire after the 2015 ruling, she reiterated her intention to defend Iranian dissidents deprived of their civil rights, saying: “Whatever decision these citizens take to protest the loss of their rights, I shall be with them as a lawyer and a civil rights activist. If they decide to pursue the matter on the judicial level, I shall be fully honoured to do it. If they decide to engage in civil protest, I shall accompany them.”

A force for freedom of expression

When asked how she became a human rights defender, Sotoudeh says that as a lawyer, she was forced to make a choice: “When a lawyer witnesses unfair trials, when a lawyer witnesses the execution of minors, either they must turn their back or they must face up to the problem they are witnessing. I think I entered the field of human rights on the day I decided not to avoid such issues.”

Sotoudeh seeks to change Iran from the inside, by arguing cases and convincing others that protecting human rights is necessary. As she said recently regarding the conflict with the Iran Bar Association: “The channel for negotiations should never be closed. However, there are prerequisites for negotiations. If they are fulfilled, we should welcome such negotiations. If not, we should not insist only on negotiations. We should use civil action to persuade the other party to engage in negotiations.”

And so she continues to fearlessly express her opinion. In a brief appearance in Jafar Panahi’s recent film “Taxi,” [4] Soutoudeh explains the trials and tribulations human rights defenders and dissidents face in Iran, all the time with a smile on her face, a defiant smile:

[The security services] work in a way that lets us know they are watching us. Their tactics are obvious. First, they write you up a police record. Suddenly, you are accused of being an agent for the Mossad, the CIA, or MI5. Then they tack on something about your morals, your lifestyle. They make your life into a prison. You were released from prison, but the outside world is only a bigger prison. They make your friends into your greatest enemies. All you can do is leave the country, or pray to return to that hole. So there is only one thing to do: Not care.”

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